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Historic Tiger Baseball #22--Willie Horton

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Today's Featured Tiger Player

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--Willie Horton--

(1963-1977)

(click on name for statistics)

The game I'll never forget

by Willie Horton

I'll never forget my first big league game. The Tigers called me up from AAA ball. When they told me I was going to the majors. I thought it was a joke, but they weren't kidding. The date was September 10, 1963.

The team was in Washington to play the Senators, and I got there around the sixth inning. Charlie Dressen sent me up to pinch bit, and I got a single to tie the game. My second time at bat was in Baltimore, and I got my first home run off Robin Roberts, one of the all-time great pitchers. I don't know how you'd beat a start like that.

When you're young, you're just happy to be playing and being around guys like (Al) Kaline, Gates Brown, Billy Bruton and Rocky Colavito. They taught me how to play the game and do things like move runners along and using the whole field. After my third or fourth year. I knew what I wanted to do each time at bat.

The Tigers started coming together in 1967, and 1968 was just a rollover of the things we had been doing the year before. I had 36 homers and 85 RBI, but that team sure wasn't just me. A different guy did something every night. Gates Brown beat Lee Stange twice with pinch hits in a double-header against the Red Sox.

willieandgates.jpg

Tigertown tough guys 1969 Willie Horton (left) and Gates

Brown were two of the first black fan favorites to play for

the Tigers. Horton, one of sixteen kids raised in a Detroit

housing project, hit 262 home runs during his career with

Detroit and was one of the most feared long-ball hitters

in the American League. Brown, who was nicknamed so

because of time spent in prison, was one of the most

accomplished pinch-hitters in baseball history.

We never believed we were out of a game until the last strike. We thought we had hope, and that's what made the Tigers a great team in '68. I think we won about 40 games in the seventh inning or later. That's really amazing when you consider how many guys were injured at one time or another during the season, but having Denny McLain win 31 games didn't hurt either.

Then we played the Cardinals in the World Series, and nobody was going to hit Bob Gibson in Game 1. He struck out 17, which is a record. Bob was totally untouchable that day. In addition to his fastball, Bob is a fine all-around athlete who understands the game as well as anyone.

We won 8-1 the following day, and I hit a homer off Nelson Briles. Then the Tigers lost the next two games--Gibson beat us again in Game 4--and we were down 3-1 entering Game 5, which is one I'll always remember.

The Cardinals were leading 3-2 in the fifth inning. Lou Brock was on second, and Julian Javier hit a single to left. I knew exactly what I had to do. I charged the ball and got rid of it quickly. My job was to hit Coyote--Don Wert, our third baseman--right in the nose. Bill Freehan was catching, and he had to decide to tell Wert to cut the throw off or let it go.

Bill called for the ball, and we threw Brock out at the plate. That was a turning point, since we came back to win 5-3. Kaline hit a two-run single in the seventh to win the game. A few things happened on that play. I read the scouting reports, and Lou had picked up some bad habits since the All-Star break. He'd drift a little bit into bases, and Lou didn't slide at home. The third base coach was also a little relaxed on that play.

The Tigers also won the last two games of the Series to come hack and take the World Series. Mickey Lolich was the hero for the Tigers. He started and won three complete games. Mickey fooled all of baseball. People criticized him for his weight. but he pitched over 300 innings a year. We'd used to worry when he didn't have his stomach because Mickey pitched better with some weight on him. Mickey is one of the greatest pitchers I ever played with.

We lost the fifth game of the AL series in '72 against the Oakland A's, and told we should hove won. I didn't have a good year with injuries and slumps, and Billy Martin decided to put Duke Sims in left for the deciding game even though he was a catcher. I was totally up for that game, and I couldn't even get to sleep until 4 a.m. because of the excitement. Billy got the best out of that team, but I should have been in the lineup that day.

I grew up in Detroit so it was a dream come true to play for the Tigers. There was a lot of pressure playing at home, but I enjoyed those situations. When I was traded to Texas after the first game of the 1977 season I cried all night and got over it. I gave my heart and soul to the Tigers. Then I played for three teams in something like six weeks before I ended up with the Mariners.

Seattle kind of put the icing on my career. I had 29 homers and 106 RBI as is designated hitter in '79, and the people were great. They cheered every time I did something. The fans had a big day for me after I got my 300th career home run against Jack Morris.

I have no regrets. The Tigers gave me the opportunity to live a dream. I love the game and the people I work with. Baseball means so much to me. I look at my World Series ring every day and say "thank you."

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Any thread about Willie Horton should include this story.

Horton reflects on Detroit's past

Former Tigers outfielder remembers riots of 1967

By Jason Beck / MLB.com

Willie Horton doesn't regret the emotions that caused him to drive straight into the middle of the Detroit riots of 1967. Horton regrets the short memories that have forgotten what the riots meant.

If he had to do it over again, Horton would go back to 12th Street on that fateful day when the flames engulfing Detroit's buildings were only matched by the fire inside those on Detroit's streets. He doesn't want to think about it solely as a low point in the city. He has watched the city heal, and for much of the time he's been a part of it. Now, at age 62, he's still trying to play as much a part in the city's future as he has in its past. His message, more than anything, is to never forget.

"I'm proud that I got involved and had the opportunity to go to different places," Horton said. "Things don't just happen. That's what I'm concerned about. There's a lot of people that gave their lives for what we take for granted today, and a lot of those people are from Detroit. And I think that's where we miss the boat. We don't educate our people. We separate ourselves."

Though he played in different cities during his career, Horton has never separated his heart from Detroit. He proudly tells people not only that he came from the city, but that he came from the city's projects. His story will finally come out in a biography this spring.

He grew up not far from 12th Street, where a raid on an after-hours social club -- known in those days as a "blind pig" -- during the early morning hours of July 23 triggered the city's plunge into chaos that would lead to the National Guard being called into town.

The Tigers played a doubleheader against the Yankees later that day, and fans and players alike could see smoke rising into the sky from beyond right field. A news blackout was in effect, but players and club officials soon learned what was going on.

"To this day, the only thing I remember is people telling us to go straight home," Horton said. "And then the next thing I know, I still have my uniform and I was out in the middle of the riots."

He was out there pleading with people to stop the looting and fires and go home. Some people listened, but not enough. Before it was over, 43 people died, more than 1,000 were injured, and over 4,000 were arrested.

Those facts, along with the sights -- fires lighting up the Detroit sky, paratroopers patrolling the city, looters breaking windows and making off with whatever they could find, and later residents moving out to the surburbs -- are what most remember from the riots. Horton wants people to remember more, like the festering issues that led to that sort of anger, and the sense of loss that led the city to heal.

"Any time a city breaks out in something like that, it's how you perceive it," Horton said. "A lot of people on the outside don't know what a city is going through. It's the people internal who know what's really going on. ...

"It started years ago. It just triggered off that night at the blind pig. Many years ago, it wasn't anything hidden. [Authorities] just misused black people and it just pushed itself on people. You would just stand on the corner and they'd tell you to get off the corner, and you'd better be off that corner by the time they came around again."

What was seen as a low point in the city's image, Horton said, also ended up being a turning point on the issue of race in the city, a stark sign that the situation had to change. The Tigers played a small role: With their run to a world championship in 1968, they gave Detroiters of all ages and races a common diversion helped keep the peace downtown. Horton was one of three African-American players on that team. The situation was immortalized two years ago by sportscaster and Detroit native Armen Keteyian in the HBO documentary "A City on Fire".

From there, Horton played a part in more concrete community efforts. The Police Athletic League started in Detroit in 1970, the first of several efforts at youth achievement. More recently, Horton and his kids helped create an education program called the Club 23 Foundation, named for his jersey number. The foundation adopts 23 kindergarten-age children and follows them through college to age 23.

"Everything happens for a purpose," Horton said. "Too many people in this world who have everything forget how to be humble. And you have to be humble to remember what life is about, to appreciate life. And I thank God for the people who were around me, who moved me. I'm very fortunate each one of my kids taught me something. That's the way my life has been, and that's what God wants me to do."

In his role as a special assistant with the Tigers, he is a living link to another generation, sharing not just memories of the club's greatness but also of an entirely different era for African-American players. He remembers coming up as a pro and not being able to stay in the same hotel with white players, including at Spring Training.

Horton sees at least a few of today's Tigers who appreciate those efforts Horton and others made, including Dmitri Young, Rondell White and Craig Monroe. What he hopes is that the rest of Detroit remembers not just him, but great Detroiters in other fields, such as Judge Damon Keith and U.S. Representative John Conyers.

He still doesn't believe things are truly equal for African-Americans, and he's not shy about saying it. But he also wants young Detroiters to have dreams, to have something to work toward. By appreciating the past, Horton believes, they'll realize that hard work pays off.

"If society still gives you stuff and you've still got your hand out, that's not what Dr. King taught," Horton said. "He taught opportunity. And I feel fortunate that I've been able to reach out. I just find myself involved in things, and it's right to do."

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Willie played for a while for Portland (I think) in AAA in the late 70s. When they came to Spokane a buddy and I had snuck down into the box seats right next to the visiting dugout (attendance sucked in those days) and spent about 15 minutes talking to Willie before the game. He was gracious and nice and very well-spoken. Also a very massive dude, he oozed power. We were wearing Tigers caps and that may have been a factor. The impression we came aay with was of one very classy guy.

I am glad he has a statue.

Thanks again for this fine work Bert!

:chinese: :chinese: :chinese: :chinese: :chinese: :chinese:

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I saw him play in Tucson when Portland played the Toros that year. I didn't try to go up to talk to him because it seemed like an embarrassing situation for him (and me)--him being in the minors and me telling him I loved him when he was good. I guess it wouldn't have had to come off that way but it could have. I regret missing this chance to meet him now.

Willie played for a while for Portland (I think) in AAA in the late 70s. When they came to Spokane a buddy and I had snuck down into the box seats right next to the visiting dugout (attendance sucked in those days) and spent about 15 minutes talking to Willie before the game. He was gracious and nice and very well-spoken. Also a very massive dude, he oozed power. We were wearing Tigers caps and that may have been a factor. The impression we came aay with was of one very classy guy.

I am glad he has a statue.

Thanks again for this fine work Bert!

:chinese: :chinese: :chinese: :chinese: :chinese: :chinese:

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I saw him play in Tucson when Portland played the Toros that year. I didn't try to go up to talk to him because it seemed like an embarrassing situation for him (and me)--him being in the minors and me telling him I loved him when he was good. I guess it wouldn't have had to come off that way but it could have. I regret missing this chance to meet him now.

Why was that team called the Toros? Were they named after the Human Torch's sidekick?

Always wondered.

Spokane Indians were named after the Spokane tribe. The hockey team used to be the Rockets, then the Jets (due to the Air Force base), then back to Rockets in a wave of nostalgia, followed by the conversion to the Chiefs. This name has nothing to do with the Indian tribe but is taken from the movie Slapshot.

Irrelevent trivia, I know. . .

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Why was that team called the Toros? Were they named after the Human Torch's sidekick?
Toro, as in "bull" en espanol senor Irony...:silly:

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Hey Bert, are you going to do a historical Tiger page on Al Kaline? I realize he was kind of covered in the 68 series, but this pic just didn't seem to fit there.

http://www.motownsports.com/gallery/showphoto.php/photo/1507/limit/recent

Of course. No player of any repute will be denied his time. There's a hundred years worth of players so this will take at least a whole year.

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