Dave Winfield once told Willie Horton he was surprised Horton had not been elected to Cooperstown. The compliment demonstrates Horton’s talent and ability to take over games. Occasionally, Horton hit one-handed home runs and carried the Tigers for long stretches with his bat. Despite the offensive skills, the left fielder’s greatest play came in the field. He saved the World Series for the Tigers in 1968 with an amazing throw. The play propelled Detroit to an amazing comeback against an intractable foe. Horton’s abilities on the field as a player and leadership off the field made the man invaluable to the Tiger organization.
Willie Horton hit a home run at Tiger Stadium as a 16-year-old in an all-city high school contest. The Tigers noticed and signed the phenom out of high school. Horton debuted for Detroit in 1963 and played sporadically in 1963 and 1964. In his second major league at bat, Willie the Wonder hit a pinch hit home run off Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts. The Tigers gave Horton a starting slot in 1965. The 22-year-old made his first of four All Star teams and finished eighth in the MVP voting. As a rookie, he finished second in the American League in RBI (104) and third in home runs (29). Overall, Horton batted .273 with a .831 OPS. Horton’s sophomore effort mirrored his freshman campaign with a .262 average, 27 home runs, 100 RBI, and .802 OPS. As a result, he won MVP votes for the second straight season.
The Tiger starred off the field during a dark chapter in Detroit history. The city rioted in 1967. Tiger broadcaster Ernie Harwell could see smoke in the distance from his purview at Tiger Stadium. Players soon noticed the evidence, but had no information about the cause until later. After the game, Horton wandered the streets in his uniform trying to restore calm. At one point, he stood on a car begging people to stop the violence. His pleas went unanswered and the riot played out for another five days.
Although Horton failed to restore order in the streets, his bat brought a sense of calm to his Tiger teammates. Horton hit over 20 home runs in a season seven times and finished with 325. After injuries limited him to 122 games, 19 home runs, and 67 RBI in 1967, Willie the Wonder dominated the league in 1968. In”the year of the pitcher”, Horton finished second in home runs (36), slugging (.543), and total bases (278). He also hit a solid .285 in a year that witnessed Carl Yastrzemski win the batting crown at .301. The Tiger made his second All Star team and finished fourth in the MVP vote.
The Tigers won the World Series in 1968 with Horton emerging a key contributor in the seven game victory over the Cardinals. Overall, he batted .304 with a home run, three RBI, and 1.013 OPS. In Game 5, Horton saved the series for the Tigers. St. Louis led the series 3-games-to-1 and the contest 3-2 in the fifth inning. Lou Brock doubled and then tried to score on a Julian Javier single to left. For some reason, Brock did not slide and provided Detroit an inviting target at the plate. Horton fired a rifle shot to catcher Bill Freehan who tagged Brock out. The Tigers rallied to win behind Mickey Lolich’s pitching and Al Kaline’s big seventh inning hit. Then, they swept the Cardinals in Games 6 and 7 to capture the championship. Had Brock scored in Game 5, the Cardinals probably celebrate as World Champions in Detroit.
Detroit did not repeat in 1969 despite a fine season from Horton. He hit his usual 28 home runs and knocked in 91 while posting a .796 OPS. The outfielder made his third All Star team in 1970, but injuries limited him to 96 games. He returned with a vengeance in 1971 (.289, 22, 72, .845), but only appeared in 119 games. In fact, Horton did not play in more than 119 games between 1969 and 1974. Despite this, he made his final All Star team in 1973 and earned some MVP votes.
Horton put up a nice 1975 campaign with 25 home runs, 92 RBI, and .275 average. By this point, he had moved from the outfield to designated hitter. In the position’s early days, the Tiger emerged one of the league’s better designated hitters. He played one more season with the Tigers before moving on. Horton bounced around between 1977 and 1979 before finding a final home in Seattle. In 1979, the former Tiger won the Comeback Player of the Year Award with a .279 campaign featuring 29 home runs, 106 RBI, and .784 OPS. Ironically, Horton hit his 300th career home run off Detroit’s Jack Morris. He slumped to .221 in 1980 and then retired sixth in American League history with 325 home runs as a right handed batter.
The former major league player continued to play in the minors and Mexico before hanging up the spikes for good. Afterward, he coached for the Yankees and White Sox before coming home to Detroit. The Tigers retired his number 23, unveiled a statue, and hired him as a special assistant. The State of Michigan declared October 18, 2012 as Willie Horton Day. Only three other people have been so honored.
Willie Horton’s statistics fall just short of Cooperstown. As a Tiger, he hit .276 with 262 home runs, 886 RBI, and .808 OPS. He led the charge in Detroit’s comeback in the 1968 World Series and tried to calm the streets of Detroit during the 1967 riots. As time passed, Horton became more than a baseball star. He became a living symbol of both the city and its baseball team.