When his name first appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot in 2003, Ryne Sandberg received 244 votes, or just below 50%. In 2004, the former Cubs’ second baseman vaulted to 309 votes. He was elected to the Hall of Fame the following year.
Sandberg’s second base contemporary, Lou Whitaker, appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2001 and received 15 votes. With less than 5% of the votes cast, Whitaker was removed from eligibility forever by the baseball writers.
The only way Whitaker can get into the Hall of Fame now is via the Veterans’ Committee, which meets every year but only considers players from his era every three. That committee has historically been stingy: the odds are long that Whitaker will ever get his plaque in Cooperstown.
But was Sandberg a better player than Whitaker?
During their careers, Sandberg was more famous than the quiet Whitaker, earning 10 All-Star selections and nine Gold Glove Awards, in addition to one Most Valuable Player Award. Sweet Lou got some attention too: he won three Gold Gloves, was selected to the All-Star Game five times, and was Rookie of the Year in 1978.
Whitaker was overshadowed by the teams he played on
Whitaker played on the better teams and had better players around him, players who often got a large share of the headlines. He played all but one season and three months of his 19-year career for one manager, Sparky Anderson, a man who took a lot of attention away from his players. In his 15 seasons with the Cubs, Sandberg played under seven managers and five general managers. The team was in almost constant transition, and he became the face of the franchise.
Sandberg was helped by Wrigley
Sandberg played in a ballpark well-suited for his game, Wrigley Field being a perfect fit for his right-handed power. Whitaker had success in Tiger Stadium and as he got older he crafted his left-handed swing to loft fly balls into the short porch at Tiger Stadium.
Both Sandberg and Whitaker set home run records for players at their position in their leagues. But Sandberg hit more and became just the second second baseman to hit 40 homers in a season since Rogers Hornsby. Whitaker hit more than 20 homers several times, but Sandberg played in cozy Wrigley Field, where he was able to hit 164 homers in his career, as opposed to 118 on the road. His home slugging percentage was 79 points higher than on the road. Whitaker also hit more homers in his own ballpark, but he was a much better offensive player than Sandberg in neutral parks. On the road, Whitaker had a 762 OPS, while Sandberg came in at 738.
Whitaker competed against other great defensive second basemen for Gold Gloves, Ryno did not
In the field, Whitaker had better range than Sandberg, though probably not by much. In addition, Sweet Lou had the best arm of any second baseman in recent memory. Both players were excellent at turning double plays.
Whitaker was a better defender, but that skill is harder to understand and more difficult to quantify. Sandberg was more precise and careful in the field: he set a record of 123 consecutive games without an error. Whitaker took more chances but rarely made mistakes.
Sandberg won 11 consecutive Gold Gloves in his league, where he had little competition at his position. Whitaker won three in his league, but his career unfortunately overlapped with two excellent defenders in the AL: Frank White and Roberto Alomar, both of whom took hardware away from Lou.
As a leadoff man, Whitaker’s skills were less sexy
Both players started their careers near the bottom of the batting order but quickly moved up. Sandberg became a #2 hitter and was later converted to #3. Whitaker was converted to a leadoff role where he stayed for many years and scored 90+ runs six times. He was, outside of Rickey Henderson and Wade Boggs (two of the best leadoff hitters ever), the best leadoff man in his league in the 1980s.
Sandberg and Whitaker were both fast, but the former stole almost 200 more bases. Sandberg had managers who let him run, while Whitaker played in a lineup with a lot of great hitters behind him and was reigned in by Sparky Anderson. Overall, when factoring bases advanced, Sandberg has the edge.
Leadoff men are typically underrated. They do several things that go unnoticed: draw walks, put pressure on the defense. Middle of the order hitters like Sandberg get sexier stats with more RBIs, a stat that Hall of Fame voters love.
Whitaker won a World Series title, Sandberg played well in the postseason
Sandberg never played in a World Series, while Whitaker was the catalyst for a dominant World Championship team. Although he had only one RBI in postseason play, Whitaker was on base an impressive 21 times in 13 postseason games and scored ten times. But Sandberg was even more impressive in October: he had 15 hits (seven for extra-bases) in ten playoff games and posted a 1098 OPS.
Sandberg had style points, Whitaker was quiet, distant, and forgotten
Sweet Lou played more games at second base than all but two players in baseball history. He was steady and dependable. The games blurred together until Whitaker was “just there” in the middle of the infield doing a fantastic job for almost two decades. Sandberg has a defining moment of his career, a moment when he “came out” to the national baseball audience with a remarkable performance. On June 23, 1984 he hit not one, but two dramatic game-tying home runs off future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter in an epic contest against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field. It’s become known as “The Sandberg Game.” There is no “Whitaker Game.”
Sandberg was handsome and adored by female fans. Whitaker was aloof and rarely spoke a word to the press.
People in Chicago named their kids after Sandberg. In Detroit, fans yelled “Louuuuu!” as Whitaker came to the plate, which was often confused by many as “Boooooo!”
Early in the 1980s, Whitaker signed a “lifetime contract,” a seven-year deal that tied him to the Tigers for the rest of his career, but which left him underpaid during his prime. In the early 1990s, Sandberg signed a lucrative contract with the Cubs that made him (briefly) the highest-paid player in the sport. Sandberg landed a bevy of endorsement deals in Chicago, adding to his earnings. In 1994-95 when baseball was halted due to labor disputes, Whitaker made an ill-advised statement that made him look like a greedy ballplayer and arrived at a union meeting in a stretch limousine, putting off some fans.
On the national stage in All-Star Games, Sandberg was presented as a consummate five-tool player. He was frequently paired on the NL team with shortstop Ozzie Smith and folks talked about them as a “dream combo.” In the All-Star Game played in his home ballpark, Sandberg won the Home Run Derby, showing off a skill that baseball fans and baseball writers love. Whitaker played very well in the Midsummer Classic, collecting five hits in four games, including a double, triple, and a mammoth home run off Dwight Gooden. But he’s best remembered for forgetting to bring his uniform to the ’85 All-Star Game and having to wear a souvenir jersey with his name and number written on the back in magic marker.
Whitaker was a black athlete with natural talent, Sandberg was a hard-working hero
Sandberg was a white kid from an upper middle class family. As a high school quarterback he was named to Parade’s All-American Team. Sweet Lou was a black kid from a lower-income, split family who didn’t stand on the field for the National Anthem due to his religion.
Sandberg looked like the kid next door and enjoyed tremendous popularity in Chicago. The Detroit Tigers were the next-to-the-last team to integrate. They did not have a black star until Willie Horton in the mid-1960s. When he became the everyday second baseman in 1978 (more than three decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier), Whitaker was just the fourth black player to be a regular for the franchise! The city had, and still has, a racial tension that simmers below the surface. Granted, Sweet Lou was accepted by many Tiger fans during his career, but there was a feeling that he was the “favorite of the black fans” while the white fans (from Detroit’s suburbs) preferred Kirk Gibson, Lance Parrish, or Alan Trammell.
Sandberg was given credit for being a hard-working player. “One day I think he’s one of the best players in the National League,” Dallas Green once said, “then the next day I think he’s one of best players I’ve ever seen.” Whitaker was knocked for not getting more out of his incredible god-given talent. “If he puts his mind to it and works on it every day, Lou can win a batting title.” Sparky Anderson said.
Sweet Lou shared his stardom with a famous double play partner, Ryno stood alone
During his career, Sandberg shared the middle of the infield with three primary starting shortstops, a remarkably small number for the number of years he was active. But none of them were near his equal, and Ryne was clearly the best of any double play tandem the Cubs had in those years. Meanwhile, Whitaker played 1,918 games with Alan Trammell as his shortstop. They came into the league together and spent 19 years as a pair at second and short. The two are inextricably bound together. As a result, Whitaker is reduced a bit, becoming part of something bigger than himself. Some of his greatness is lost in the shadows of a Hall of Fame keystone partner.
Sandberg wore #23, a number worn by another Chicago superstar, Michael Jordan. That number and those two players have become iconic in the Windy City. The Cubs have retired that number in his honor. Whitaker ranks among all-time leaders in every offensive category in Tiger history, but the franchise hasn’t retired his number, nor is there a statue or any other honor to his career in their ballpark.
Late in his career, Sandberg retired due to personal reasons and missed a full season. A year later he returned triumphantly and was the focus of much media attention. Whitaker was in the Motor City for 19 years, year-after-year-after-year, and in a way was taken for granted, like the sports car in the garage that keeps firing up every spring.
Sandberg was a Chicago star, Whitaker was stuck in Detroit
Sandberg played almost his entire career in a Chicago uniform for the lovable Cubs, a team that has support all over the country. His games were broadcast on WGN, a super station that was beamed into millions of homes via cable TV. Whitaker played his entire career for the Tigers in Detroit, a city that has a terrible public relations problem.
Ryno had a peak, Sweet Lou was steady for two decades
Sandberg won the MVP Award in 1984 and finished in the top-five in MVP voting three times. He had a defining season (1984) that stands out in his career. Whitaker had no such season. In 1983 he hit a career-best .320 and had more than 200 hits, but had little power at that time. Later he developed his power and hit as many as 28 homers in a season. He would walk 85-90 times or score 85-95 runs, but just miss the “magic” milestones of 100. He never again had 200 hits or competed for a batting title. He was content being a spark, a table setter. Sandberg was the run producer, the meat in the sandwich.
Ryno did the things voters love, Whitaker’s talents were hidden in overlooked numbers
If we look at the two players statistically, Sandberg did more of the things that HOF voters like: driving in runs, hitting .300 and winning awards. Whitaker always seemed to fall just short of 100 runs scored, or a .300 average, though he got on base more than Sandberg because he was a very patient hitter. Sandberg finished in the top ten in MVP voting four times. The best Sweet Lou did was eighth in 1983, the year he put up a voter-friendly .320 average.
Whitaker was great into his late 30s, Sandberg petered out
As he approached his mid-30s, Sandberg aged quickly. After age 32 his OPS+ was 95. In contrast, Whitaker became more valuable and honed his game to take advantage of his strengths. His OPS+ after the age of 32 was 129, and he was still an effective offensive performer in his final season when he posted an 890 OPS as a platoon player. Sandberg retired at the age of 37 because his body was falling apart and he couldn’t play the game anymore. The Braves offered Whitaker a lucrative one-year deal to play in his age 39 season, though he chose to retire instead.
Both players are among the 15 best at their position all-time
Their raw career numbers are pretty close. They played about the same number of games. Sandberg has more homers, but Whitaker got on base a lot more, since he walked a lot more than Ryno. Whitaker also hit more doubles and triples. Sandberg has the edge in RBIs, Whitaker in runs scored.
If we look at conventional rate stats, Sandberg has a nine-point edge in batting average and a 26-point edge in slugging. But Whitaker erases most of that with a 19-point edge in on-base percentage. Their career OPS rates at 795 for Sandberg and 789 for Whitaker. When we take into account park factors and league competitiveness, Whitaker’s career OPS+ comes out ahead at 117 to 114 for Sandberg. Even if Sandberg was a better defender, the two are still pretty even.
Via advanced metrics, Whitaker had about 75 WAR in his career, Sandberg had about 68. Their peak (measured by WAR7), shows Ryno with the edge: 46-37. Whitaker was extremely consistent, he had 11 seasons with a WAR of at least 4.0, while Sandberg had only seven. But Sandberg had four seasons above 7.0 WAR, while Whitaker had none. Essentially, Sandberg was great a few seasons, while Whitaker was really good for a lot of seasons.
Both players rank among the all-time best at second base: each belong in the top 15 at their position. But Sandberg wins on the intangibles, and his performance in award voting throughout his career should have been a sign that he would get far, far more support in HOF voting than Sweet Lou.
Dan Holmes is an author and baseball historian. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and Major League Baseball. He once defeated George Brett in Texas Hold Em poker and faced Phil Niekro's knuckleball. He has two daughters and he writes regularly about baseball and many other topics.