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Nice article about Willie Horton and Jake Wood

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Tigers trail blazers still are standing tall today | detnews.com | The Detroit News

Tigers trail blazers still are standing tall today

Tom Gage / The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla.

Before they were teammates, before they were friends ...   They were pioneers.   Two men who broke barriers.   Two men who took the baton from Jackie Robinson's generation, and passed it to the next.

As Willie Horton and Jake Wood sat and talked last week at Marchant Stadium, as their long-ago friendship resumed, the significance of their careers was no longer lost behind the curtain of time that separates the present from the mist of the past.

It wasn't just that Horton hit home runs for the Tigers.

It wasn't just that Wood had an outstanding rookie season in 1961.

And it isn't that nearly 50 years later, they can look back without wincing at the hurt they often felt as racial targets -- and the insults they must have heard.

It is about who they were as black men blazing trails.

"Private homes in spring training instead of motels," Tigers legend Al Kaline said. "Different water fountains, and that's just the tip of it. These men, and many others, went through some awful things."

Bred by the Tigers

Horton was the first African-American All-Star the Tigers organization developed.

Hitting leadoff and playing second base, Wood was the first African-American starter the organization developed.

"Instead of spanking my butt to go to school, my dad let me out to go see him play, the first black player to come up through the system," Horton said. "He let me play hooky to go with my two cousins to see Jake play."

Neither man broke the team's color barrier. Ozzie Virgil did that in 1958.

But they were two kids signed by the Tigers, developed by the Tigers, who scaled the walls that had previously prevented players of color from working their way up the organizational ladder.

"Jake is one of the primary reasons I signed with the Tigers," Horton said. "I thought I was going to sign with the Yankees. But my papa said I was going to sign with my hometown team."

And now they were together again.

Different styles

Forty-nine years after Wood began his career in 1961 with a leadoff ground ball to short off Cleveland's Jim Perry -- before hitting a two-run home run off Perry in the seventh -- he was back in Lakeland.

He hadn't been there since 1967.

And, 47 years after Horton had a pinch-single in 1963 against the Washington Senators to begin his career, he embraced his oldfriend.

Except they aren't old.

Wood still plays softball in Pensacola, Fla.. He still looks like an athlete.

Always the huskier of the two, Horton appears fit as well.

In both it's easy to see, to this day, what their trademarks were as players: the lanky Wood with speed as his calling card; Horton with his prodigious power.

"You could tell by the sound of the bat," Wood said of his first memory of Horton. "Everybody turned around saying, 'Who was that?' And there he was, a short, stocky, muscular young man named Willie Horton.

"Automatically, you knew you didn't want him to hit a ball to you."

Their reunion was not planned as a last hurrah. Or merely an opportunity to remember.

They got together simply to pick up where they left off, which is what good friends do.

Much has changed in the world since they met in 1961, but much needed to.

Horton signed that year with the Tigers. Wood, the same year, looked like he was going to be a star.

As a rookie, he led the American League with 14 triples, stole 30 bases, finished second in the league with 663 at-bats, sixth with 171 hits and played all 162 games.

Improvement and consistency were not in the cards for Wood, however. He played for the Tigers until 1967, but never came close to matching what he achieved as a rookie.

Culture shock

Ask anyone who remembers 1961, though, and they'll tell you about the talented Wood.

Better than that, ask Horton.

"I wondered how a guy could be made to run that fast," Willie said.

Being talented was not a ticket to acceptance -- nor tolerance -- when they were young, though.

"I grew up in Elizabeth, N.J.," Wood said. "And going from an integrated school with all types of nationalities to Lakeland, Fla., for the first time in 1957 was a culture shock to me.

"We were separate outside of the diamond. But that didn't occur on the diamond. That's what I'm so grateful for, because I don't think there is a greater fraternity of athletes than baseball players. You get to interact with so many different types of people, so many walks of life. It becomes a lifelong bond."

Horton said the "pain from the field" made him a better man.

"I'm so proud of Lakeland now, but I'll never forget a cab driver telling me way back that he couldn't give me a ride. I thought someone was playing a joke on me, a rookie joke.

"I said, 'Give me my duffel bag, give me my bag,' and I walked all the miles it is from downtown to Tigertown."

Despite intentions not to, Wood and Horton grew apart after their playing days, then came together.

"He never left my heart," Horton said. "This is my dream. I'm going to try to get him a uniform and stay a couple of weeks next year because this is part of our history right here.

"He's excited, but I'm so excited it's unbelievable. I'm proud to say the good Lord put him in my life."

Love of the game

Something Wood experienced that Horton didn't was the pennant race of 1961. The Tigers won 101 games that year, but finished eight games behind the Yankees.

The deciding series? A three-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees in New York.

"I can remember that series vividly because it was intense," Wood said. "When we left there, I think we ended up losing eight in a row."

They did.

"But I was fortunate as a rookie to be involved in a season like that. It was a thrill just to be out there and to be doing something that as a child I wanted to do -- playing baseball," he added. "That's why, in my heart, I thank God for guys like Jackie Robinson who in 1947 integrated baseball. I'm grateful for the people before me, but also for people like Willie because he's still paving a way for people after him."

With that, it was almost time for goodbyes before Wood's departure.

Maybe one more look in the batting cage. Maybe another sit-down visit with Kaline in a clubhouse so different from what Wood experienced during his younger days that more than once, he said, "I'm in heaven."

Baseball always has been heaven to these two friends.

It was the prejudice of the world around them that was hell.

But with Horton at 67, and Wood at 72, it safely can be said they made their way regardless.

Made their way, and left their mark.

As pathfinders. As pioneers.

tom.gage@detnews.com

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