Willie Wattison Horton made his major league debut for the Tigers in 1963 and played sparingly before coming up full-time in 1965. It was a break-out rookie campaign for Horton, who earned the first of four All-Star appearances, slammed 29 homers (after just two in 1963-64), 104 RBIs and hit a respectable .273.
One of the enduring stories of Horton came on July 23, 1967. On what would become an infamous chapter in the history of the city of Detroit, the Tigers had just split a double-header with the New York Yankees at Tiger Stadium while hostilities were boiling over elsewhere in the city. Horton went to the center of the riot area, stood on a car in full uniform, and pleaded for order that never came. Still, his passion for the city created an undying bond between Tigers’ fans and Willie.
His career year came in 1968 when he hit 36 homers. More importantly, Horton hit .304 with a home run in the World Series against St. Louis. Last week, we described Freehan’s career moment coming in Game 5 with the Tigers’ backs against the wall. This was also a moment for the ages for Horton.
With the Tigers facing elimination at Tiger Stadium in Game 5, perhaps Freehan’s signature moment occurred. St. Louis was up by a run in the fifth inning when Lou Brock tried to score from second on a single to left. Willie Horton gunned the ball into the catcher, who had the foresight to remember the scouting report on Brock which said he rarely slid into home. Freehan stuck his left leg out and held the ball in a collision, thus preventing the Cardinals from going up by two runs.
It was the turning point of the series as the Tigers went on to win that game and the next two in St. Louis. If Horton’s throw went awry, the series may not have gone back to Busch Stadium. Willie listed this as easily the best moment of his career.
Horton had several productive years post-’68. He was known more for his bat than his glove, which was a reason he became one of the first successful designated hitters. He was named the AL’s Outstanding DH in 1975 after hitting 25 homers and 92 RBIs for a terrible Tigers team.
After a year that saw offensive numbers drop across the board, Detroit traded Horton to Texas. He spent the rest of his career meandering around the American League with stops in Cleveland, Oakland, and Toronto before finishing in Seattle. He picked up the AL Outstanding DH award again, for the Mariners in 1979, and retired following the 1980 season.
Willie Horton finished with 1,993 hits, a .273 average, 873 runs, and 1,163 RBIs. At the time of his retirement, his 325 homers put him sixth in AL history.
The Tigers retired his #23, and debuted his statue, in a ceremony at Comerica Park on July 15, 2000. While his numbers don’t make him Hall-of-Fame worthy and perhaps make his number retirement debatable, his acts on and off the field in 1967-68 endeared him to fans of that era, and earned him a spot on Motor City Bengals’ All-Time Detroit Tigers team.