Detroit Tigers: #23 is an interesting jersey number in team history

Willie Horton, Detroit Tigers (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)*** Local Caption *** Willie Horton
Willie Horton, Detroit Tigers (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)*** Local Caption *** Willie Horton /

The Last Dance documentary prompted us to think about the #23 uniform in Detroit Tigers’ history. Two significant players have worn it.

With so many people talking about The Last Dance, the documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, that prompted us to think about the #23 in Detroit Tigers history. It’s a very interesting number, as two significant players have worn it.

Prior to 1964, there wasn’t much history with the number. Catcher Ray Hayworth, who hit a total of five home runs in his career, was the first Tigers player to wear the number, from 1932 to 1938. After that, through 1963, no player wore the number for more than two seasons.

Then came Willie Horton. Horton arrived in the majors in 1963 and wore #48 during this first season, and then he switched to #23 for 1964. Tigers fans, especially those who were around back in the 1960s, know the significance of Horton’s career in team history.

Horton played for the Tigers for 15 years before he was traded to the Texas Rangers in 1977. He had 1,490 hits, including 262 home runs, and was a key member of the 1968 World Series Championship team. That year, he finished fourth in MVP voting with 36 home runs. He batted .304 in the World Series, including a home run, while throwing out Lou Brock at the plate in a key situation in Game 5.

Shortly after Horton left, Kirk Gibson arrived in the majors with the Tigers in 1979, taking the #23, and was there until 1987, before returning from 1993 until 1995. Gibson had 1,140 hits with the Tigers, including 195 home runs, and was a key member of the 1984 World Series Championship team. He was ALCS MVP in 1984 and hit two home runs in Game 5 of the World Series, including the famous eighth inning one that put the game away.

This all presents an interesting dilemma in Tigers’ history. In 2000, the Tigers retired #23 in honor of Horton, but not Gibson. (Hideo Nomo was the last Tiger to wear it, in 2000.) Both were a key part of a championship team. Both were local; Horton went to high school in Detroit, while Gibson attended Michigan State. Gibson has the slight edge in WAR with the team (27.7 to 25.9).

Yet Horton is known for helping to ease racial tensions that were taking place in the city during the 1960s, so his legacy goes beyond on-the-field accomplishments. The Tigers could have retired #23 in honor of both players, as the Chicago Cubs have with Fergie Jenkins and Greg Maddux both wearing #31, but perhaps they felt that would have been disrespectful to Horton and all he did for the city of Detroit.

It’s an interesting discussion. Was Horton or Gibson the better player? Did Gibson deserve to be honored by the Detroit TIgers as well? Let us know your thoughts!