September 9, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
A few years ago, Ernie Whitt’s children gave him a sweater for Christmas with a message on the front that read, “I’m kind of a big deal in Canada.”
Whitt laughs at the memory of that gift, but the message still holds true.
It’s been more than 34 years since he caught his last game for the Toronto Blue Jays, but he is definitely still “a big deal in Canada.”
These days he splits time between homes in Michigan and Florida, but he has also been the manager of the Canadian senior national team since 1999 and in recent years, he has participated in Blue Jays alumni events.
And any longtime Blue Jays fan who bumps into him is bound to break out into one of those “Er-nie! Er-nie! Er-nie!” chants that were so much a part of the baseball experience at Exhibition Stadium in the 1980s.
“I can’t tell you what year they started it,” said Whitt of the chants in a recent phone interview, “but I sure enjoyed it when they did it.”
The fans obviously enjoyed him, too.
The hardworking and productive Whitt possessed an every man quality that made him approachable and lovable, but unlike the “every man,” he could throw out big league baserunners and belt 400-foot home runs.
And while he may not have been born in Canada, it sure feels like Whitt is Canadian.
Some of that may have to do with the fact that he was born in Detroit, just across the border, in 1952. When he was growing up, he was encouraged to play sports by his parents, Ernest and Dolly.
“My mom was very athletic, and she liked to play catch in the backyard,” recalled Whitt.
He caught his first game when he was seven for a local team in Roseville, Mich.
“It was an eight- and nine-year-old team and they were short a player and the player they needed was a catcher, and I just said, ‘I’ll do it.’ And I’d never caught before in my life,” recalled Whitt. “I just wanted to play ball and that was a perfect opportunity for me to do it.”
And with this, his life behind the plate began.
Whitt grew up a bus ride from Tiger Stadium where he often went to watch his favourite player, Tigers catcher Bill Freehan.
“My brother and I and some friends would take the bus downtown and sit out in the bleachers in centre field,” remembered Whitt. “I think at the time we were spending 50 cents for a seat. But it was just the opportunity to go down there and watch them play live.”
On top of his baseball skills, Whitt also played basketball and was an all-state quarterback at Carl Brablec High School in Roseville, Mich. He was good enough on the gridiron to be offered a chance to play at Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan universities.
“I went and visited a couple of schools, and I loved football, but when I visited the programs and saw what they entailed, it was like, ‘These guys are bigger than me. They run faster than me. If they catch me, they’re going to hurt me,’” said Whitt.
So, Whitt elected to go to Macomb Community College where he played baseball and basketball. He would also attend tryout camps held by the Tigers.
“I always thought I’d be drafted by the Tigers because of the camps I had gone to and the scouts I had met during those camps,” said Whitt. “They were always saying, ‘We’re going to take you.’ And then nothing happened. And then one of them said, ‘We wanted to take you as a scouting unit, but our general manager [Bill Lajoie] just felt that your ceiling was going to be double-A.’”
Fortunately, the Boston Red Sox didn’t feel that way. They selected him in the 15th round of the 1972 MLB draft.
“Maury DeLoof, who was the scout, just made a phone call and said the Red Sox had drafted me and ask if I had any interest in playing professional ball?,” recalled Whitt, “And I basically said, ‘Where do I sign?’”
Starts pro career in Red Sox organization
Whitt debuted in the Red Sox organization in 1972. The following year he batted .290 in 130 games for class-A Winston-Salem playing for Bill Slack (Petrolia, Ont.).
Whitt then suited up for parts of three seasons with double-A Bristol. Finally, in 1976, after starting the campaign in Bristol and advancing to triple-A, he was called up by the Red Sox. He made his major league debut on September 12, 1976 and got his first big league start six days later at Tiger Stadium.
“It’s a funny story,” said Whitt. “Carlton Fisk was catching for the Red Sox at the time, and we were out of the pennant race. He came up to me on Friday night and said, ‘You’re from this area [Detroit], aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Well, go ahead and tell your parents and your family that you’re going to be catching tomorrow.’
“So, the next morning I show up at the ballpark and Don Zimmer, who was managing the team at the time, comes up to me and says, ‘Pudge isn’t feeling well today, so you’re going to catch.’”
Whitt went 0-for-2 in that start in front of friends and family, but three days later, he belted his first major league home run. It was a solo shot off Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Jim Colborn at Fenway Park that hit Pesky’s Pole in right field. Dwight Evans later retrieved the ball for him.
“The ball has a yellow mark on it from the pole itself,” said Whitt. “As you know, it’s a very short porch in right at Fenway, but I tell everyone I hit it really high up on the pole.”
Headed to Toronto
Following the season, Whitt was selected by the Blue Jays in the expansion draft.
“I really didn’t know that much about Toronto, other than they were an expansion team. And I didn’t know anything about the city,” said Whitt. “But the one thing that I was happy about is that I knew they didn’t have Carlton Fisk in front of me. So, I felt that sooner or later I was going to get the opportunity to play in the big leagues.”
But he’d have to wait for that opportunity.
Immediately after the expansion draft, the Blue Jays traded for catchers Alan Ashby and Rick Cerone and manager Roy Hartsfield refused to give Whitt much of a chance to shine. Whitt only suited up for a combined 25 games with the Blue Jays in 1977 and 1978 before spending the 1979 season in triple-A.
Fortunately for Whitt, the Blue Jays replaced Hartsfield with Bobby Mattick prior to the 1980 season and Mattick told Whitt he’d be one of his main catchers.
“I was disappointed about not really getting the opportunity when Roy Hartsfield was there as the manager,” said Whitt. “But Bobby came in and gave me a chance because he had seen me play in the minor leagues. Hartsfield had never really seen me play.”
Blue Jays regular catcher
Whitt was a regular behind the plate for the Blue Jays for the next two seasons, but he enjoyed a breakout campaign when Bobby Cox took over as skipper in 1982. That season, Whitt batted .261 and belted 11 home runs – his first of eight consecutive double-digit home run campaigns.
“Bobby Cox brought in a very positive attitude,” said Whitt. “Instead of saying, ‘Well, we don’t want to lose 100 games this year.’ He basically came in and said, ‘Our goal is to win 90 games and make the playoffs.’”
From there, Whitt developed into one of the American League’s top catchers. He was a consistent power threat at the plate who rarely struck out and he regularly ranked near the top among backstops in many defensive categories.
In 1985, Whitt set a career-high with 19 home runs and was selected to the All-Star Game. He also helped the Blue Jays clinch their first American League East title.
“It was definitely the highlight at that time in my career because we were so close in 1984,” said Whitt of that first division title.
In Whitt’s mind, the difference between the 1985 Blue Jays and the 1983 and 1984 squads, who finished 89-73, was closer Tom Henke.
“Once we brought Tom Henke up, when we had the lead going into the ninth inning, we were going to win that game,” said Whitt. “Tom Henke was awesome with what he did and how he handled the situation.”
The Blue Jays would lose the American League Championship Series in seven games to the Kansas City Royals that year, but that campaign turned out to be just one of many highlights for Whitt with the Blue Jays in the mid-to-late 80s.
Three homers in a game
On September 14, 1987, the Blue Jays clubbed a major league record 10 home runs in a game in an 18-3 rout of the Baltimore Orioles at Exhibition Stadium. Whitt homered a team-leading three times in that contest.
“It was something I’ll always remember,” said Whitt. “Records are meant to be broken. It hasn’t been broken yet, but I’m sure that it will . . . But we’re enjoying it while we’re still holding the record.”
That same year, Whitt, who had equaled his career-high of 19 home runs, fractured two ribs while sliding into second base attempting to break up a double play in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers on September 29. Heading into the contest, the Blue Jays had 2 ½ game lead atop the American League East. After Whitt’s injury, the Blue Jays lost their remaining four games and the division title to the Tigers.
“The doctors were trying to prepare me to play, but I just couldn’t do it,” said Whitt. “It was very disappointing.”
Second AL East title
The Blue Jays claimed their second division title in 1989 and fittingly, it was a then 37-year-old Whitt – the last original Blue Jay – who caught the American League East-clinching pitch when Henke struck out Orioles pinch-hitter Larry Sheets in the ninth inning on the second-last day of the season.
Following that campaign, Whitt was dealt to the Atlanta Braves. He played with the Braves for one season before finishing with the Orioles in 1991.
Starts coaching career
Whitt returned to the Blue Jays as a roving catching instructor in 1997 before becoming their big league bench coach from 2005 to 2007 and first base coach in 2008.
As mentioned earlier, Whitt also became the manager of Canada’s senior national team in 1999 and he continues in that role today. Under Whitt, the national squad has brought home six international medals, including golds at the Pan Am Games in 2011 and 2015.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Whitt of his tenure with the national team. “It’s been a nice ride.”
From 2009 to 2020, Whitt served as a roving catching instructor in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.
In Canada, however, Whitt will always be remembered as a Blue Jay, one who made nine Opening Day starts behind the plate with the club. He was a hardworking, productive and lovable player who still ranks sixth on the club’s all-time list in games (1,218) and 10th in home runs (131). For his efforts, he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009.
In recent years, he has started participating in Blue Jays alumni events.
“I probably do four or five a year with them,” said Whitt. “But it’s always great because it’s with other alumni . . . It’s great just to see them and catch up.”
And you can bet that at some point during those alumni events an “Er-nie! Er-nie! Er-nie!” chant inevitably breaks out, providing further evidence that Whitt is definitely still “a big deal in Canada.”