| Detroit Free Press
Happy 78th birthday, Willie Horton! (And Happy “Willie Horton Day,” too!)
Detroit Tigers great Willie Horton turns 78 today. It’s also “Willie Horton Day” in Michigan, as proclaimed in 2004.
Happy birthday, Willie Horton!
The former Tigers standout — who was born in Arno, Virginia, but grew up in Detroit and graduated from Detroit Northwestern — turns 78 today.
Horton spent 15 seasons with the Tigers, racking up 1,490 hits, 262 home runs and 886 RBIs with a .273 batting average in 1,515 games from 1963-77, winning the World Series in 1968. A four-time All-Star in Detroit, he also spent time with the Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Oakland Athletics, Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners before retiring after the 1980 season.
But his efforts on the field were just a small part of his contributions to Detroit. In 1967, in the midst of the civil disturbances roiling the city, Horton left Tiger Stadium in uniform and attempted to ease the tensions at the center of the unrest.
As he wrote in his 2004 autobiography, “The People’s Champion: Willie Horton,” “I didn’t even remove my uniform. I jumped in my car, I drove over by 12th Street near the blocks where I had delivered Michigan Chronicle newspapers as a child. … I exited my car, climbed on the roof and started shouting at people until I got their attention. … “Why are you burning up and tearing up the neighborhood you live in?” I asked.”
Following his playing days, Horton was active in Michigan charities, including working with the United Way, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Meals on Wheels, the Foundation for Fighting Blindness and sponsoring a yearly $5,000 college scholarship for a Northwestern High graduate.
That work played a big part in the Michigan egislature’s 2004 decision to make Oct. 18 an annual “Willie Horton Day” in Michigan. Then-Gov. Jennifer Graholm, who signed the day into law, noted in a statement: “Willie Horton is one of those rare baseball players who doesn’t need a diamond to truly sparkle and shine — he’s a star on and off the field. This fitting recognition will continue to inform future generations of his accomplishments.”
In honor of his birthday, and the 17th anniversary of “Willie Horton Day,” here’s a look at the five greatest games as a Tiger for Horton, who is still in the Tigers organization as a special assistant to general manager Al Avila.
May 13-14, 1965
After short stints with the Tigers in 1963 and ’64, Horton broke out with a hot April and May to win the starting job in left field. His spring peaked on May 11-14, when he hit six home runs in four games, including back-to-back two-homer games in Washington and Boston. On May 13, against the Senators in D.C., Horton was intentionally walked in the first, homered in the second and fourth innings, and added a double in the sixth, for 5 RBIs. He followed that the next day with a a four-hit game against the Red Sox in Boston. This time, Horton homered in the third and sixth innings and added two singles for another 5 RBIs.
Did he have something on the opposing pitchers, or enjoy the road stadiums? “I don’t care who’s pitching,” he told the Freep’s Joe Falls after his two-homer game in D.C. “I don’t care where the ball is coming from. If it looks good to me, I’ll swing.” And swing he did, finishing the season with 29 homers, 104 RBIs in 143 games and an AL All-Star nod.
Aug. 7, 1966
In a full day of baseball at Tiger Stadium — the Tigers and Red Sox played 19 innings in a doubleheader split — Horton fell one hit shy of becoming the eighth Tiger to hit for the cycle in Game 1. And he did it the hard way.
While most cycle bids are foiled by a missing triple or home run, Horton had those out of the way by the fourth inning. He doubled in a run in the first, hit a two-run homer in the third and had a one-out triple in the fourth. By then, the Tigers were up 9-0 and the game sped up. Horton received just one more plate appearance; he flew out to center to open the seventh inning.
Horton’s Game 2 — a 7-6 loss in 10 innings — wasn’t too shabby, either; he homered and singled in the seventh inning, then led off the 10th inning with another single before being wiped off the bases in a double play on a popped-up bunt.
Oct. 7, 1968
Horton’s claim to fame in this game came in the field, rather than at the plate, in Game 5 of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Tiger Stadium. With one out in the fifth inning, Cards speedster Lou Brock on second base and the Cardinals leading 3-1 in the Series and 3-2 in the game, Horton fielded a single in left by Julian Javier and came up firing. Horton — not known for his defense — nailed Brock by inches at home plate, keeping the Tigers in the game.
As Horton put it in 2006:” I fielded it and threw it all the way to (catcher) Bill Freehan on the fly. If Brock had slid, he’d have scored, but he came in standing and Freehan put the tag on him. Of all the plays, that’s the one that stands out. That was the turning point for us to go on and win the World Series.”
Indeed, the Tigers rallied with three runs in the seventh to take that game, then swept Games 6-7 in St. Louis by a combined score of 17-2.
Horton was no slouch at the plate in the ’68 Series, though, posting a .304/.448/.565 slash line with a homer and three RBIs. That capped the best season of his career, in which he finished second in the AL in home runs (36) and fourth in batting average (.285) and RBIs (85).
June 9, 1970
Horton had 25 multi-homer games as a Tiger, but hit three in a game just once, in an 8-3 win over the Brewers (in their first visit to Detroit after moving from Seattle).
Of those eight Tiger runs, Horton drove in seven, starting with a one-out grand slam to deep left in the first inning. The left fielder then popped up to second in the third, the only time the Brewers retired him. In the sixth, Horton pulled a two-run bomb, again to deep left; in the eighth, another bomb to left, this time a solo shot.
The game gave Horton 10 homers in 51 games a year after being limited by injuries throughout the second half of 1969, something Horton was acutely aware of. “I just hope the trainer (Bill Behm) and Dr. Livingood can keep me in there every day so I can do what I can to help the ball club,” Horton told the Freep’s Curt Sylvester after his three bombs. Alas, it was not to be: Horton made the AL All-Star team for the third time, but an ankle injury ended his season in late July, leaving him with a .305 average and 17 homers in 96 games.
April 17, 1971
The weather was chilly — no surprise for an April day game at Tiger Stadium — but Horton’s bat was red-hot in a 10-9 slugfest victory over the Red Sox. Horton picked up five hits — the only five-hit game of his career and the 100th in franchise history — including two homers and six RBIs.
His day started normally, considering he entered the game with just four hits in his first eight games: A grounder to short that forced Norm Cash at second and ended the first inning. Down 7-1 in the third, though, it was a different story for Horton, who came up with the bases loaded and no outs. He sent a 2-2 curve into the upper deck in left to trim the deficit to two runs. In the fifth, Horton singled with two outs but was left stranded. In the seventh, Horton came up again with the bases empty — after Northrup and Cash had homered to make it 9-8 Red Sox. Horton followed the trend with another blast to deep left for the Tigers’ first -back-to-back-to-back homers since 1961 and a tie game. In the ninth, Horton singled again, but Gate Brown and Ed Brinkman went down with the bases loaded to send the game to extra innings. Horton came up one more time, again with the bases loaded. This time, he singled to left to score pitcher Tom Timmermann, who’d led off the inning with a walk.
After the game, Horton seemed unimpressed by his five-hit, two-homer day: “I just went up there and hit what I saw,” he told the Freep’s Charlie Vincent. “I don’t guess at pitches. The first one I hit was a curveball and the second one was a slider. But the important thing is that we won. That’s what counts.”
The game raised his average on the season from .138 to .257; he finished the season with a .289 average and 22 homers, thanks to a May and June in which he hit .320 with 10 homers.