CLEARWATER — Kirk Gibson will not likely forget the day he almost quit baseball.
In 1978, the All-American football player at Michigan State University seemed bound for the NFL. He had only returned to playing baseball to boost his bargaining power and wasn't sure he could shake off the rust of a three-year layoff.
"I was thinking of quitting," Gibson said Tuesday in a phone interview. "I told coach."
"Coach" was Danny "Skip" Litwhiler, who had led Florida State University to the College World Series three times before taking over at Michigan State.
Influencing the careers of players like Gibson, Dick Howser and Steve Garvey was only the start of Mr. Litwhiler's accomplishments, however. He was also a prolific creator of baseball products, and is credited with conceiving the radar gun as a tool to measure the speed of pitches.
Mr. Litwhiler, whose impact on the game can be found in parks everywhere, died Friday at Sylvan Health Center. He was 95 and had been living in the Tampa Bay area since 1983.
"He sat me down and helped me reason things out," said Gibson, who now manages the Arizona Diamondbacks, champs of the National League West. "He said if I just went out and applied myself to baseball, it would be worth it, so I did."
Gibson's voice faltered, then grew husky.
"It was the best advice of my life, and here I am bawling 33 years later — and I'm in the playoffs. The talk we had that time was very instrumental in where I am today."
Yet perhaps Mr. Litwhiler's greatest contribution to baseball has nothing to do with player development. In the early 1970s, he saw a photo in the Michigan State student newspaper about radar guns used by campus police to catch speeders.
"He said, 'I wonder if that could be used to time a baseball,' " said Patricia Litwhiler, his wife.
Mr. Litwhiler enlisted the help of a technically savvy friend, John Paulson, developer of the JUGS pitching machine, to create a prototype. Pitch tracking by radar soon spread through baseball.
"He was definitely a forward thinker," said Michigan State baseball coach Jake Boss. "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."
Daniel Webster Litwhiler was born in 1916 in Ringtown, Pa. He played baseball at Bloomsburg State Teachers College (now Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania), before graduating and signing with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1940.
The young outfielder started fast, with a 21-game hitting streak as a rookie. In 1942, he became the second major-league outfielder to play a complete season without committing an error, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1943, and was a member of the Cardinals' championship team in 1944.
Mr. Litwhiler spent 1945 with the Army Special Services, as athletic director for 10,000 troops at Fort Lewis. On his return to baseball the next year, he played for the Boston Braves and Cincinnati Reds until his playing career ended in 1951.
He managed three minor-league teams. In 1955 he joined FSU, which had been a women's university just eight years earlier. His calm and supportive demeanor made an immediate impression with players.
"He made you feel like you were an important part of the team," said former FSU outfielder Lee Corso, host of ESPN's College GameDay. "He made you feel like he respected you, and you respected him."
Mr. Litwhiler found a home at Michigan State in 1964, where he would remain for 19 years and lead the Spartans to two Big Ten championships.
In 1971 he married Patricia, and formed a blended family with five children each. (Dorothy, Mr. Litwhiler's first wife, had died after a prolonged illness.)
He developed numerous other products that also became widely used, including "diamond dust" and "diamond grit" to dry baseballs and cover wet spots in the field, weighted balls for pitchers and a shatter-proof mirror so they could observe their delivery.
"Most people think he wasn't adequately compensated for all of his inventions," his wife said. "It didn't matter to him."
Nonetheless, JUGS Inc. continued to pay Mr. Litwhiler a royalty for his role in conceiving the radar device.
Mr. Litwhiler served on several baseball boards and associations, conducted clinics in more than 10 countries, wrote six books on baseball and was inducted into six halls of fame.
He enjoyed watching baseball at his Clearwater home. When a broadcaster announced the speed of a pitch, his wife said, "He would look over at me and smile and say, 'Wonder how in the hell they knew that?' "
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]