It is Ernie Whitt’s 70th birthday today.
The Red Sox drafted Whitt in the 15th round of the 1972 amateur draft. He was chosen one pick before Jason Thompson, a terrific first baseman for the Tigers and Dodgers. Ernie was blocked from making the Red Sox by Carlton Fisk and was left unprotected in the 1976 expansion draft, and we grabbed him up.
Whitt had 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 28. Ernie was the left-handed half of a catching platoon with Rob Davis. He didn’t hit very well, going .237/.288/.353.
Then in the strike-shortened 1981 season, the Jays picked up Buck Martinez, who would become Whitt’s platoon partner for several years. However, 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, I’m sure in large part due to Cito, getting his averages up to .261/.307/.440 and suddenly finding home run power-hitting 11 in just 284 at-bats. Ernie bought into the all-out pull philosophy that Cito liked. In 1983 continued his improvement with the bat hitting .256/.346/.459 with 17 home runs in just 344 at-bats. Combined with Buck 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. Then, 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. But Ernie didn’t do well in our seven-game ALCS loss to the Royal. He hit just .190. Whitt started every game of the series against both left-handed and right-handed pitchers. Martinez was injured (likely most of you remember that play, where he broke his leg, dislocated his ankle, and still tagged out the runner at home), and Jeff Hearron was the backup catcher for the series.
Whitt continued to be a very consistent player. In 1986 he hit 16 home runs. Buck Martinez retired before the 1987 season, 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 batting .269/.334/.455. Unfortunately, 1987 was the season we fell apart at the end and allowed the Detroit 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 would have finished first.
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 do well, 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 space at catcher 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 got into 33 games before his 28th birthday. Ernie never had 300 at-bats in a season till he was 31. Yet, 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 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 an excellent defensive catcher with a decent arm. Our first manager Roy Hartsfield didn’t think Whitt could make it as a major leaguer. Whitt proved him wrong. He had the longest career with the Jays of any player that played in our first season.
Whitt was a favourite of mine. I loved his all-out pull swing (Cito got a lot of batters to go to an all-out pull swing, but Whitt was the most fun to watch). He would often end his swing on his left knee and 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, which should have caused his bat to drop, and he should have swung under the ball. But he had such an open stance that he could see the ball well and was smart. He was a catcher, and he was a guess hitter. And as a catcher, he was a very good guesser. So fool him; he’ll miss the ball, but he didn’t fool easy.
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. In that, he was wrong. He hit just .223/.303/.311 against left-handed pitchers in his career.
In his book “Big Book of Baseball Lineups,” Rob Neyer has Whitt as our all-time best catcher, and I still agree. He also says Whitt played the best defense of any catcher we had. Bill James in his “New Historical Baseball Abstract” has Whitt ranked as the 72nd best catcher of all time. Whitt would be moved down a few spots since the book was published. He 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 with John Gibbons and most of the coaching staff in June of 2008. Whitt burned bridges behind him by ripping JP Ricciardi and calling himself the ‘best manager the Jay’s never had. Maybe he would have been good.
Whitt has been the manager of the Canadian National Baseball team since 2004 and managed Canada in the Olympic qualifier. He is in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
I’m likely the only one that thought this, but I thought when Buck Martinez had to leave the broadcast booth, this year, it would have been fitting to have Whitt replace him. But I have no idea if he could do the job.
Whitt got everything off of his ability. You have to admire someone like that. He wasn’t a prospect in the minors and didn’t show power till he was in his 30’s.
Ernie Whitt is married and has three children.
Happy Birthday, Ernie. I hope it is a good one.
Here is a video of Ernie’s swing.