Willie Horton has been a beloved ambassador for the game of baseball in Detroit for a long time. He’ll represent the Detroit Tigers in the 2022 MLB All-Star Game as an honorary coach for the American League. Horton represented the Tigers in the All-Star Game as a player four times during his career, twice as a starter.
Miguel Cabrera and Gregory Soto are the two current Detroit Tigers players on the 2022 American League All-Star team. Neither was actually the first member of the Detroit Tigers organization to be named to the team, though. That honor went to Willie Horton, who is currently a special assistant to General Manager Al Avila. Horton, who debuted with Detroit in 1963 and stayed until early 1977, was named as an honorary coach by AL All-Star manager Dusty Baker.
In the prepared statement that accompanied the announcement, Horton shared that some of the best memories of his 18-year major-league career were his four appearances in the All-Star Game. He wore a Detroit Tigers uniform in each of them: 1965, 1968, 1970, and 1973. He was in the starting lineup in ’65 and ’68, which were two very interesting seasons in the career of Willie Horton.
Willie Horton and the 1965 All-Star Game
The year 1965 was a whirlwind in the life of William Wattison Horton. It began tragically. His parents, Clinton and Lillian, both died as a result of a car accident in Albion, Michigan, on New Year’s Day. Mr. Horton was killed in the crash, and Mrs. Horton was pronounced dead at the hospital. Willie, a 22-year-old outfielder on the Detroit Tigers’ roster, was playing winter baseball in Puerto Rico at the time.
When the Tigers signed Willie Horton out of Detroit Northwestern High School in August 1961, he used some of the money to buy a house for his whole family. Mrs. and Mrs. Horton moved in with their son, the budding baseball star. He’d been so proud that he could take care of them like that. In honor of his parents, Horton dedicated his ’65 season to them.
Horton arrived for spring training in Lakeland, Florida, in February and found himself competing with good friend Gates Brown for the Tigers’ left-field job. Horton had only 40 games of big-league experience to his name at that point. He’d hit well for the Tigers as a September 1963 callup and then raked enough the following March to make the team’s 1964 Opening Day roster. He struggled at the plate, however, and was optioned to the minor leagues in mid-May.
Returning for a late-season cameo, Horton hit a home run in the last game of the year. If anything, it served as a reminder that the young powerhouse who once hit a home run into the upper deck at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium during a 1959 high school championship game still had a bright future.
Willie Horton Pre-ASG
While Horton prepared for the 1965 season down in Lakeland, he made a believer out of Bob Swift, the Tigers’ interim manager. Swift stepped up from the Detroit coaching staff to handle interim managerial duties during skipper Charlie Dressen’s recovery from a heart attack. Until further notice, he would be the one writing Horton’s name on the Tigers’ lineup card. Swift said, “If Willie got off to a good start, there’s no telling what he could do. He could tear up the league.”
Horton began to make Swift’s prediction look good against the Minnesota Twins at Tiger Stadium on April 24. The Detroit slugger hit what Joe Falls of the Detroit Free Press described as “a pair of towering homers” that “carried almost 800 feet”. In the seventh, Horton followed Don Demeter’s game-tying round-tripper with a blast to the upper deck in right-center that quickly broke the tie. After the Twins took a 4-3 lead later on, Horton led off the ninth with a game-tying shot to the upper deck in left.
That second home run of Horton’s set the wheels in motion for his buddy Gates Brown to crush a walk-off, three-run homer six batters later. Though Willie shared the spotlight with his close teammate on that Saturday afternoon, the impact that he made on the Tigers’ 7-4 triumph was just a taste of what was to come.
In the top of the ninth against the Washington Senators on May 11, Horton walloped a two-run dinger that was measured at 420 feet. It gave Detroit a 7-6 victory in the nation’s capital. That was also the beginning of a five-game stretch in which Horton’s bat exploded. “Willie the Wonder” went 15-for-22 with six home runs, 6 RBI, and 11 runs scored. The Tigers won all five contests.
Remarkably, one year after being booed by Detroit fans in his last game before being sent back to the minors, Willie Horton was hitting an incredible .406/.426/.906.
There was a bit of June swoon for Horton after that peak, but he went on a four-game binge at home from June 12-16. Pitchers from both the Twins and Boston Red Sox fell victim to the Tigers’ right-handed power-hitter. Horton racked up seven hits (including four homers and two doubles) and three walks. He drove in 14 Detroit runs and scored seven as he and his teammates collected wins in each game.
Willie’s three-run bomb in the bottom of the eighth off Red Sox reliever Dick “The Monster” Radatz (who became Horton’s teammate in Detroit in 1969) provided the margin of victory in a 6-5 decision on June 15. The Detroit-born Radatz threw a fastball under the Detroit-raised Horton’s chin, according to the latter. He added that he hit the ball off the handle of the bat but claimed that the contact was “not very good”.
That impressed Tigers manager Charlie Dressen, who had recently returned to active managerial duty. Dressen remarked, “When you are strong, anything is possible.”
The 1965 All-Star Game
Players in the American and National Leagues selected their own starting lineups for the All-Star Game, which was scheduled for July 13 at Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis. Nobody was allowed to vote for a teammate, but Horton didn’t need any support from within the Detroit locker room. His peers throughout the rest of the AL overwhelmingly chose him as their starting left fielder. “Willie the Wonder” beat out Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox, a future Hall of Famer. The tally was 198-44. Only catcher Earl Battey (202) of the host Twins got more votes than Horton.
Joining Willie Horton in the Junior Circuit’s starting nine was Detroit teammate Dick McAuliffe, who played shortstop and hit leadoff. Two other Tigers, outfielder Al Kaline and catcher Bill Freehan, were selected as reserves. Horton was slotted in the five-hole behind right fielder Rocky Colavito of the Cleveland Indians, a former Tiger. The two outfielders were tied for the league lead in home runs with 20 apiece.
Once the Detroiter’s first All-Star Game began, it didn’t take long at all for the ball to find him. Two future Hall of Famers, Willie Mays of the San Francisco Giants and Hank Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves, hit fly balls to left in the opening frame. Mays’ cleared the fence for a leadoff home run. Aaron’s was gloved by Horton. Hank also flew out to the Tigers’ All-Star leading off the ninth inning. Horton and Minnesota Twins first baseman Harmon Killebrew, a future Hall of Famer playing in his home ballpark, were the only two American Leaguers to go the distance in the game.
At the plate, Horton faced three different future Hall of Fame pitchers. He grounded to short against Giants righty Juan Marichal in the bottom of the second. Horton led off the sixth by drawing a four-pitch walk from Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Sandy Koufax, that season’s NL Cy Young Award winner. With two outs in the sixth, Freehan, who had taken over behind the plate in the top half of the inning, also walked. Both Tigers wound up stranded. Finally, St. Louis Cardinals righty Bob Gibson struck Horton out leading off the eighth.
(It can be noted that, in the fourth, Horton faced righty Jim Maloney, a mainstay of the Cincinnati Reds’ starting rotation in the 1960s. With Horton at the plate, Maloney threw a wild pitch that advanced Colavito and Killebrew to second and third, respectively. The at-bat ended with Horton grounding out to Chicago Cubs first baseman Ernie Banks, another future Hall of Famer.)
The National League beat the American League, 6-5. It was the Senior Circuit’s third straight win in All-Star competition.
Of the three future Cooperstown enshrinees that Horton faced, he said that Marichal was the toughest. The legendary high kick in Marichal’s delivery had distracted many a batter before Horton, and it got to him too. The Detroit hitter quipped that he didn’t know if he was swinging at the San Francisco hurler’s arm or his leg.
In addition to competing against future Hall of Famers, Horton was able to rub elbows with a couple of them. Mays was somebody that he specifically wanted to meet. Horton made a promise to himself that he would do so. The promise was fulfilled when the two Willies shared a handshake for a United Press International photo. At the batting cage before the game, Banks came up to Horton, called him by name, introduced himself, shook the young star’s hand, and warmly welcomed him to the fraternity of All-Star players.
One man who was inspired by Horton’s presence in the American League’s All-Star lineup was Gabe Paul, the Cleveland Indians’ general manager. Horton fit into a future that Paul envisioned for baseball. Speaking about a big change he had in mind, Paul stated,
"“We definitely should play scheduled games with teams in the other league and count them in the standings. Interleague play, I mean. The American League is all for it…I know at least two NL owners who are listening and thinking about it now. That’s because their big stars like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, those fellows are all getting old. Our league has more of the young stars now. Kids like Willie Horton and (the Twins’) Tony Oliva and a lot of others…They (the NL) are now sizing up the American League crop and starting to realize that an interleague schedule could help them at the gate. I think it will come in a few years.”"
Willie Horton Post-ASG
One week after his first All-Star Game appearance, Horton hit his 21st home run of the 1965 season. The two-run shot against the Senators at Tiger Stadium on July 20 provided all the scoring in Detroit’s 2-0 win. The next day, the Indians arrived at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. Horton drove in five runs on a bases-loaded walk, a three-run homer, and a single. The Tigers downed their visitors from Cleveland, 10-5.
The highlights weren’t as explosive or as plentiful for Horton the rest of the way, but he had established himself as a bona fide big leaguer in his first full season with the Detroit Tigers. Horton’s best work of the season was accomplished while he grieved the January death of his parents. Throughout the process, a pair of teammates were there to guide him through. Horton reflected on all of that during an interview in June. He commented,
"“Down in spring training this year, I remember there were times I cried because I missed them so much. But I got straightened out and I owe a lot of thanks to Don Demeter and Dave Wickersham.”"
Batting fifth most of the season, Willie Horton hit .273/ .340/.490 with a 133 OPS+ in 1965. His 252 total bases and 104 RBI led the Tigers. The RBI total was second best in the American League (behind Rocky Colavito) and remained a career high until Horton drove in 106 for the 1979 Seattle Mariners. With 29 home runs, he fell one short of team leader Norm Cash and three shy of league leader Tony Conigliaro of the Boston Red Sox.