1916 : Daniel Webster Litwhiler Born, The Thomas Edison of Baseball

August 31, 2022 all-day

Danny Litwhiler 1949 Bowman.jpg

Daniel Webster Litwhiler  was an American Major League baseball player who played from 1940 to 1951. He played for the Boston Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, and Cincinnati Reds. He was the first Major Leaguer to have an error-free season in 1942. Years after he retired, the Baseball Hall of Fame asked for his glove, and it remains on display in Cooperstown. Later, the Rawlings Company presented him with a Gold Glove, which is on display at Bloomsburg University (Pennsylvania), where he played his college ball. During 1942, he also became the first player to stitch together the fingers of his glove, the first of his many baseball innovations.

During his professional career, he played in an All Star Game once (getting a hit in his only bat), played in the World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1942,  and was a major contributor to the St. Louis Cardinals winning the World Series in 1944.

As a college coach, he led Florida State University to three College World Series appearances.  He also coached the Michigan State University Spartans from 1964 to 1982, and holds the record for most wins by a coach in the school’s history. Among his former players are Steve Garvey, Kirk Gibson, and Rick Miller.  Throughout his years of college teaching and coaching, Litwhiler stressed education over athletics. He also emphasized learning baseball fundamentals over winning games. In honor of his college coaching efforts, he was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches’ Hall of Fame.  He was also inducted into the MSU Sports Hall of Fame in 1994.  While living in Lansing, he also taught high school science.

During his coaching career, he invented a very effective method of drying baseball fields after rain using calcined clay which was marketed as Diamond Grit, enabling play to resume very quickly and in the process saving organized baseball millions of dollars over the decades. He also invented the use of the radar gun for timing pitches, which effectively revolutionized the assessment of pitchers. It first came on the market in collaboration with the Jugs company, known as the Jugs Gun.

Tribute from Major League Baseball:

When Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers were coming to Cincinnati for the first series of the 1948 season, Litwhiler, then in his seventh big league season, was called into the office of Warren Giles, president of the Reds.

Born on August 31, 1916, in Ringtown, Pennsylvania, Litwhiler, unlike most major leaguers, was a college graduate. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Science and Social Sciences in 1938 from Bloomsburg State Teacher’s College and taught high school science in the offseason.

Remembering the meeting with Giles, Litwhiler explained, “I’m wondering, ‘What happened?’ You don’t get called upstairs unless you’re getting traded or sold, or something like that. When I got there, the mayor of Cincinnati and a representative of B’nai B’rith were also there.

“Mr. Giles said, ‘You are a college graduate, and I believe you will agree that Jackie Robinson should play major league baseball.’

“I said, ‘Yeah, if he can play baseball, that’s fine. I wouldn’t want to see anyone come in just for reasons of color or race. But if he can play, let him play.’

“Giles said, ‘We thought you’d feel that way. We want you to pose for a picture with Jackie, who’s coming a day early. That will let people know the Cincinnati Reds welcome him.’

“I agreed to have the picture taken, and the photo ran in the papers the day before the first Dodger game. We got to be friends after that.

“Years later, in 1967, Jackie came to Michigan State to speak, and I had him sign the photo. I have a copy in my den, and the original is at my alma mater, Bloomsburg University.”

The photo shows Litwhiler and Robinson smiling and looking at a poster sponsored by the Mayor’s Friendly Relations Committee. The poster shows several white boys and one black youth, with the batter saying, “What’s his race got to do with it? Can he pitch?”

Given his Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing, his basic sense of fairness, and his educational background, Litwhiler, who admitted taking “a lot of flack from a few of the players over the picture,” had no qualms about his friendship with Robinson.

Tributes from former MSU Spartan Players:

“Let me give you 10 reasons not to give up…”

Kirk “Gibby” Gibson was big and speedy, a star wide receiver for Michigan State football in the late 1970s. His sole focus was on playing in the NFL, and he was plenty good enough to do it.

But after three seasons, football coach Darryl Rogers asked if he was interested in trying out for Spartan baseball, coached by former Major Leaguer Danny Litwhiler.

Gibson was reluctant, but his father loved baseball and was always putting a bug in his ear to take it up. “I didn’t know it was an option to play both sports,” Gibson said in a December phone interview. “I asked Coach Rogers about missing spring football practice and he said, ‘You know all of the stuff; you don’t need to be there.'”

So in 1978, Gibby decided to give Spartan baseball a shot. He got off to promising start — but in Big 10 play he struggled with the pitching.

He was thinking about quitting. “I missed football. Baseball was too frustrating. Danny said, ‘Let me give you 10 reasons why you should not give up baseball.’ He sat me down and we talked for about a half-hour. In the next game I hit two home runs and I hit a home run in the game after that.”

Nice start. Followed by a nice finish. Gibson went on to become one of the greatest baseball players of his generation, leading the Detroit Tigers to their last championship in 1984 and walloping what might be the single most famous home run of the past 50 years for the L.A. Dodgers in the 1988 World Series.

‘A Spartan Trilogy’

Gibson’s tale is just one of many stories about Litwhiler.

MSU’s head coach from 1964 to 1982, Litwhiler is the university’s all-time winningest baseball coach, with a record of 488-362 and two Big 10Ten titles. His purest delight came from preparing athletes for professional careers—and inventing myriad drills, devices and training tools to help them succeed.

Litwhiler had always been a teacher. He’d spent 11 years as an outfielder with the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Braves and Cincinnati Reds. Experts considered him the  game’s consummate idea man, a veritable Thomas Edison in spikes, who regularly came up with new ways to coax his players to excel.

During his 18-year span at MSU and his previous nine seasons as coach at Florida State, more than 100 of Litwhiler’s players signed pro contracts. Many of them made it to the majors. Among the Spartans who enjoyed long careers in the big leagues were Gibson, Steve Garvey, Mike Marshall, Tim Birtsas, Rick Miller, Dick Billings and Ron Pruitt.

Litwhiler savored his players’ successes. One high point came in Game Two of the 1974 World Series. In the top of the ninth, Mike Marshall (1960-1965) entered the game in relief for the Dodgers, called upon to protect a one-run lead over the Oakland Athletics. Playing first base for L.A. was Garvey (1965-1968), the National League MVP that year.

After Marshall struck out one batter, the A’s manager put in a pinch runner—none other than former Michigan State track star Herb Washington (1969-1972), whom Litwhiler had tutored in the art of base stealing.

It was a crucial moment in a huge game. Litwhiler is said to have popped with pride as Marshall whirled toward first and picked Washington off the bag, Garvey neatly applying the tag.

“I remember they made a baseball card out of that play,” Garvey said. “It shows me tagging Herb, and I think you can see Mike in the background. It was a true Spartan trilogy.”

Living The Baseball Dream, Litwhiler called that moment “the ultimate dream of a college baseball coach.”

A Scientific Mind

In the off-season, Litwhiler worked as a high school science teacher, and he brought a practical approach to his sport.

He’s famous for lacing the baseball glove’s fingers together with rawhide straps — changing forever how baseballs are snared. As a player, Litwhiler racked up solid statistics. His reputation — untypical for the baseball of his era– was that of a working-man’s scholar.

After retiring in 1951, he worked as a coach and minor league manager, and then as the Florida State coach.

When John Kobs stepped down as MSU’s baseball coach following the 1963 season, Athletic Director Biggie Munn offered the position to Robin Roberts, a Hall-of-Famer and former Spartan star. Roberts told Munn that he really should hire a former teammate on the Phillies, Danny Litwhiler.

While upgrading facilities for players, Litwhiler developed a long list of novel drills and training methods, from a way for pitchers to increase thrust in the fastball by practicing with extra-heavy baseballs, to a three-pronged batting tee to help hitters perfect their stroke.

Perhaps Litwhiler’s most famous invention was a radar device that measured the speed of pitches.

In 1974 Litwhiler spotted an article in the State News about a new gadget that campus police were using to catch speeders. A light bulb popped in his head — and using the radar gun is now as much a part of baseball as peanuts and Cracker Jack.

He also came up with Diamond Grit, which uses calcined clay to dry baseball fields after rain. And Diamond Dust, a dirt and clay concoction that Litwhiler co-developed, absorbs water from wet baseballs.

Another famous Litwhiler creation, the “Lit-Picker,” makes quick work of gathering up loose balls on the ground.

On-the-field strategy was another area of experimentation. Early on, Litwhiler started used a different pitcher in each inning—on the theory that a pitcher is most effective when facing a batter for the first time in a game.

Preparing for the Pros

Steve Garvey may have been Litwhiler’s best player, a stalwart in 1967 and 1968. Garvey was inducted into MSU’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010. His home runs, Litwhiler wrote, were “the towering kind, hit long and deep.”

After becoming All-American in his sophomore season, Garvey built a splendid 19-year major league career.

Today, he gives much of the credit to Litwhiler. “He was a very good pro-preparation coach,” Garvey said. “He allowed us to play baseball more in the professional baseball approach. A lot of colleges did a lot of bunting and moving guys over and taking the first two pitches and all that. But Danny’s approach was, ‘How can I develop this young player so that he has a chance to become a professional?’”

Litwhiler expected maturity of his players.

“One of the most important things as a coach he did,” Garvey said, “was let you become a young man and take responsibility for being at the school, being on scholarship and representing the school. He tried to make it a great experience for you.

‘He Had a Way of Convincing You’

For Kirk Gibson, that one season of baseball under Litwhiler’s tutelage changed his life. “Danny was very innovative, whether it was inventing things like the radar gun or shaping my career,” Gibson said. “And he was very innovative in the way he talked to you. He had a way of convincing you.”

Indeed, he says, it was a method of communication unlike that of any other coach or manager he had played for. “When he told you to do something he also told you why.”

Gibson would never forget the life lessons he learned from Litwhiler in all his years of success and triumph as a professional player and then manager.

Pondering all Litwhiler had done for him, he quietly said, “I’m very grateful.”

Sources :

Danny Litwhiler wikipedia entry.

Richard Johnson, “The Thomas Edison of Baseball“, Michigan State University Alumni Magazine, Spring 2017.

Jim Sargeant, “Danny Litwhiler : A First-Class Big Leaguer Remembers the 1940s“, Baseball Almanac.

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