Quick now — who is the greatest player not in the Hall of Fame?

For my money, it’s Barry Bonds, and it’s not even close.

But I know the objections there — PEDs, jerkiness, “not the real home run king”, etc., etc., etc.

And, while I take exception to each of those objections in some way, I’m not here to argue that point — today, anyway — so let me amend my question.

“Who is the greatest player not in the Hall of Fame, but who is eligible to be in the Hall of Fame, and who doesn’t smell like steroids or a ‘bad guy’ in some way or another?”

Hmmm …

Well, that narrows it down, eliminating, for various reasons, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Curt Schilling, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Pete Rose, and Swede Risberg.

So, who’s left at the top?

If we scroll down the remaining list of all-time WAR leaders (I know — you object! Tough tennis shoes), we see that the top guy sitting outside of Cooperstown is … Jim McCormick (76.2 WAR).

Now, I’ll admit, when I saw big (?) Jim pitch his final game for the Pittsburgh Allegenys in 1887, I thought he was a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame in 50 years. But time, she’s a cruel mistress, and memories fade.

Next up is Bill Dahlen, an infielder who played his last game for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1911 — slightly fresher than McCormick, but still mostly lost to history.

But you know who’s NOT lost to history?

Yeah, it’s the guy who’s tied with Johnny Bench for the 80th most WAR in Major League History, according to Baseball Reference.

It’s the guy who turned out to be the best of the bunch of a core of young talent who arrived in the majors together in the late 1970s and who helped build one of the great juggernauts of the last 40 years.

And he’s a guy many of us learned to take for granted during his consistently, almost boringly excellent career.

Yes, our man here, and my pick for the greatest non-controversial player not in the Hall of Fame is long-time Detroit Tigers second baseman Lou Whitaker.

Ah, yes, you remember Sweet Lou now that I mention him, right?

He was one of those young Tigers who made his cardboard debut in 1978, the same summer he was busy winning the American League Rookie of the Year award, alongside young teammates like Lance Parrish, Dan Petry, Steve Kemp, Jack Morris, and Whitaker’s double-play partner, shortstop Alan Trammell.

In case you forgot, here is what Whitaker’s rookie card looked like:

1978 Topps Lou Whitaker Rookie Card

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And also in case you forgot, Morris and Trammell are both in the Hall of Fame.

Whitaker was better than both, though maybe by just a smidge over Trammell.

“But, Game 7 of the World Series!” I can hear the Morris-ers cry.

Yeah, that was great.

Not so great were the 3.90 ERA, 1.296 WHIP, and 43.5 career WAR, all worse than Dave Stieb.

But, hey, this is not about Jack Morris, other than to say that Whitaker should be in the Hall of Fame right beside him.

And, even though Lou got snubbed by the writers for years and by the Eras Committee of the Veterans Committee in 2020, I’m confident he’ll get there eventually, hopefully before he slides toward the memory oblivion of McCormick and Dahlen.

Also “and,” while Whitaker’s RC has caught up to and passed Morris’s own 1978 Topps rookie in terms of price most of the time, it lags far, far behind Trammell’s — a situation that will never change given that Trammell shares his RC with fellow HOFer Paul Molitor.

But if you want a sleeper Whitaker card, one almost as underappreciated as the man himself, take a gander at his 1979 Topps second-year card:

1979 topps lou whitaker

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It’s clean, it features a great action shot of a young Whitaker, and it shows some interesting crowd and dugout fodder in the background (is that Sparky Anderson?).

More importantly, it’s Whitaker’s first base issue to show him solo, and it’s “cheap” compared to his rookie card and to the 1979 cards of Trammell and Morris.

To wit, PSA 9 copies of Whitaker’s second card were changing hands for less than 50 bucks in April of 2021, while 8s checked in south of $20.

If — when — Whitaker makes the Cooperstown cut, you have to think the five-time All-Star, four-time Silver Slugger, and three-time Gold Glove winner will garner a heap more attention than he has in the quarter century since he retired.

Ditto for his stellar but underrated “breakout” first solo card.

In fact, it just may be the greatest card not in the Hall of Fame. Or something.

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