By Glen Sparks
Willie Horton climbed aboard a truck in the Detroit summer of 1967. He pleaded for peace in a city ready to burn.
The problems began several hours before, on July 23rd at 12th and Clairmount streets. A police raid at the Blind Pig bar grew into a disturbance and escalated into a riot.
Horton heard about the melee while playing a doubleheader at Tiger Stadium against the New York Yankees. Afterward, he ignored strong advice from team officials to avoid the trouble spot.
The muscular left-fielder, born Oct. 18, 1942, in Arno, Va., grew up in the Motor City, one of 21 brothers and sisters. He graduated from Northwestern High School in 1959 and signed with the Tigers in 1961. Horton saw limited duty with the big club in 1963 and 1964. He pounded 29 home runs and drove home 104 runs in 1965. The right-handed hitter followed up by ripping 27 homers and bringing home 100 runs in 1966.
Ankle problems had been plaguing Horton in ’67. The Tigers were in the thick of the American League pennant race, battling the Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox and California Angels.
The Tigers boasted an outstanding group of players, led by Horton, Bill Freehan, Norm Cash and future Hall of Famer Al Kaline in the everyday line-up and Earl Wilson, Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain on the mound. Mayo Smith managed the club.
In a city with a large black population, the African-American Horton was one of the team’s most popular stars. Probably everyone knew who he was when he stepped onto the roof of that truck and urged the rioters to stop. He was, after all, still wearing his Tigers uniform as he spoke, the classic Olde English “D” prominent on his uniform chest.
Tragically, Horton’s words did not stop the riot. The trouble-makers did not go home, as he urged. “What I witnessed on those streets, scared me,” Horton recalled years afterward.
It all turned into a tragedy. Before the entire mess ended five days after it began, 43 people were dead and nearly were 1,200 injured. About 2,000 buildings had been destroyed. Police made more than 7,200 arrests. President Lyndon Johnson ordered the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions onto the scene.
“It was a completely helpless feeling,” Horton said later.
Detroit finished tied for second place with the Minnesota Twins in ’67, one game behind the Boston Red Sox. Horton, battling that sore ankle, hit 19 homers in 122 games. The following year, he rebounded for a career-high 36 homers. McLain won 31 games, and the Tigers (103-59) cruised to an American League pennant. They beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, and Horton batted .304.
Horton played 18 seasons in the majors, 15 of them in Detroit. He retired after the 1980 campaign with 325 homers and 1,163 RBI. Horton did some coaching following his playing career. Not surprisingly, he also has spent much of his time doing charity work, for the Boys and Girls Club of America, Meals on Wheels, Red Cross and the Foundation for Fighting Blindness. His Horton Foundation gives scholarships to needy students in inner-city Detroit. The former ballplayer also serves as a special assistant in the Tigers’ front office.
As it has done every Oct. 18 for the last several years, the state of Michigan will celebrate Willie Horton Day today. Happy birthday to a man with a big heart.