Willie Horton book excerpt: 1967 riot may have been first time I embraced my community

Detroit Free Press

Former Detroit Tigers outfielder Willie Horton was a homegrown All-Star from Northwestern High and was the team’s first Black star. Growing up in the Jeffries Projects, Horton, 79, was a key player of the 1968 World Series team and has been a special assistant to the Tigers general manager for the last 20 years.

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 Tuesday release. In this book excerpt, provided by Triumph, the company publishing the autobiography, Horton shares his thoughts on the 1967 riots in Detroit and why he felt compelled to try to stop things from getting out of hand, despite the team enthralled in a pennant race:

During spring training of 1967, I tore my Achilles so badly that a leading orthopedic surgeon recommended I have surgery that would sideline me for the entire season. Amazingly, that wasn’t the worst news of the summer.

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Playing through that injury wasn’t nearly as excruciating as seeing the city of Detroit engulfed in flames, with people dying and tanks rolling through the neighborhoods where I played sandlot baseball as a child. The aching in my ankle wasn’t nearly as painful as seeing National Guard troops marching up 12th Street with their eyes panning the houses for snipers.

By July of 1967, I expected to be in the midst of the American League pennant race. Instead, I found myself standing in the midst of an urban riot. There I was, standing in full Detroit Tigers uniform on the hood of my car, pleading with the rioters and looters not to destroy more homes and lives. …

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On July 23, we split a doubleheader against the New York Yankees. But we didn’t realize that while we were competing against Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard, and the Yankees, a riot had started in the area around Tiger Stadium. We could see smoke billowing above the stadium roof, but we just assumed there was a major fire nearby.

Even when we were told to exit Tiger Stadium immediately because there was rioting, none of us could really comprehend what was happening on the streets. How do you explain that people — many of whom had never even had a parking ticket in their lives — would suddenly become part of an unruly mob?

People have often asked me why I drove to the epicenter of the riot, and I really can’t explain my actions. Thoughts were whirling in my mind and I just wanted to be able to do something to help. This was my community. These were my people. Members of my family were living in the eye of this riot. Honestly, I didn’t understand why this was happening. Team officials were pressing us to leave the area quickly and most of the players didn’t bother showering. I didn’t even change out of my uniform. I jumped into my car and drove over by 12th Street, near the area where I had delivered Michigan Chronicle newspapers as a child. I’d walked these streets a thousand times without a fear in the world. But what I saw on those streets that night scared me. Houses had flames dancing across their roofs. Cars were overturned. Small groups of youngsters were roaming the streets, looting and vandalizing the local businesses. It looked like a war zone. To me, it looked like the world was coming to an end.

I got out of my car, climbed on the roof, and started shouting at people until I got their attention.

“Go home, Willie!” somebody said. “Don’t stay down here. We don’t want you to get hurt.” …

There have been studies about why the rioting began, and they pointed to many different factors, including the community’s mistrust of the police and economic hardship. It certainly was a changing political climate because of the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement. But I certainly wasn’t thinking about any of that as I stood on my car and asked members of my community to go home and be with their families.

They were burning up and tearing up the neighborhood. “Why are you doing this?” I kept asking. “Why?” But no one had an answer.

“Whatever message you’re trying to make will surely be lost in the violence,” I said.

People did listen, but not many stopped their assault on the city. More people expressed concern for my safety. Eventually, I climbed down and got back into my car.

The rioting went on for five days. Forty-three people died from the violence, and 1,189 were injured. More than 7,200 were arrested — one of them an 82-year-old man. More than 400 homes were burned and more than 2,500 businesses were either looted or destroyed.

DETROIT ’67 FLASHBACK: As violence unfolded, Tigers played two at home vs. Yankees

That night, I drove in and out of the riots without incident. People recognized me, and later, some would thank me for at least making an effort to quell the violence, even if it was a failed effort. No one tried to harm me and my car never got a scratch. Maybe that was the night that I embraced my community for the first time as an adult.

I went back down there over the next few days — once because I heard that Mickey Lolich was on one of the tanks. He was in the National Guard, and I was told he had been called to active duty. Other times because I felt I had to do something to help my community. The riot had a profound impact on my life, and it certainly affected our ballclub. …

When we lost to the Angels on October 1, 1967, we couldn’t view the loss as having any grand purpose. But early in the 1968 season, it became clear to me that our team had an assignment even more important than winning a pennant. It seemed to me that the Tigers’ real accomplishment in 1968 was helping to unify the city of Detroit—to bring Black and White together. To restore harmony to an area that had been a battleground for four days the summer before. To do that, maybe we needed to lose that final game of 1967 to fully appreciate our role. That loss made us even more determined to win it all in 1968.

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