They called him “Willie the Wonder” and for good reason. With a playing career in Major League Baseball that spanned from 1963 to 1980, four-time All-Star Willie Horton was 1979’s Outstanding Designated Hitter, Comeback Player of the Year and the Mariners MVP. Hitting 325 round-trippers during his career, he frequently ranked among the home run leaders of the League and had a lifetime batting average of .273. He began his Major League career in Detroit, spending fourteen seasons with the Tigers as a left fielder and a DH.
Horton was a fan favorite and one of Detroit’s key players, particularly on their 1968 Championship Team. You may remember his powerful play in Game Five of the 1968 Series- Lou Brock of the Cardinals failed to slide into home and was gunned down by Horton’s throw from left field. This assist helped to turn the series around in Detroit’s favor and Horton still counts it as his most memorable career achievement.
“Being voted Player of the Year (in 1979) was memorable, but that throw always stands out in my mind,” Horton said.
Another notable memory from that time was during the 1967 Detroit Riots. Horton left Tiger Stadium in uniform in an attempt to quell the chaos in the burning streets. Bravely standing in the midst of a crazed crowd, he pleaded with the rioters to calm down. Unfortunately, his efforts were in vain. The city burned for five days.
After leaving Detroit, Horton played with the Texas Rangers, the Cleveland Indians, the Oakland A’s, the Toronto Blue Jays and finally, the Seattle Mariners, where he spent two seasons before retiring in 1980. During this entire time, Horton kept the same batting helmet, having it painted to match his new teams after leaving the Tigers.
Since retirement, he has worked behind the scenes with the Oakland A’s, Chicago White Sox, and New York Yankees. In the year 2000, he returned to the Tigers Organization along with former teammate, Al Kaline. At the request of the Tigers’ Owner / Director, Mike Illitch, both veterans became members of a committee which had been established to create a plan for the future of the franchise.
In 2002, Willie Horton was named Special Assistant to Tigers Team President, Dave Dombrowski. Still holding this position today, he frequently travels throughout the organization’s Minor League franchises looking closely at the players and offering advice.
Currently, Horton is stationed in Lakeland, Florida with the Tigers team, preparing for Opening Day and having even more fun this year, than in the last five. According to him, the team is working hard and looking good.
“I think they will win their Division this year,” Horton said. “We’ve acquired some new guys. There are a lot of good players down here.”
When he’s not traveling, Horton and his wife, Gloria, with whom he shares seven children and nineteen grandchildren, reside in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He calls his family “his backbone” and says that above anyone, he is most thankful to Gloria, who has always supported him and helped to build his confidence when he needed it most. The youngest of 21 children, Horton also credits his parents and his Little League coach for providing the inspiration and the example he needed to become the man he is today.
Considered by many to be a “hometown hero”, a very busy Horton divides his time between the Tigers and the Detroit community. His charity involvement includes work with the United Way, Boys and Girls Club of America, Meals on Wheels, the Red Cross, the Horton Foundation, the Foundation for Fighting Blindness, and many other worthy causes. This heavy civic participation prompted Michigan’s Governor to officially declare Horton’s birthday, October 18, “Willie Horton Day” to honor his many charitable and humanitarian contributions to the people of Detroit and the entire state.
“Baseball has been good to me and my familyÃ¢Â?Â¦ I feel grateful that I’ve been able to give back to others,” Horton said. “I feel humble to have been given this opportunity and thankful to the community.”
The Tigers have recently immortalized a deserving Willie Horton by retiring his number (23) and by erecting a thirteen foot statue in his likeness along the left centerfield wall of Comerica Park. Horton says he still “gets chills” every time he sees it.
In 2004, the renovated baseball and softball fields of Horton’s alma mater, Northwestern High School, in Detroit, were renamed “The Willie Horton Baseball and Softball Diamonds” as a tribute to the baseball great. Horton says he is glad that he has been able to leave something behind.
If you are interested in learning more about Willie Horton, pick up a copy of his biography, entitled “The People’s Champion” due out on April, 20, 2005. Horton was able to work closely with the author while recovering from an injury (he was struck by a car in 2004). The book promises to be an interesting read, describing his exciting life in detail and offering insight into a man who truly is a champion of the people.