The Innovator...Danny Litwhiler
By Jim Joanos
As they say, "in baseball you not only have to be good but you also have to be lucky". Florida State University had a great stroke of luck in 1955 when the university was looking for a new baseball coach to fill the vacancy left by the departure of Ralph Matherly. The new coach had to have a college degree for the baseball coach also was required to teach classes in the physical education department. Don Veller, who was on the search committee, also thought it would add a lot of prestige to the position if the new coach had "major league baseball experience". To find such a person was not an easy task in 1955 as there were not many available people with major league baseball experience, a college degree, and skill in coaching. Luckily, for FSU, there was one that completely fitted FSU needs and they found him. His name was Daniel Webster "Danny" Litwhiler.
Danny Litwhiler was Florida State's head baseball coach from 1955 to 1963. FSU had a winning team before Litwhiler arrived. As far as we know Florida State has never had a losing season. We do not have records of the Florida State College baseball team in the years just prior to 1905 when the Florida legislature converted the institution's student body into an all female one. However, we do know that in every season since the school was returned to a coeducational status beginning with the 1947-48 school year, the team has won more games than it has lost.
However, while FSU has always had winning seasons, it was while Litwhiler was on board that the team became a national powerhouse. Credit Litwhiler with having first taken the team to the top echelon in college baseball where it has been ever since. Litwhiler was the head coach when FSU first played in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's post season competition. Litwhiler was the coach when FSU went to its first three College World Series. Litwhiler was the head coach when FSU produced its first All American baseball players.
When Litwhiler came to Tallahassee in 1955, the baseball job at FSU was not what it is today. There were no assistant baseball coaches on the payroll. The pay was low and the facilities were primitive. All travel was done by bus. To save costs, the team often took ham and cheese sandwiches to eat on the way and stayed in very modest accommodations. However, in looking back, Litwhiler still regards it as "one of the best breaks in life that I ever got".
From the moment that he stepped on the campus, Litwhiler had to innovate. He needed help in coaching. Fortunately, another newcomer on the campus, the athletic department's trainer, Don Fauls, had some professional baseball experience as he had previously been a trainer in the St. Louis Cardinals' baseball system. Fauls knew a lot about pitching which was a big help as Litwhiler was very knowledgeable about batting but knew a great deal less about pitching. Fauls worked with the pitchers. Litwhiler and Fauls became very close friends which Litwhiler regarded as a "family relationship". They remained so until Fauls' death. Litwhiler also became friends with Ron Melton who was working in the FSU business office. Melton had been a catcher on earlier FSU teams. Litwhiler recruited Melton to serve as a volunteer coach to help with the catchers. In the last few years that Litwhiler was at FSU, he was allowed an official assistant and chose Ernie Langford, who played on the baseball team from 1957 through 1960 to help him. Langford now assists with the PGA golf management program at FSU.
At FSU, Litwhiler did not content himself just to innovate in order to secure a coaching staff. He also sought better ways to improve the methods for running the baseball program. It rains a lot in Tallahassee. Litwhiler became concerned about how many baseballs were ruined when they got wet in the often moist outfield grass. He also hated to postpone practice or games because the infield was too wet to play on. He found that by the use of Fuller's earth or calcined clay he could help to remedy both situations. A substance he called "diamond dust" could be used to dry the baseballs and thereby cut down on the expense to the FSU baseball program. Another product he developed and called "diamond grit" could be spread over wet spots in the infield and cause them to dry quickly. Today major league and other teams continue to use a form of "diamond grit" to dry their infields when needed.
In the fifties, FSU only had a batting cage that would accommodate only one batter and pitcher at a time. It was a very slow process to get all the players batting practice. Litwhiler, devised an intricate screening system involving pitching and batting windows enabling up to five pitcher and batter combinations at a time to engage in batting practice safely. For pitchers, Litwhiler also developed a large unbreakable mirror whereby they could see themselves pitch and improve their form and style of pitching. He took the mirror with him for use during the rest of his career. To this day, the Cincinnati Reds' system is still using Litwhiler's mirror in helping their pitchers to improve.
While at FSU, Litwhiler taught a number of physical education courses including bowling, softball, volleyball, and baseball. He also taught a course designed for future baseball coaches. In one of his classes one day he was teaching that the proper way to bunt was to have the bottom half of the bat hit the top half of the ball. One of his students in the class who was also one of his team's pitchers was Ron Fraser. Upon hearing of the proper bunting method, Fraser suggested to Litwhiler that in bunting "you did not need the top half of the bat". Shortly thereafter, Litwhiler and Fraser took a trip to the FSU maintenance workshop and had the top half of the head of a bat cut off. They tried it out and made a further alteration by inserting a small amount of lead in the bat to give it weight. Soon, the baseball program had a great tool to practice with so as to improve the team's bunting ability. Fraser, following Litwhiler's lead, also became very innovative. Later, Fraser as the head baseball coach at the University of Miami, in addition to winning some national championships also used some very innovative techniques. Litwhiler and Fraser are at the top of a short list of coaches who should be given special recognition for contributions that have allowed college baseball to reach the level of skill and popularity that it enjoys today.
To assist his infielders at FSU, Litwhiler created another tool. He took a catcher's mitt and added stuffing to it so that it had a flat pocket. He then made infielders practice with it. Because of the flat surface, balls hit to an infielder would bounce off the glove so that the infielder would be taught to "stay with it and still make the play" despite not being able to initially field the ball cleanly. Litwhiler recalls that one of the players he initially developed the glove to assist in his play was Woody Woodward, who would later play in the major leagues.
In Litwhiler's first season at FSU, 1955, the team won 17 and lost 6 games. Although two of the players were better known for their participation in other sports, five members of Litwhiler's first team at FSU would later be inducted into FSU's Sports Hall of Fame. They were Fraser, Dick Howser, Lee Corso (also football), Tony Avitable, and Ham Wernke (also basketball).
Beginning with the 1956 season, seven of the last eight of Litwhiler's FSU teams played in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's post season play going to the District Three Playoffs on each of those occasions. On three occasions, 1957, 1962, and 1963 the FSU team won the District Championship and competed in the College World Series. Four of Litwhiler's players became the first FSU first team baseball All Americans. They were Howser, Buddy Teagle, Mike Augustine, and Ken Suarez. Howser and Suarez as well as Woodward, became FSU's first major league baseball players. What is simply uncanny about the whole thing is that Litwhiler took a college baseball program that was only seven years old when he arrived and quickly transformed it into an outstanding one. When Litwhiler left FSU after the 1963 College World Series, FSU's baseball program was among the country's elite. Thanks to the outstanding coaches and players who followed, the program has retained that status to this day.
Litwhiler, of Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry, was born in Ringtown, Pennsylvania, in 1916. Beginning in 1934, he attended Bloomsburg State Teacher's College (now named Bloomsburg University) where he played on the baseball team as well as on the Bloomsburg town baseball team. After his sophomore year, he was recruited to play on the nearby Charleroi, Pennsylvania, Class D Detroit Tigers farm team. When the season ended, he returned to college and finished his junior year. After that, he joined the class C Mid-Atlantic League team in Charleston, West Virginia, but was injured and did not play until late in the 1937 season. After the season, he finished his degree at Bloomsburg. Following graduation, he joined the professional baseball team in Alexandria, Louisiana, of the Evangeline League.
After the 1938 season, he stayed in Alexandria and, thanks to his degree from Bloomsburg, taught science and biology at a high school. During the off season he signed a contract to play Triple A ball with Detroit's Toledo farm team. Unfortunately, he tore up his knee in the first day of spring training in 1939 and had to sit out the rest of the season. He returned to Bloomsburg and later got an opportunity to try out for the Baltimore Orioles who were then a Triple A International League team. Shortly afterwards, the guy who supervised the tryout, moved up and became the general manager of the major league Philadelphia Phillies. The result was that instead of going to a Triple A team, Litwhiler was offered a job with the major league Phillies that included having surgery on the knee. Litwhiler had the surgery in the fall of 1939 and went to spring training with the Phillies in the spring of 1940. He bounced around that season with the Phillies, Baltimore (then a farm team of the Phillies), and Wilkes-Barre of the Eastern League. Finally in August, he got called back to the Phillies and did very well in the last 36 games of the season. He continued to do well with the Phillies during the 1941 season. America went to war before the 1942 season. Litwhiler tried to enter military service. However, because of the bad knee which had never healed he was turned down. Consequently, he was able to continue playing for the Phillies. In 1942, he made the National League All Star team.
It was during the 1942 season that Litwhiler accomplished the feat for which he is primarily known in the records of baseball. He became the first major league baseball player to play every game of an entire season without making a single error. As an outfielder, he had 317 chances to handle the baseball but played flawlessly. The record is even more meaningful in that not only did Litwhiler play in every game during the season without an error but he played every inning throughout the season.
In June of 1943, following an injury, Litwhiler was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals where he played in left field in an outfield in which Stan Musial played in right field. The Cardinals won the pennant that year and went to the World Series against the New York Yankees. Unfortunately, the Yankees won the series. However, St. Louis bounced back the next year, 1944, and after dominating the National League also won the World Series against the St. Louis Browns. Following the series, Litwhiler, Musial, and several other baseball stars were sent on a USO tour to some military installations to entertain troops.
All of this time, Litwhiler had continued to try to enter the armed forces. Finally, after he had been refused entry numerous times because of the bad knee, he was allowed to enter the Army's Special Services where he served until the war's end.
After the war, Litwhiler was discharged from the Army and went back to the St. Louis Cardinals on June 1, 1946. But soon thereafter, he was traded to the Boston Braves where he played through the 1947 season. In 1948 he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds where he played until 1951. In 1951, he spent a portion of the year as a coach for Cincinnati. However, injuries continued to plague Litwhiler throughout his baseball career and caused him to retire from the major leagues following the 1951 season. He then joined the Oakland team of the Pacific Coast League in 1952. Soon thereafter, he turned to managing minor league teams. Some of the teams he managed included Fargo-Moorehead (North Dakota), Wilkes-Barre, and Duluth (Minnesota).
In 1955, Litwhiler turned his attention to college baseball coaching when he was hired by FSU. His years in Tallahassee were marked by immense poplularity, not only at FSU, but among the townspeople. That he had been not only an outstanding baseball player who had been an All Star, been on a team that had played and won the World Series, was not lost upon his new acquaintances. The FSU baseball program became important immediately. He took a big hand in supporting baseball programs in the local schools and community. One city of Tallahassee baseball league for thirteen and fourteen boys was named for him. With the help of local business man, Charles Deeb, he also started an FSU baseball support group to support the FSU baseball program. At dinner meetings, he brought in very interesting speakers, mostly from major league baseball.
Harvey Sweeney, one of the players that Litwhiler inherited at FSU, stresses the positives that Litwhiler brought to the program. He describes Litwhiler as "an extremely good batting coach". "He had many baseball tricks of the trade." Sweeney says it "was uncanny how he could steal signals". "He brought so much with his major league experience".
Litwhiler also had a knack for spotting baseball talent and finding the right position for his players. There is a story circulating about Dick Howser. It seems that Howser, showed up at FSU as an undersized walk-on in denim jeans and a sweatshirt. Soon Litwhiler had him in the starting lineup. Tony Avitable was a backup first baseman when he was inherited by Litwhiler. He ended as a record setting strike out pitcher before he left FSU. Avitable includes Litwhiler along with his father and Fauls as having great influence upon his life. "He had more confidence in me than I did". "He instilled that kind of confidence in his players." "I would be in trouble on the mound and look at him. He kept his arms folded and his knees crossed and gave me that don't worry about it look. Usually I made it through."
Unfortunately, in the early years of the FSU athletics program, the salary of the baseball coach was rather paltry even by standards of that time. Because of Litwhiler's success, he attracted other job opportunities. He had a family of five to feed and educate. Ultimately, he received an offer he could not refuse. His salary would be doubled and there were other amenities. He said that he "cried because he loved FSU" but saw no alternative. In 1964, he moved on to Michigan State University to become that institution's head baseball coach.
At Michigan State, Litwhiler continued his legendary career as a college baseball coach. In nineteen years from 1964 through 1982, he had a record of 488 wins, 363 losses, and 8 ties. Two of his teams (1971 and 1979) won the Big Ten Championship. Other teams finished high in the standings. In 1968, Litwhiler, a long time member of the board of directors of the American Baseball Coaches Association, served as its president. He continues to this day as a member of its board. Michigan State alums coached by Litwhiler included famous major leaguers Kirk Gibson and Steve Garvey.
At Michigan State, Litwhiler continued his innovations and experiments. He became aware of a radar instrument that the university police department had which could determine how fast an automobile was traveling. He contacted the campus police chief and the manufacturer of the device. Their concerted efforts resulted in the "JUGS GUN" which today is used throughout baseball to measure the speed of pitched baseballs.
Also while at Michigan State he developed a "heavy ball system" to help players throw the ball faster. With the help of Worth, the baseball manufacturing company, he had ball bearings placed in baseballs so that the ball weighed varying amounts from 7 ounces to 12. A player would begin by practicing with the 7 ounce ball. Every two weeks thereafter, the player would advance to using a heavier ball. After five balls and ten weeks, some of Litwhiler's players had increased the speed in which they could throw a baseball by as much as five miles per hour.
MORE BASEBALL AND RETIREMENT
After his retirement from Michigan State, Litwhiler went back to work for the Cincinnati Reds baseball organization as a consultant and batting instructor for its minor league farm teams for five years until 1988. With the Reds, he created two more helpful devices. First, he noticed the tendency of some batters to turn loose of the bat with their non-dominant hand before making contact with the ball. With a golf glove and some Velcro materials, he created a device that while taking batting practice the batters were trained to keep both hands on the bat and thereby increase their batting power. Secondly, he saw that it was a nuisance to pick up dozens of baseballs scattered about the dugout or elsewhere after a practice. Modeling his idea after the device that had been created to pick up golf balls, he got some five inch p.v.c pipe and some other materials and created an instrument which could pick up baseballs without having to stoop over. It would hold up to twenty balls at a time without having to be emptied. It was named, appropriately, "the Lit-Picker".
Litwhiler has received numerous honors for his outstanding contributions to baseball. His glove from the 1942 season in which he played the errorless full season is at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The baseball museum also has samples of his "JUGS" gun and "Diamond Grit" which are presently part of a traveling exhibit named, "Baseball As America". In 1981, he was admitted into the FSU Sports Hall of Fame, and in 1994, into the Michigan Statue University Sports Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the State of Pennsylvania, Bloomsburg University, American Baseball Coaches, and Helms Athletic Foundation Halls of Fame. In 2003 his number 1 jersey was retired at Michigan State at a ceremony in which he was honored as the Baseball Alum of the Year. In a book entitled, Banana Bats & Ding-Dong Balls: A Century of Unique Baseball Inventions, by Dan Gutman, Litwhiler is most appropriately referred to as the "Thomas Edison of Baseball".
For the last ten years, Litwhiler and his wife of thirty-two years, Pat, have lived in Trinity, a town in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area of Florida. He stays busy. On occasion, he teaches a course on the history of baseball at nearby Eckerd College. He continues to maintain close ties with FSU and his former players. He makes frequent trips to Tallahassee for athletic events and reunions. Again, Florida State was very lucky in 1955 when it needed somebody to put its baseball program on the map.