Detroit Tigers’ Willie Horton on racial equality in baseball: ‘We’ve got a long way to go’

Detroit Free Press

Former Detroit Tigers outfielder Willie Horton was already the author of three books, but he felt blessed with the opportunity to produce a fourth.

His new autobiography, “Willie Horton: 23: Detroit’s own Willie the Wonder, the Tigers’ first Black great,” co-authored with Kevin Allen, is scheduled for a July 12 release. That is one week before Horton heads to Los Angeles for the MLB All-Star Game after accepting Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker’s invitation to be the American League’s honorary coach.

A native son of the Jeffries Projects, Horton is recognized for his 14-plus seasons as a franchise icon and four-time All-Star who helped Detroit win the 1968 World Series. His throw from left field to get Cardinals star Lou Brock at home in Game 5 helped turn that series around, providing the Tigers momentum to come from behind and win the championship.

Horton is also remembered for his peacemaking efforts in the 1967 rebellion  and subsequent battles for racial equality. He continues to invest in the lives of others through his community partnership program serving Greater Lakeland and Central Florida and his foundation that annually provides a scholarship to a senior at his alma mater, Detroit College Preparatory High School at Northwestern.

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Since 2002, Horton has been an executive advisor and special assistant in the Tigers’ front office. His No. 23 is retired by the club and he boasts a statue in left center field at Comerica Park. The Willie Horton African American Legacy Award is given annually to Black former Tigers who have championed baseball in their communities.

Horton, 79, recently discussed his latest book with the Free Press, touching on the people and experiences that shaped his life as a baseball player, community servant and civil rights advocate.

How did Jake Wood and Gates Brown impact you as Black teammates on the Tigers?

“Jake Wood, I’m so proud of him because I would have never signed with the Tigers if it wasn’t for Jake Wood. But my dad and (Judge Damon Keith) insisted I sign with the Tigers because… Jake was the first Black that came through our organization. I’m not taking anything from Ozzie Virgil; he came in a trade.

“But then Gates Brown, he got me where I owed him a lot of credit as a young man. He taught me and reinforced what I learned from my coaches and my dad and other people around me that (with) mental preparation, you don’t wait to go to the ballpark to play a game. I should know my job when I leave home. When we go on the road, I should know my job when we’re in town. And like at TigerTown when I go work out, I should know my job when I go out there, what I have to do. A lot of people helped mold me and gave me the foundation where I went out and worked hard.”

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The 1967 season was challenging, from your Achilles injury and losing the pennant on the last day to the racial reckoning in the city, during which you stood on your car, trying to calm the masses. How did everything you, the Tigers and Detroit overcame set the stage for restoring the city and winning the 1968 World Series?

“Today I get scared when I think about it, because they told us we had to go home, and I’m getting my duffel bag out and putting my clothes in the duffel bag. The next thing I know, I was on top of the car in the middle of the riot, trying to bring peace to the people. But then after that I got totally involved. At that time, I think (Mayor Coleman Young) was a representative for the state of Michigan and I got involved doing things in the community to try and heal the city. And I think some of my teammates got involved doing things throughout that time.

“But going into ‘68, I think it was beginning to give us a lift that we all came together. And people don’t realize that in 1968, newspapers were all on strike. All we had was Ernie Harwell’s voice. And I saw my teammates getting involved with fans, talking to fans, signing autographs between games.

“I saw the city kind of heal after the riots. You don’t just see Black, you don’t see white, you see families coming together as a whole. And that’s made me sort of get more involved and work beyond Detroit and around the country and overseas with other communities, because we’re all God’s children and sometimes we’re just fortunate in the position we are to have a better life.”

In 1969 you were frustrated the Tigers were slow to integrate their lineup, and urged general manager Jim Campbell to promote more minority players. What result did your input have?

“I went AWOL to get more Blacks on the team. I can’t remember the exact date, but I had a chance to sit down with Mr. Campbell and not disrespect him and the owner (John Fetzer). … I let them know that you have Black players like Ike Brown, Les Cain and Ron Woods down in the minor leagues (that) should be in the big leagues. It didn’t happen right away. I think a couple weeks later I started seeing those guys come.

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“That was a blessing. I think it was just something I had to show, taking my stance with (Martin Luther King Jr.) … for what Dr. King believed that we should all come together as one people.”

How difficult was it to be traded from the Tigers to the Rangers and later hit your 300th home run against Detroit while with the Mariners?

“That was the hardest thing when I got traded from the Tigers years ago, and I’d say one of the best things because I have extended family throughout the other organizations. But I could never if I had to go out and have pregame. I never did that. For me to play against the Tigers all the rest of my career, I had to stay in the trainer’s room… and they’d see me when I go on the field. So if I had to go out there like pregame before, I don’t think I could have played against them.

“And then my 300th home run, I hit it off Jack Morris. It was a good feeling, but it was a sad feeling, like I’m fighting against my own family. They raised me.”

Despite his occasional antics, you admired Billy Martin and felt you could have used him as your manager in 1969. With him, you think you might’ve won more than one World Series. Why do you believe that?

“People like Billy Martin and Earl Weaver made us understand ‘We won, but that’s gone. We gotta look together for this year.’ And out of respect for Mayo Smith, I guess he’s one of the winningest managers in Tigers history, but he just looked at us and let us play. We were a young bunch of guys and we really started playing after the All-Star break in ‘69. … I think having a guy like Weaver and Billy Martin or Charlie Dressen, those types of people made us say ‘Y’all won it that year (but) it’s gone.’”

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“But Billy Martin, he added seven years to my career when he first came over as the manager with the Tigers. He came and visited me in the wintertime and told me that if I can’t play like I should with my God-given ability, I’m gonna get a lot of splinters (sitting on the bench). And I respected him from that day because he didn’t send a coach or anybody to talk. He came and visited me and told me those things, then said, ‘Now let’s go down to Gates Brown’s and shoot some pool.’

“I went through a little hardship, rough edges with him, but he ended up one of the better guys in my life, one of my dearest friends, and I had the opportunity of coaching with him and finding out really how brilliant, how smart of a manager he was.”

Some might be surprised to know that you were closer with the late Al Kaline when you worked as Tigers front office advisors than when you played together. What was your relationship like?

“I think we played about 15 years together and I don’t know that he said over 200 words to me. I don’t think he was prejudiced racially or anything like that. And I think what happened was, see, Al Kaline never played in the minor leagues. He came up, he’s 17 or 18 years old and stayed with the Tigers after he signed. But then all the next three or four years, he had to stay in a room by himself because he’s not 20 and most of the guys on the team are adults, 21 and over. You never could hang out with them.

“So I think he learned to live that quiet life. But he was a good example. How he went about doing his job set the example for us. But the last 20 years working with him … I’ve seen him let himself go and enjoy life and give his knowledge and the ability to help these young players. I’ve seen Al Kaline really enjoy himself, what he was doing in baseball and the way he could help in the last 20 years.”

While player demographics have improved some, Dusty Baker and Dave Roberts are currently MLB’s only Black managers. How important is it for baseball to further diversify its leadership?

“We’ve got a lot that’s qualified. I could see a guy like Torii Hunter. Why doesn’t he get a chance to be a manager? It always looks like they want us to go to the minor leagues. These other guys don’t go to the minor leagues. You’ve got people like Cecil Fielder, who just won my award. Those guys should be some part of tied up in the commissioner’s office. You’ve got Curtis Granderson. I think Curtis is eventually going to be one of the top men in this game in administration some day.

“Marcus Thames, the hitting coach with the team in Florida, he’s qualified to be a manager. We’ve got an announcer here, Craig Monroe. I think he could run a team, he’s a smart young man. So I’m saying, one day, we should hopefully see more. We came a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

Contact Mason Young: Follow him on Twitter: @Mason_Young_0.

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