Free Press special writer Bill Dow continues his “where are they now” series about former Detroit Tigers players.
Today’s profile is on Willie Horton:
As one of the greatest players from the Detroit sandlots, he became a hometown hero and the Tigers’ first Black star over 15 seasons in the Motor City (1963-1977). Nicknamed “Willie the Wonder,” he appeared in four All-Star Games and helped win the 1968 World Series when he finished second in the American League with 36 homers, was fourth in batting with a .285 average, and hit .304 in the Fall Classic. He made the pivotal defensive play of the World Series when he threw out Lou Brock at home plate in Game 5, providing the momentum for the team’s storied comeback. He posted double digit home run totals in twelve seasons and ranks fifth all-time in franchise history with 262 home runs.
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On April 12, 1977, he was traded to Texas for pitcher Steve Foucault and would finish his 18-year career with Cleveland, Oakland, Toronto and Seattle. In 1979, he hit his 300th career home run, with Seattle, off Tigers pitcher Jack Morris, won his second American League Designated Hitter of the Year Award, and was voted the AL Comeback Player of the Year. Horton was sixth among AL right-handed hitters in career homers with 325 when he retired after the 1980 season.
In 1978-79, he played for and managed Valencia in the 1978-79 Venezuelan Winter League, capturing the Caribbean Title. He later coached with the Athletics, the White Sox and the Yankees. He also served as second deputy chief and executive director for the Detroit Police Athletic League.
Horton, now 77, had his No. 23 retired by the Tigers in 2000, when a statute of his likeness was erected at Comerica Park. Since 2001, he has been a special advisor to the Tigers front office. He continues to participate in the 360 Willie Horton Greater Lakeland and Central Florida Community Partnership Program and the Willie Horton Foundation that provides an annual academic scholarship to a senior at his alma mater, Detroit College Preparatory High School at Northwestern. He and his wife, Gloria, have seven children, 21 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.
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“We first lived at Canfield and Avery and later I lived at the Jeffries Projects with my sister, Faye. I used to play the game strikeout against the wall at Briggs Stadium. When I was in junior high, a buddy and me were stopped by security trying to sneak again into the ballpark. Rocky Colavito had just walked off Cleveland’s bus and saw what happened. He took us over to the manager at the visitors’ clubhouse and asked him if he would give us a job working there. Sure enough, we got it. I was fortunate that I stayed out of trouble because I had baseball, a strong family and Judge Damon Keith, who was my mentor and legal guardian when I turned 13. I played on an integrated little league team out of Post Elementary for coach Ron Thompson. One year, the Detroit Federation League would not let us play together because we were mixed so the team voted that year to not play in that league. The next year they changed the policy and we because the first integrated team in the Billy Rogell League.”
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“When I first arrived in Florida, I took a bus from Tampa to Lakeland and tried to take a cab to Tiger Town but the driver refused to take me so I walked the five miles. I call it the best walk of my life because that is when I became committed to help out in the community. I ended up doing a lot of work in Lakeland to help with integration. I wanted to room in the dorm with a white kid I knew from Detroit but they wouldn’t let us. All the Blacks and Hispanics had to stay on this one floor. One time, Mickey Stanley and I went to Henley Field to watch the Tigers but this usher told me that I had to sit in the area designated for Blacks. Mickey and I just left. The next year when I made the team, I went up to same usher and said, ‘where do you want me to play?’ In Duluth, I had to stay at the YMCA and when I was complaining about the room the guy at the front desk said, ‘look (n-word), just be glad you have a room.’ I did hear the n-word from some fans but I just tried to stay focused. I called my Dad once and was all confused with what was being said to me. His mother was white and I loved my grandma. I said, ‘Poppa, I don’t want to stop loving my grandma.’ That helped me. Later in Detroit, I received hate mail and some death threats and even found out that some people in the organization were giving the other teams tips on how to pitch to me. When (general manager) Jim Campbell found out, he fired them.”
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“When I saw the video of that young man dying on television I got down on my knees and just prayed. The world right now needs a world’s prayer because it’s bad all over. But I am very proud to see what is going on with the Black and white young people, who are tired of the BS that has been going on for years. I am encouraged to see them, athletes and entertainers getting involved and speaking up. As kids we were all afraid of the “Big Four,” these white cops who traveled in a big black Chrysler cruiser and harassed Black people. My dad told me to just stay away from them. One time, my friends and I had bought donuts and cookies at a bakery near the Lodge Freeway and Wayne State. They stopped us and just for fun they made us sit there on the bridge and eat all of them. I was lucky that I did not have any violent run-ins with them.”
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Wishing a Happy Birthday to Detroit Tigers legend Willie Horton, who turned 75 on Oct. 18, 2017. Video by Ryan Ford, Detroit Free Press
“My first at bat was in Washington when I pinched hit for Hank Aguirre and hit a single off of Jim Hannan. My next time to bat was at Tiger Stadium a few days later. I was out in the bullpen talking to my high school buddies when all of a sudden, I hear that (manager) Charlie Dressen wants me to pinch hit against Robin Roberts. It was in the eighth inning and I didn’t even know the score. Gates Brown was on first base. On the first pitch, I hit a two-run homer into the upper left-center field bleachers, not too far from where my dad was sitting, to tie the score, 2-2. We won it in the 10th inning when Gus Triandos hit a home run. Afterwards, I found out that Poppa got into a fight with somebody after he yelled ‘that’s my son’, that’s my son’ after I hit the homer. They didn’t believe him because he was sitting in the bleachers. But he didn’t want to sit in the box seats because he always liked the bleachers.”
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“I knew from the scouting report that after the All-Star break, Brock had a bad habit of trotting into home. My job was to throw the ball right at (third baseman) Don Wert’s head. Bill Freehan knew the report and when he saw Brock break his stride he let the ball go through to him. Mickey Stanley had worked with me a lot and he showed me how to read a ball off the bat and everything. It had taken me several years to really learn how to throw from the outfield because I had been a catcher growing up.”
“I wasn’t doing well and the fans had started booing me for the first time in my career. Everyone assumed that is was because of that, but what I did was meet with (team owner) John Fetzer and Jim Campbell and talked with them about the lack of Black players on the team. I won’t repeat what I said but I got it off my chest and carried the torch as well as I could. I did not want to publicize my grievance at the time because I knew it would have led to more hate mail again. Soon after that, they brought up Ike Brown and we started seeing some more Black players with the Tigers.”
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“When I got the call about his passing, my mind went blank. I couldn’t believe it. He was really special. Pound for pound, he and Roberto Clemente were the best right fielders I ever saw. He had such great natural ability. I never saw him make a bad throw. He was quiet, but I got to know him more in the last 20 years because we talked just about every day since we worked together for the Tigers. It was nice to see him enjoying what he did.”