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.
By Glen Sparks
The first thing to know about Orval Overall is that his name really was Orval Overall.
Mom and pop Overall did not bless their son with a middle name, either. Nor did Orval ever go by a nickname. He was simply, and forever, “Orval Overall,” born Feb. 2, 1881, in Farmerville, Calif., less than an hour from Fresno.
The right-handed pitcher grew up on the sandlots of central California, attended the University of California-Berkeley and enjoyed a seven-year career in the major leagues. He spent most of that time with the Chicago Cubs.
Overall broke in with the Cincinnati Reds in 1905 and compiled a hefty 18-23 won-loss mark. The following year, he started off 4-5, and Cincinnati shipped him to Chicago. Overall cruised to a 12-3 record the rest of the way. He enjoyed a 23-7 season in 1907.
The mighty Cubs ruled the National League (107-45) in ’07, finishing 17 games ahead of the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates. Chicago met the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Overall pitched two games, went 1-0 and had a 1.00 ERA. The Cubs beat the Tigers in four straight.
The following year, Chicago won 99 games, just one game more than the New York Giants. The Cubs claimed the pennant in part due to Merkle’s Boner, maybe the greatest base-running gaffe in baseball history. (Read more about that here.)
Once again, Chicago met Detroit in the World Series. The Cubs won a 10-6 slugfest in Game 1. Overall pitched one/third of an inning in relief and was charged with one earned run. He started Game 2 and gave up a lone run over nine innings. Chicago won 6-1.
Detroit beat Chicago 8-3 in Game 3 and lost 4-0 in Game 4. Overall started Game 5, the potential World Series clincher. On this date in 1908, Orval shut out the Detroit Tigers 2-0 at Bennett Park in Detroit. He gave up three hits, walked four and struck out 10 in front of the smallest crowd in World Series history (6,210).
As you’re probably aware, no Cubs team has celebrated a Series title since Overall and that 1908 team popped champagne. To put it all into perspective (This is always entertaining.), in 1908:
- Tolstoy was still alive. So was Mark Twain.
- Machine Gun Kelly turned 8. Bugsy Siegel turned 2.
- The start of World War I was still six years away. The Spanish-American War had been over for just a decade.
- Winston Churchill married Clementine.
- The movie, In the Sultan’s Power, was released. It was the first film completely made in Los Angeles. The city of L.A. had about 300,000 residents when the cameras started rolling.
- Henry Ford introduced the Model T.
Overall, the star of the 1908 World Series, threw 18.1 innings with a 0.93 ERA. He continued his fine pitching in 1909, going 20-11 with a 1.42 ERA (179 ERA+). The Cubs won 104 games and still finished 6.5 games behind the Pirates.
In 1910, Overall ended up 12-6. He missed several starts due to a sore arm, probably caused by tossing too many curveballs. Overall threw a nasty bender. The Cubs won 104 games once again; this time it was enough. The Philadelphia A’s, though, beat the Cubs in five games in the World Series.
Overall figured that he was done. His arm ached. He left for California to work in—get this—a gold mine that he co-owned with teammate Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown. He also played some semi-pro ball.
Overall returned to big-league ball, and to the Cubs, in 1913. He went a pedestrian 4-5 in 11 games, with a 3.31 ERA. Overall retired with a 108-71 mark and a 2.23 ERA (123 ERA+) in the run-suppressed dead-ball era.
Following baseball, Overall ran and lost a bid for Congress, made a lot of money in real estate and ran the family’s citrus farm. He also worked as an executive at a local bank. Overall died July 14, 1947, in Fresno, Calif. He was 66 years old.
By Glen Sparks
Rocky Colavito, being Italian and a Bronx guy from a certain time, idolized Joe DiMaggio while growing up. He wanted to be just as good and just as smooth as No. 5, the famous Yankee Clipper.
Colavito learned the game while playing on the New York City sandlots. He could hit, and, boy, could he throw. The kid had a cannon for an arm, and he liked to show it off.
The Cleveland Indians signed Colavito as a 17-year-old following a tryout at Yankee Stadium. Colavito hit from an open stance, just like Joe D. Unfortunately, he didn’t slug like DiMaggio. Even minor-league curveballs broke harder than they did on the sandlots. Cut the DiMaggio impression, a minor-league coach said.
Rocco Domenico Colavito, born Aug. 10, 1933, took the advice and went on to enjoy a fine major-league career (1955-68). He hit 374 home runs and drove in 1,159 runs over 14 seasons. The 6-foot-3-inch slugger with the mighty forearms topped 30 home runs seven times and 40 homers three times.
Batting from the right side, he hit.266 lifetime (.489 slugging percentage), with a .359 on-base percentage. The Rock made six All-Star teams and finished in the top five in MVP voting three times.
The Indians called up Colavito early in the 1956 season. He promptly smacked 21 homers in 101 games and batted 276 (OPS+ 135), finishing runner-up to Chicago White Sox shortstop Luis Aparicio for A.L. Rookie of the Year.
His career really took off in 1958. He smashed 41 home runs and placed third in the MVP race. In 1959, he led the league with 42 homers and was never better than on June 10 in Baltimore. Rocky ripped four home runs in four at-bats, walked once, drove in six and scored five times.
The Sporting News declared Colavito as the man most likely to break Babe Ruth’s record of hitting 60 home runs in one season. That he never did. But, from 1958-66, Colavito clubbed 323 round-trippers, averaging almost 36 per year. Unfortunately for the Cleveland fans, Colavito hit 173 of them for other teams.
Frank Lane was the Cleveland general manager during Colavito’s time. People called him “Trader” Lane for a reason. He loved to think about trades, to talk about trades and, most of all, to make trades. When he was charge of the Cardinals, he even tried to trade Stan Musial.
Lane shipped Colavito to the Detroit Tigers for Harvey Kuenn on April 17, 1960. Fans lit up the switchboard at Municipal Stadium. They couldn’t believe it. Just about every Indians fan hated the deal. It didn’t seem right; it didn’t seem fair. One baseball executive put it this way: “The Indians traded a slow guy with power for a slow guy with no power.”
An outfielder like Colavito, Kuenn hit for a high average and led the A.L. with a .353 batting average in 1958. He also topped the circuit in doubles three times. But, he didn’t hit home runs. He topped out at a dozen in 1956. Kuenn only spent one season by Lake Erie, batting .308 (118 OPS+). Cleveland sent him to the San Francisco Giants.
Colavito, meanwhile, kept pounding home runs (139 in four seasons with Detroit). In 1964, the Tigers sent him to the Kansas City Athletics, There, he finished with a team-leading 34 dingers.
Finally, Rocky made it back to Cleveland in 1965. Over the next two years, he hit a total of 56 homers. Colavito didn’t slow down until 1967 when he only ripped eight (with the Indians and the White Sox). The next year, he also hit eight (with the Los Angels Dodgers and the New York Mets) and called it quits.
Terry Pluto wrote a book in 1994 titled The Curse of Rocky Colavito. Pluto argued that the 1960 trade of Colavito to Detroit led to an extended playoff drought for the Indians. The team had been a power in the 1950s. They went to the World Series in 1954 (losing to the Giants) and finished in a solid second place in ’59, Colavito’s last year with the Tribe. Not until 1995 did Cleveland return to the postseason. Was it a curse? Well, Pluto, and maybe some others, think so.
Colavito never got much Hall of Fame traction. He stayed on the ballot for two years, getting 0.5 percent of the vote in 1974 and 0.3 percent in ’75. Even so, he remains a legend of sorts in Cleveland, a Rock, if you will.
By Glen Sparks
George “Tuck” Stainback wasn’t blessed with the most musical surname. Nor did he enjoy the most accomplished career as a Major League baseball player.
Over 13 seasons, from 1934 through 1946, Stainback put on the uniform of seven different teams. He didn’t star for any of them. In fact, he retired with just a .259 career batting average and hit only 17 home runs.
Stainback went to bat 359 at-bats as a 22-year-old rookie for the Chicago Cubs. That was his career-high mark in the big leagues.
Even so, the right-handed batter made his mark, both on the field and off it, even if he did not possess the most powerful bat, the fastest feet or the strongest throwing arm.
Stainback, born in Los Angeles on this date in 1911, attended Fairfax High School, near Hollywood. He broke into pro ball in 1931 with the Bisbee, Ariz., Bees. From there, he played two years with the hometown Angels of the Pacific Coast League and signed with the Cubs.
The rookie outfielder batted .306 in 1934 with Chicago, the second-highest mark of his career. (He hit .327 in just 104 at-bats for the Brooklyn Dodgers.) Stainback lasted four seasons in Chicago and then went to the St. Louis Cardinals. He got into just six games in St. Louis being released. The Philadelphia Phillies picked him up on waivers. Midway through the year, Philadelphia sent Stainback to Brooklyn.
He later played with the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees and finished up with the Philadelphia A’s
- As a Cub, Tuck led a bench-jockeying episode against umpire George Moriarty. The name calling so infuriated Moriarty that he cleared the Chicago bench.
- That Stainback trade to the Cardinals also involved a pretty good pitcher, Dizzy Dean. On April 16, 1938, St. Louis sent future Hall of Famer Dean to Chicago for $185,000, plus hurlers Curt Davis and Clyde Shoun as well as Stainback.
- The Phillies selected Stainback off waivers on May 28, 1938. Soon after, he single-handedly kept the great Carl Hubbell from tossing a perfect game. He drew a walk and hit a single, the only Phillies player to get on base.
- Stainback played in two World Series, in 1942 and ’43 with the Yankees. He earned a ring in that second Series.
- While the Great Depression was on, Stainback, along with Yankee shortstop Frank Crosetti, helped put together the Majors’ first pension fund. The two solicited donations of $250 from each player as a way to start the fund and assist ballplayers down on their luck.
Stainback settled in the L.A. area after retiring. When the Dodgers left Brooklyn for southern California, he asked Dodgers executive Red Patterson for a job. Over the next few decades, Stainback worked in group sales for the Dodges and also ran the team’s Knothole program, providing free tickets for boys and girls.
Stainback died in 1992 at the age of 81.
Harry “Slugs” Heilmann, befitting his nickname, didn’t get many leg hits. No matter. The San Francisco native smacked plenty of line drives.
Heilmann, born on this date in 1894, retired with 2,660 hits over 17 seasons, most of them with the Detroit Tigers. He batted .342 lifetime, the same as the great Babe Ruth. He won four batting titles, putting together a superb run of odd-numbered seasons (1921, 1923, 1925 and 1927).
One of baseball’s early west coast stars, Heilmann learned to hit while playing on the Bay area sandlots. The Tigers signed him in the fall of 1913 for $1,500. He debuted in Detroit the following season but hit just .225 in 68 games. The outfielder spent 1915 in the minors.
Back with the Tigers in 1916, Heilmann batted .282 with little power (two home runs). He followed that by batting .281 in 1917 and .276 in 1918. It looked like he would be a decent, not great, player.
Something clicked in 1919. He upped his average to .320 and emerged as one of top players in the game. After dipping to .309 in 1920, the right-handed batter put up a .394 mark in 1921. From 1921-1930, Heilmann not only led the American League in batting average four times, he never hit below .328. Typically, he finished in double figures in home runs and with more than 40 doubles and about 10 triples despite not being fleet of foot.
Heilmann knocked in more than 100 runs eight times and finished in the top 10 in the A.L. MVP voting five straight years (1923-27). How good was he? He batted .403 in 1923 and came within just a few hits here and there of topping the .400 mark two other times. Besides that .394 mark in ’21, the Californian finished at .398 in 1927.
Heilmann left for the National League in 1930. He hit .333 for the Cincinnati Reds and retired for one season. He came back–sorta–in 1932 for Cincinnati and hit .258 in 31 at-bats.
His playing career over, Heilmann went up to the broadcast booth. He handled Tigers play-by-play on WXYZ for 17 seasons before being diagnosed with lung cancer. Heilmann died July 9, 1951, age 56.
Ty Cobb, the irascible one, the greatest Tiger of them all, visited Heilman in the hospital near the end. Supposedly, Cobb told Heilmann that he had been elected to the Hall of Fame. It was a kind gesture, but it wasn’t true. The writers finally voted Heilmann into Cooperstown in the summer of 1952.
By Glen Sparks
Few teams can claim the historic star power of the Detroit Tigers. This is the franchise of Cobb and Kaline, of Greenberg and Gehringer. (OK, I just provided some hints to the following quiz.) The Tigers, notable for the “olde English D” logo on their caps, have won 11 American League pennants and four World Series. The team played in Tiger Stadium from 1912-99.
By Glen Sparks
The spankings didn’t take. “Lu” Blue kept going to baseball games anyway.
Why waste your time on such a silly game, the uptight Charles Blue liked to ask his son. Learn grammar and arithmetic instead. Memorize the important dates of history and the Periodic Table. But, Luzerne Atwell Blue, “Lu,” kept going to baseball games anyway.
Lu Blue, born on his date in 1897, blew off school more than a few times. He’d head to National Park, home of the Senators and the great young fire-balling pitcher out of Kansas by way of southern California, Walter “Big Train” Johnson.
Corporal punishment awaited Lu. Baseball was a game for ruffians, not for gentleman intent of making something of themselves in this world, Charles Blue lectured his son. He made his point with a paddle. Lu kept going to baseball games anyway.