Sept. 23, 2011
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (seminoles.com) – Former Florida State baseball coach and major league all-star Danny Litwhiler, considered to be one of the greatest innovators in the history of the sport, passed away Friday (September 23) morning in Clearwater, Fla. He was 95.
Few men in baseball have compiled the list of honors that Danny Litwhiler did during his distinguished career in the game.
In 28 years of coaching Division I collegiate baseball at both Florida State and Michigan State, Litwhiler had a combined record of 678-445-9 (.603) and guided his teams to nine appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Litwhiler was inducted into the American Association of College Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1980 and was a recipient of the “Lefty Gomez Award” for outstanding contributions and distinguished service to college baseball.
Litwhiler’s head coaching career began in Tallahassee as he led the Seminole baseball team for nine seasons compiling a record of 190-83-1 (.695) from 1955-63. He led Florida State to seven NCAA Tournament and three College World Series appearances (1957, 1962, 1963) before taking over as head coach at Michigan State.
Under his direction at Florida State, Litwhiler never had a losing season and is credited for making the Seminoles a national powerhouse. In fact, Litwhiler was the first coach at FSU to lead the Seminoles to the College World Series taking the Garnet & Gold in 1957 after guiding the team to a 22-9 record. He also produced FSU’s first All-American players including three first team All-Americans in Dick Howser (1957-58), Buddy Teagle (192) and Mike Augustine (1963).
During his 19 seasons at Michigan State, Litwhiler, who was known to his players as “Skip,” amassed a record of 488-362-8 (.573), captured Big Ten Championships in 1971 and 1979, and led the Spartans to NCAA Tournament berths in 1978 and 1979.
Not only were his players successful at both Florida State and Michigan State, but 16 of Litwhiler’s players progressed to the major leagues, including Dick Howser, Ken Suarez and Woody Woodward at FSU, and Kirk Gibson, Rick Miller, Steve Garvey and Mel Behney at MSU.
A great player and coach, Litwhiler also served as an ambassador and innovator. He was the International President for the U.S. Baseball Federation from 1978-83, a member of the technical committee of the International Association of Amateur Baseball, a member of the board of directors of the American Baseball Coaches Association, and conducted clinics in over 10 countries. Perhaps his greatest innovation and the most widely-known was the development of the radar speed gun, with the first prototype used at Michigan State now residing in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Other innovations included an unbreakable mirror for pitchers to check their deliveries and employment of a bat sawed in half to teach bunting. While at Florida State, Litwhiler developed “diamond dust,” which could be used to dry baseballs, and also “diamond grit,” which could be spread over wet spots in the infield, causing them to dry faster. All told, Litwhiler produced more than 100 inventions for the game.
In Litwhiler’s own 11-year major league career from 1940-51, he spent time with the Phillies, Cardinals, Braves and Reds. He was named an all-star in 1942 while playing for the Phillies. A member of the Cardinals’ 1944 World Championship team, Litwhiler was also with St. Louis when it lost in the 1943 World Series to New York.
His memorable achievements include a 21-game hitting streak in his rookie season; hitting at least one home run in every National League park in 1941; becoming the first major leaguer to play an entire season without committing an error (handling 317 chances in 151 games in 1942); and setting a record for playing 187 consecutive errorless games over a period of two seasons (putting his glove in the Baseball Hall of Fame). Litwhiler, a two-time Gold Glove winner (1942-43), posted a career-best .305 batting average in 1941 and compiled a lifetime average of .282. He career totals include: 982 hits, 107 home runs, 162 doubles, 451 RBIs and 428 runs scored in 1,057 games played.
Litwhiler, who entered the Army’s Special Services during World War II, did not play during the 1945 season but returned to the major leagues in 1946 with the Cardinals following his discharge. During his time in the service, Litwhiler helped organize recreation activities for thousands of troops and credited that time for preparing him for coaching.
Beyond the collegiate level, Litwhiler also managed professional teams in Fargo, N.D. (1952), Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (1953), Jamestown, N.Y., and Duluth, Minn. (1954).
In 1968, Litwhiler led the United States to a gold medal at a post-Olympic international tournament in Mexico City by defeating Cuba.
Litwhiler was inducted into the FSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1981 and is also a member of the hall of fame at Bloomsburg (Pa.) University, Michigan State University, the Helm Foundation, the Royal Dutch Baseball Association, the Citizen Savings Athletic Foundation, and the state of Pennsylvania.
A 1939 graduate of Bloomsburg University, the baseball facility at his alma mater is named in his honor (Danny Litwhiler Field).
Litwhiler authored six books on baseball, including his memoir: “Danny Litwhiler: Living the Baseball Dream.”
Litwhiler was born Aug. 31, 1916, in Ringtown, Pa., and is survived by his wife, Patricia, and his eight children (sons: Danny Litwhiler Jr. and Mark Litwhiler; daughters: Dianna Hopkins, Dorothy Anguiano, Donna Wickham, Barbara Middaugh, Marsha Sawyer and Nancy James).
FLORIDA STATE BASEBALL HEAD COACH MIKE MARTIN:
“Danny was a pioneer in the game of college baseball. He brought his professional expertise and teaching knowledge into our game and he mentored many young coaches. His early involvement in the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) enabled our sport to attain what it has today.”
MICHIGAN STATE BASEBALL HEAD COACH JAKE BOSS:
“The sport of baseball owes an awful lot to Danny Litwhiler. He was definitely a forward-thinker – you look at some of the things he invented for this game, and it would be completely different if Danny Litwhiler hadn’t put a stamp on it. The game is going to miss him, Michigan State is certainly going to miss him, and I’m going to miss him. He was a great man who always took an interest in our program and what we were doing here. He was one of the first guys who called me when I got the job here. He’s been a hero of mine for a long, long time.
“I always liked taking our team to meet Danny every year down in Florida just to hear stories and reminisce about his baseball career. He really lit up when he would talk about Michigan State. Michigan State was a very special place to Danny and Patricia; I think it’s a place they really called home. It was always a thrill for me to be able to sit with him and just be able to talk baseball and coaching. Even last year when we saw him, he got out of his chair and was talking about hitting mechanics.
“When you look at his legacy, you think about all the players that he coached, and to a man, I think every one of those guys loved Danny. I think that’s the true mark of a great coach.”
Michigan State Sports Information contributed to this article.