Willie Horton: “Hit that Ball Willie”
By Len "Muddy" Mardeusz
To find work the family moved to Detroit. Willie was 5 year’s old and lived just a few blocks from Briggs Stadium, then home of the Detroit Tigers. He grew up strong and with a love for the game of baseball. Willie attended Detroit Northwestern High School. At 16, while playing in an All-City baseball game at Briggs Stadium he hit a long home run. The coaches and players were amazed.
In 1961, Horton signed with the Tigers, he was sent to their farm team, the Duluth Ducks, he was 19. In September of 1963 he was brought up to Detroit. He took his first major league at bat as a pinch hitter against pitcher Robin Roberts. Willie hit his first home run. Horton saw very little playing time before 1965. In that year as a rookie player, he was second in the American League with 104 runs batted in and third with 29 home runs. Willie was named to the All-Star game. In 1966, now 24 years old, Willie hit 27 home runs ans drove in a leading team of 100 runs batted in. That was the year the fans started the chant as Horton approached the batters box, “Hit that ball Willie.”
As the Detroit Tigers went to pre-season exhibition play in Florida there was a definite feeling of optimism that had been missing for years. In June of 1967, the Tigers were rolling and in a three way tie for first place. On July 27, a Sunday, the city of Detroit woke up to a full blown riot. As the rioting spread in and around the inner city Willie Horton jumped in his car, wearing his Tiger uniform and stood on the roof. He was in the middle of the street chaos, pleading for calm. However, despite his impassioned pleas, the city burned for five days. For five long, hot summer days baseball died in Detroit. Some how watching his beloved home town burning put a damper on Willie. The Tigers ended the season in 2nd place. Willie Horton had an off season. He only hit 19 home runs and had 67 RBI’s. It was a frustrating season for Horton.
The 1968 season was a different story. The Detroit Tigers were a team that did not collapse. By season’s end the team won 103 games and first place. Willie Horton heard that familiar chant again, “Hit That Ball Willie” and he did. Horton ended the season hitting 36 home runs and drove in 85. Willie Horton posted double-digit home run totals in 12 regular seasons from 1965-76. He hit 2 home runs in a game on 30 occasions. In 1970, at County Stadium in Milwaukee, the Brewer’s batter Roberto Pena hit a fly ball deep to right centerfield. In full flight going after the ball, Tiger outfielders Jim Northrup and Al Kaline harshly collided. Kaline lay on the ground motionless. Jackie Moore, Brewer’s bull pen coach raced toward Kaline gasping for air. He was choking. Running in from left field came Willie Horton. He knelt down by Kaline and with brute strength pride opened his jaw and pulled his tongue out. Just before Willie pulled his team mates tongue out Kaline’s jaw clenched scaring Willies fingers with cuts. Al Kaline took in deep breaths opened his eyes without knowledge of what happened.
Kaline was transported to a local hospital for observation. Horton said later,”I remembered that when a guy gets knocked out you have to grab him by the back of his jaw and pop it open”. That night in Milwaukee Willie Horton saved Al Kaline’s life. The Michigan Heart Association awarded Willie with a life saving plaque. When they initially became team mates, Willie Horton remembered his up bringing. He would call him, “Mr. Kaline.” Finally, until he felt comfortable, he called Kaline, “Al.” The two men would forever be linked. During the’68 World Series, with the Cardinal’s leading 3 games to 1, Willie made a defensive play that turned the tide. Cardinal speedster attempted to score from 2nd on a hit by Julian Javier. Willie Horton retrieved the ball and threw a straight shot into the glove of Detroit catcher Bill Freehan to beat Brock at the plate for an out. Horton still considers the Throw the most memorable of his career. Willie was a four time All-Star in 1965, 1968, 1970 and 1973. In 1975 he was named AL’s Outstanding Designator Hitter hitting 25 home runs and 95 RBI’s.
Early in 1977 at the age of 35, Detroit Tigers traded Willie to the Texas Rangers. Perhaps, that was the beginning of the end for Willie in baseball. In 1979, now with Seattle Mariners, he still showed his heart for the game he hit .279, with 29 HR’s and 106 RBI’s. In June of that year while playing against Detroit and pitcher Jack Morris Willie Horton hit his 300th home run. In his 18 year career, Horton posted a .273 batting average, 1993 hits, 1163 RBI’s, 325 home runs in 2028 games. Upon his retirement Horton’s number was retired and a statue of Willie was placed in Comerica Park joining a select group of former Tigers players. Since 2003, he has served as Special Assistant to the Tigers executive staff.
Perhaps, Willie Horton, the Home Grown boy, will be most remembered in the crucial role he played, outside of baseball. Standing on top of his car in uniform trying to restore peace, quelling angry eruptions to bring harmony again in a hardscrabble city he loves. 0n October 18, 2012, Detroit celebrated “Willie Horton Day” recognizing one man’s ability to over come life’s obstacles.
“Hit that ball Willie”!
Roving Sportswriter At-Large