Leo Ernest Whitt | C | 1977-1989
Ernie Whitt was born June 13, 1952, in Detroit, Michigan, not far from Tiger Stadium. The Red Sox picked him in the 15th round of the 1972 amateur draft, one pick before Jason Thompson, a terrific first baseman for the Tigers and Dodgers. Ernie was blocked from making the Red Sox by future Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk and was left unprotected in the 1976 expansion draft, and we grabbed him up.
Whitt got 41 at-bats in our first season and got into a couple of games in 1978. In 1979 he spent the whole season in the minors, then in 1980, he was finally given a role in the majors at the age of 28. Ernie was the left-handed half of a catching platoon with Rob Davis. He didn’t hit very well, going .237/.288/.353, hitting left-handed pitchers better with a .283 average against them, but in just 60 at-bats.
The Blue Jays first manager, Roy Hartsfield, was not a fan of Whitt’s. He said that Ernie would never make it as a major league catcher. So, when the Jays fired Hartsfield, Whitt suddenly was given a chance.
In the strike-shortened 1981 season, the Jays picked up Buck Martinez, who would become Whitt’s platoon partner for several years. Whitt again didn’t hit well, just .236/.307/.297 with just 1 home run.
In 1982 Bobby Cox took over as manager, and Cito Gaston became the hitting coach. Ernie found his hitting stroke that year, getting his averages up to .261/.307/.440 and suddenly finding home run power, with 11 in just 284 at-bats. In 1983 continued his improvement with the bat hitting .256/.346/.459 with 17 home runs in 344 at-bats. Combined with Martinez, the Jays got 27 home runs and 89 RBI out of the catcher platoon. In two seasons, with Cito’s tutoring, Whitt went from 1 homer to 11 to 17.
In 1984 Ernie continued the power-hitting with 15 homers in 315 at-bats. In our first playoff year, 1985, Whitt set a new career-high for homers with 19 hitting .245/.323/.444 in 412 at-bats, and he made the All-Star team. He didn’t do as well in our seven-game ALCS loss to the Royal, hitting just .190. Whitt started every game of the series against both left-handed and right-handed pitchers, but after he said was playing through a torn muscle in his shoulder. Martinez was injured (likely most of you remember that play, broke his leg, dislocated his ankle, and still tagged out the runner at home). Jeff Hearron was the back-up catcher for the series.
Whitt continued to be a very consistent player. In 1986 he hit 16 home runs. Before the 1987 season, Buck Martinez retired, and Charlie Moore became Ernie’s catching partner. Whitt hit 19 home runs for the second time in his career, setting a career-high in RBI with 75 and a career-high of 24 doubles and hits with 120 with batting .269/.334/.455. He had a three-home run game against the Orioles on a day when the Blue Jays hit ten. 1987 was the season we fell apart at the end and allowed the Tigers to pass us for first place. Whitt missed the end of the season with a rib injury. Had he been able to play, we likely wouldn’t have been passed by the Tigers.
He continued his consistent play in 1988, batting .251/.348/.410 with 16 home runs in 398 at-bats. In 1989 the Jays made the playoffs for the second time. Whitt continued to be a consistent performer batting .262/.349/.416 with 11 home runs in 385 at-bats. Once again, Whitt didn’t hit well in our five-game ALCS loss to the Oakland A’s, batting .125 with 1 homer in 16 at-bats.
After the season, Ernie was traded to Atlanta with Kevin Batiste for Rick Trlicek to clear the way for Pat Borders and Greg Myers. He played in Atlanta for one year, then played for Baltimore for part of 1991, and his playing career was over. Whitt had a terrific career for a guy who only played 33 games before his 28th birthday. Ernie never had 300 at-bats in a season till he was 31. He was amazingly consistent; from 1983 to 1989, he had OPS+ numbers ranging from 104 to 121, on-base % from .323 to .349, and slugging averages ranging from .410 to .459.
He played 1328 games over 15 seasons and hit 134 home runs. He finished up with a .248/.324/.410 and 534 RBI and was a fine defensive catcher with a decent arm. Whitt proved Roy Hartsfield wrong. He had the longest career with the Jays of any player who played in our first season.
Whitt was a favorite of mine. I loved his all-out pull swing. Often he would end his swing on his left knee; he’d swing right off his feet. If you watched him swing, you would have sworn he couldn’t have hit the ball at all. His back knee would drop and drag on the ground, his bat should also have dropped, and he should have swung under the ball, but he had such an open stance he could see the ball well, and he was smart. He was a guess-hitter. And as an intelligent catcher, he was a very good guesser. Fool him he’ll miss the ball, but he didn’t fool easily.
I think we can credit Cito for his power. Cito liked his hitters to pull the ball, and Ernie did that, as least after Cito became the hitting coach.
He wrote a biography called ‘Catch: A Major League Life’ (which I have somewhere around the house). One of the controversial things he said in the book was that umpire Joe Brinkman was ‘incompetent.’ Another thing he said in his book was that he shouldn’t have been just a platoon catcher. He was wrong. In his career, he hit just .223/.303/.311 against left-handed pitchers. Though, who knows, if he saw them more often, maybe he would have done better.
In his book “Big Book of Baseball Lineups,” Rob Neyer has Whitt as our all-time best catcher. He also says Whitt played the best defense of any catcher we had. That was a few years ago. Rob might have a different opinion by now. In his “New Historical Baseball Abstract,” Bill James has Whitt ranked as the 72 best catchers of all time. He will have moved down a few spots since the book was published. Whitt was arguably the most popular player among Jay fans when he was with Toronto. He played the game hard and did a ton of charity work during his off-field hours.
Ernie was the Jays bench coach, then the first base coach starting in 2005, and was fired along with John Gibbons and most of the rest of the coaching staff in June of 2008. Whitt burned bridges behind him by ripping JP Richardi, calling himself the ‘best manager the Jay’s never had’ (modesty was never his strong suit). He worked as a manager in the Phillies minor league system for a few years.
Whitt was the manager of the Canadian national baseball team since 2004. He is in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, inducted in 2009.
Whitt, like Rance Mulliniks, got everything off of his ability. You have to admire someone like that. He wasn’t a top prospect in the minors and didn’t show power till he was in his 30’s.
Whitt had been a quarterback in high school football and apparently could have played in college but saw some of the college players’ size and decided against it.
Ernie Whitt is married and has three children.
Ernie Whitt’s place among Blue Jay batting leaders:
bWAR: 14th, 19.3
Defensive WAR: 3rd, 9.1
Batting Average (>2000 PA): 41st, .253
On Base % (>2000 PA): 31st, .327
Slugging Average (>2000 PA): 30th, .420
Games: 6th, 1218
Plate Appearances: 11th, 3514
Runs: 19th, 424
Doubles: 20th, 164
Home Runs: 10th, 131
RBI: 11th, 518
Walks: 9th, 403
Intentional Walks: 5th, 42
Clancy140 found this clip, it is the trademark Whitt swing. I love how he ends up on his knee.