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Detroit names street after Tigers legend Horton

@beckjason
May 22, 2019

DETROIT -- Willie Horton pointed down the street to where he used to live, in what was then a housing project. “I was raised in the fifth building down,” Horton said. “I used to call it the penthouse because we lived in a 14-story building.” Horton looked in the other

DETROIT -- Willie Horton pointed down the street to where he used to live, in what was then a housing project.

“I was raised in the fifth building down,” Horton said. “I used to call it the penthouse because we lived in a 14-story building.”

Horton looked in the other direction and could remember the old gym where he used to box.

“People didn't realize that I won the Golden Glove many years ago,” Horton said. “I put my age up from 13 to 17 and started at the recreation center across the freeway.”

Horton looks down the street and remembers wanting to be a firefighter as a little kid.

“I used to run behind fire trucks,” he said. “I wanted to be a fireman when I was a little fella. If a fire truck took off, I'd take off running behind it.”

Over his shoulder was a baseball field on the same site where he became a city legend, well before he wore the Old English D.

Horton could look all around this neighborhood, just off the Lodge Freeway, not far from where Tiger Stadium stood, and point to memories that made him the ballplayer and the man he has become. From now on, the street sign for this stretch of Canfield Street points to Willie Horton Drive.

“This is home,” Horton said. “If I go downtown five days a week, I stop here four times. I’ve got nieces and nephews that still live over here. All down Canfield, all the way from this corner to Grand River, that’s my neighborhood.”

Wednesday’s dedication ceremony brought out a range of dignitaries, guests and friends; from Detroit mayor Mike Duggan, to Tigers chairman and CEO Christopher Ilitch, to Tigers general manager Al Avila, to Hall of Famer Jack Morris. It also brought out Tigers rookie Christin Stewart, a slugging left fielder in the mold of Horton, as well as a youth baseball team from the Detroit Public School League.

The range of people attending reflects the width of Horton’s influence on the Tigers, his community and his family.

“He meant so much to everybody, the way he carried himself, the way he represented the city, the fact that he came back home,” Duggan said.

Horton was the hometown hero of the Tigers’ World Series championship team of 1968, famous for his throw home to retire Lou Brock in Game 5. But his legacy spans decades. He was a high school star at Detroit Northwestern before signing with the Tigers at age 18 in '61, becoming the second African-American player to come up through the Tigers' system. He became an All-Star starting left fielder four years later in his first full Major League season, batting .273 with 29 home runs and 104 RBIs. His 36 home runs in '68 made him one of the most feared bats of the lineup.

All the while, Horton took a keen interest in the community as a whole. His experiences with racism as a prospect in Spring Training, walking back and forth at one point between his hotel and Tigertown, fortified his interest in the civil rights movement. His attempts to quell the Detroit riots in 1967, driving to northwest Detroit while still in uniform and pleading with rioters to stop, became well known.

Horton played 15 of his 18 Major League seasons as a Tiger. He returned to Detroit after finishing his career in Seattle, and served as an executive director chief for the Detroit Police Athletic League while working with the United Way, the Boys & Girls Club, the Meals on Wheels Program and the Foundation Fighting Blindness. He hosts a showcase event every summer for kids at Comerica Park in conjunction with Don Bosco Hall.

The Tigers retired Horton’s No. 23 and unveiled a statue in his honor in 2000, shortly after Comerica Park opened. He became a special assistant with the club the following year, a position he still holds today. At age 76, he remains a treasured voice for young players, not only on how to hit, but how to conduct themselves as a professional.

“It would have been wonderful if my dad would’ve been here today,” said Christopher Ilitch, referring to late Tigers owner Mike Ilitch. “He would have loved to help celebrate this great honor, Willie, with you and your family. He was a big Willie Horton fan.”

The honors are too many to count. Every Oct. 18, Horton's birthday, is officially recognized in Michigan as Willie Horton Day. The U.S. Army presented him in 2006 with the Order of Saint Maurice, one of the highest honors to be given to a civilian.

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones introduced the resolution earlier this year to name the street.

“I never envisioned this,” Horton said. “The journey the last few years, having a statue, having a permanent day in the state of Michigan, down in Florida having a street and a museum named after Willie Horton, and Fort Bennett involved with the military and getting one of the highest honors, this is where it started from, the old school grounds, on this field.”

Horton’s message Wednesday was simple: If he can make it from here, anyone can. And he’d like to help.

“Keep working. I tell all young guys, 'Don't cheat yourself,'” Horton said. “We all come into this world as babies with million-dollar minds that God gave us all, and you can do anything you want to in life if you use that mind right.”

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.