Tigers legend Willie Horton talks beating COVID-19: ‘It took a lot of juice out of me’

Detroit Free Press
Carol Cain |  Detroit Free Press Business Columnist

Detroit Tigers legend Willie Horton faced down many pitchers through his illustrious career in major league baseball. After 15 seasons with the Tigers and a few elsewhere, Horton knows a thing or two about gearing up for battle.

But the 79-year-old is blunt as he talked about confronting COVID-19, which hit him with a vengeance two days after he returned from his appearance as honorary coach for the American League team at the July 19 Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Los Angeles.

Horton isn’t sure where he got the virus. But he knows if not for the two vaccines and two boosters, this story could have had a different ending.

“Thank God, I was vaccinated, or who knows what might have happened,” Horton told me during our conversation that aired Sunday on CBS 62’s “Michigan Matters.”  “It took a lot of juice out of me.”

His beloved wife of 56 years, Gloria, got the virus after her husband as they’ve continued to fight their way through. “They both have their good days and bad days,” Deryl Horton, their son, told me. Both have tested negative but have lingering symptoms, including extreme tiredness.

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Willie Horton, who has made giving back to the community a lifelong mantra, knows the pandemic isn’t done and quickly added, “Everyone needs to get their shots and boosters!”

He was diagnosed with COVID-19 the same day as President Joe Biden, who is also double vaccinated and boosted. First lady Jill Biden also came down with it and was just given the green light by her doctors to return to public appearances on Monday. The two couples all received Paxlovid.

Horton just wrote a riveting new book: “Willie Horton: 23: Detroit’s Own Willie the Wonder, the Tiger’s First Black Great,” which talks about his life, the Motor City, the Tigers and more.

He talked about that magical 1968 season when the Tigers won the World Series and his team of “brothers” who he said learned to play for, and with, each other.

Horton, who grew up in Detroit in the Jeffries Project, which had African American and white families, said he never confronted racism until going to the Tigers training camp in Lakeland, Florida. There, he recalled being unable to hail a cab and having to walk 5 miles as they wouldn’t pick up an African American patron.

He talked about the late federal courts Judge Damon Keith’s guidance on his life as his parents had asked Keith, a family friend, to take their gifted 13-year-old son under his wing.

Horton also talked about the 1967 civil uprising in the Motor City and the July evening it began.

The Tigers had a doubleheader with the Yankees. “I had hit a home run in the first game,” he recalled. The second game was abruptly canceled after a few innings because of growing violence elsewhere in the city; fans and players were asked to go home for their safety.

Horton did what is part of his DNA and tried to help. He grabbed his bag, ran out of the stadium still in uniform and drove his car to 12th Street, where the uprising was in full swing. He stood atop his car and tried to calm things down. He knew the neighborhood and they knew him. He went the following few nights too.

Flashing forward a few decades, Horton talked about how he and late team owner Mike Ilitch used to walk through the stands at Tigers games to see how things were going with the team, and what fans thought.

Ilitch brought Horton back to the Tigers in 2003 in the front office, where Horton continues to help the team in the community. There are few pro athletes in these parts — past or present — who connect with folks like Horton.

Horton talked how much it meant to have his jersey number retired and a statue of him placed at the park by the team.

Deryl Horton said the family — which includes the couple’s six children (one now deceased), 19 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren — is in the planning stage of marking their dad’s 80th birthday on Oct. 18.

How do you celebrate a larger than life, homegrown hero, who happens to be their dad, as he winds down another amazing year and starts his eighth decade of making a difference in the Motor City.

“We may do a big celebration at the Tigers Den or the Tigers Club,” Deryl Horton said. “We’ll likely include it along with Willie Horton Day (launched by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2004 and held statewide every year since). We just want it to be extra special for him.”

Contact Carol Cain: 248-355-7126 or clcain@cbs.com. She is senior producer/host of “Michigan Matters,” which airs 8 am Sundays on CBS 62. 

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