DETROIT -- Willie Horton has had easier years. The former Tigers great lost his good friend and former teammate Al Kaline in April, and 1968 World Series opponents Lou Brock and Bob Gibson in recent weeks. He had to watch this Tigers season from afar, missing out on talks with this generation of players, and hasn’t gone far from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I came from Spring Training to my house, and I've felt like I've been in the backyard [ever since],” Horton said this week.
And yet, as the former slugger and Detroit icon celebrates his 78th birthday on Sunday, he says he has a lot to be thankful for -- besides Willie Horton Day in Michigan. He has memories of friends and family that keeps the spirit alive.
“It's tough, but I thank God for the great memories,” Horton said. “Through hope and love, all we've got is great memories. The great memories are what keep me going They're gone, as in you don't see them, but I look at them and I remember great times.”
He has optimism in the young talent the Tigers have put together, and hope that the toughest times are past as they try to claw back into contention and embark on a managerial search.
“We're going to turn this stuff around,” said Horton, who just finished his 19th season as a special assistant in the Tigers' front office. “I've seen these kids get beat up for three years, now they're going to start winning. I think fans are going to be really proud of our team. I just hope we stay focused going about it the right way.”
Just as encouraging for someone who has been a cleanup hitter in the Detroit community for more than two decades, Horton sees young people taking an active role in the city, its future and its treatment of people of all races and backgrounds.
“I tell my wife what this day means to me. When I see young people out there, that's what it means to me,” Horton said. “We're tired of all this nonsense. We need a world that's fair right now. If we don't come together now, we're never going to.”
Horton’s birthday has been honored in Michigan since 2004, when then-governor Jennifer Granholm signed a bill from the Michigan legislature declaring Willie Horton Day. He was just the fourth Michigan citizen to have a day named for him in the state, and the first since civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks.
The honor obviously celebrates his 18-year Major League career, including 15 seasons with his hometown team, and a 1968 World Series title for which his throw from left field to retire Brock in Game 5 proved crucial. But the honor also celebrates a life dedicated to the city, from his attempt to quiet the violence of the Detroit riots in '67 to his later involvement with the United Way, Boys and Girls Clubs, Meals on Wheels and the military.
Horton is the only Tiger with a statue at Comerica Park, and to have his number retired on the outfield wall without being in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Lou Whitaker will join him in the latter category when his number is eventually unveiled; the ceremony was set for this summer before the COVID-19 pandemic delayed it.
Horton’s work with the Tigers for the last two decades allowed him to forge a close bond with Kaline, even stronger than they enjoyed as teammates. Horton helped save Kaline from a life-threatening situation after Kaline collided with Jim Northrup in the outfield in a 1970 game at Milwaukee, preventing Kaline from choking on his tongue.
Horton still bears Kaline’s teeth marks on his right wrist.
“I got the best autograph from him,” Horton said.
As a player, Horton remembers Kaline as a quiet leader. As a colleague, he became much more, which made Kaline’s passing even tougher to take.
“It [had] been a blessing to see him enjoy his life and see him reach out to young players,” Horton said.
Now, more than ever, Horton’s connection with the next generation of Tigers players is crucial, to let them know what the greats before them endured. Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of Horton’s signing with the Tigers after his legendary career at Detroit Northwestern High School. He still remembers his first Spring Training in Lakeland, Fla., where he had to walk from the bus station to Tigertown because no taxi cab would pick him up because of his skin color. Teammates Jake Wood and Gates Brown helped him through that camp, he said. Horton later brought Wood, a former Tigers second baseman, back to Lakeland to visit Spring Training in recent years.
Horton plans to be back in Spring Training in February. The memories won’t be far behind.
“These kids probably see me in Spring Training talking to myself,” Horton said, laughing.