Willie Horton and the 1968 All-Star Game
Willie Horton and the Detroit Tigers had a disappointing year in 1967. Injuries cost Horton 40 games and his production was curbed in September, when his team needed him the most. The Tigers lost out on the American League pennant on the final day of the regular season. The California Angels swept a doubleheader from the Tigers to eliminate Detroit in what was a very tight, four-team race.
The City of Detroit had an even worse year in ’67. The five-day riot that raged through the inner city in July will never be forgotten, especially by Horton. While all hell broke loose on the streets, he went straight from Tiger Stadium to ground zero. The team had just completed a doubleheader, and Horton was still dressed in his full uniform. The beleaguered big leaguer stood on the hood of his car, hoping to talk sense into rioters. Willie was raised in Detroit and felt like he needed to do something to help his beloved city. Alas, his efforts were fruitless.
The city figuratively limped into 1968, and Horton literally did. In the offseason, he underwent surgery on his left Achilles tendon. He wasn’t able to start running full speed in spring training until mid-March. Pain still lingered and flared up from time to time during the season, but Horton persevered. He and his teammates had one goal in mind, and there was work to do. In 2017, Horton recalled,
"“Ninety percent of us were at camp three weeks early that year. We were that ready to go. We sat there after that last game (in ’67). We were the best team in baseball that year. We made up our minds we were gonna beat people in ’68. And we did.”"
Willie Horton Pre-ASG
The Detroit Tigers got hot early in 1968. After an Opening Day loss, the Tigers reeled off nine straight victories. Willie Horton swung a big bat during that stretch (April 11-21). The 25-year-old contributed 10 hits (including five doubles and two home runs), drew four walks, drove in seven runs, and scored five.
Horton’s most important blast during the winning streak happened at Tiger Stadium against the Cleveland Indians on April 17. The two teams took a 2-2 tie into the 10th inning. Cleveland scored one in the top half to claim the lead. In the bottom half, the Tigers were down to their final out when Al Kaline singled. That brought Horton up. He’d gone hitless in four at-bats, but that was quickly forgotten after “Willie the Wonder” knocked an Eddie Fisher two-strike knuckleball into the lower deck in left field. It was the second walk-off homer of his career. The Tigers won, 4-3. Horton, a surprised hero, revealed afterward,
"“I was just trying to go to right field. (Hitting coach) Wally (Moses) always teaches us to go to right field on the knuckleball. Don’t try to pull it. I didn’t realize it was a home run until I rounded first and looked at the third base coach.”"
Willie was the driving force in the Tigers’ 4-0 blanking of the Baltimore Orioles at home on May 14. In the second inning, he delivered what United Press International’s Rich Shook described as “a screamer into the upper deck in left that would have gone 450 feet if the bleachers weren’t in the way”. It was a solo homer. In the sixth, Kaline was aboard when Horton followed up with what Shook called “one of the highest pop-fly home runs ever seen”. The scribe reported that Horton “hit if off the end of his bat” and that the ball finally came down “just beyond the right field fence”.
The Tigers’ five-hole hitter had already been performing well at the plate, but he was about to amp it up. Horton reeled off a 14-game hitting streak from May 18 to June 1. He went 18-for-47 (.383/.453/.894) with three doubles, seven home runs, 11 RBI, and 11 runs. There were some fun highlights in the mix for Detroit Tigers fans to enjoy.
The Minnesota Twins held a 3-2 lead over the visiting Tigers in top of the ninth on May 20. That evaporated when “Willie the Wonder” led off the inning with a game-tying, 430-foot home run to right-center. Detroit went on to snag a 4-3 win in 10 innings.
On May 24, the Tigers and A’s played a seven-inning, 7-7 tie that was called off after a lengthy rain delay in Oakland. The result didn’t count in the standings. However, everything in the box score did count in the players’ stats, including the second-inning round-tripper that Horton hit off future Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter.
Horton smacked a two-run homer against the California Angels in Anaheim on May 28. He did the same thing again the next evening. The first home run capped a four-run, first-inning rally in Detroit’s 4-1 victory. The other one, a 400-foot rocket over the wall in center field, gave the Tigers a pair of nice, if unnecessary, add-on runs in the seventh inning. With ace right-hander Denny McLain leading the way, the team cruised to a 3-0 shutout win.
Back at Tiger Stadium on May 31, New York Yankees righty Mel Stottlemyre and Tigers lefty Mickey Lolich had a pitchers’ duel going on. (There were a lot of those happening throughout MLB in 1968, which famously became known as the “Year of the Pitcher”.) Stottlemyre blinked first, and Horton tagged him for a leadoff home run in the bottom of the seventh. The Tigers’ strongman mentioned that he was “just trying to get on base”. The final score was 1-0 in favor of Detroit.
The work that Horton had been doing with Tigers hitting coach Wally Moses was paying off. Moses noted that Horton “stopped going for bad pitches and swinging the bat too hard”. The Tigers’ strongman concurred. Horton said,
"“I have a better idea of the strike zone now, and I go out there and look for the little, small mistakes the other pitchers make. You see the same guys over and over and you’re bound to learn.”"
Of course, even in a successful season, a big-league hitter can still hit some bumps in the road. Just like in 1965, Horton went through a June swoon in ’68. His bat started heating up again just before the All-Star break, though. Willie launched his 20th home run of the season in a 13-10 win over the Angels at home on the Fourth of July. That was one of the rare slugfests the Tigers found themselves in that year.
The Oakland A’s were in town on July 7 for a Sunday doubleheader to bring the season’s first half to a close. In the opener, the Tigers had taken a 4-0 lead after three innings. By the end of the sixth, the A’s had tied the game. Things remained knotted up heading into the bottom of the ninth. With one out and Horton on his way to the plate, Oakland made a pitching change. Rookie righty Ed Sprague drew the unenviable task of facing “Wille the Wonder”. Horton’s walk-off home run to left field gave Detroit a 5-4 triumph. In the nightcap, he doubled in a run and tripled in the Tigers’ 7-6 win.
The 1968 All-Star Game
Willie Horton’s second trip to an All-Star Game was different from his first for two big reasons. Never before had an All-Star Game been played on artificial turf or indoors. That all changed when the annual contest between the American League and National League took place at the Houston Astrodome on July 9. The host Astros joined the NL as an expansion team in 1962, and so Horton had never played there. All of the AL’s ballparks had grass fields in 1968.
During a practice session the day before the game, Horton let some fly balls drop in front of him to gauge how they might bounce off the AstroTurf. Getting acclimated as best as he could, the outfielder described the setting as “strange”, adding that “the flies are hard to see up high, and the ground is real hard”. Horton was impressed by the Astrodome’s long and spacious dugouts, which were a far cry from the cramped dugouts that Tiger Stadium was known for.
Players, managers, and coaches in the Junior Circuit voted Horton and Tigers catcher Bill Freehan into the league’s starting lineup. Detroit pitcher Denny McLain and third baseman Don Wert were selected as reserves. Once again, Horton batted fifth. Washington Senators star Frank Howard hit cleanup and played right field. The two slugging outfielders would later be teammates in Detroit (1972-73).
In the bottom of the first, Mays singled into left field. Luis Tiant of the Cleveland Indians, the AL’s starting pitcher, hit Mays with a pickoff throw. Mays scooted to second on the error, then advanced to third when Tiant uncorked a wild pitch. The “Say Hey Kid” scored to put the NL up,1-0, when his San Francisco Giants teammate Willie McCovey grounded into a double play.
Horton led off the top of the second facing Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Don Drysdale, a future Hall of Famer. He flew out to Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves in right field. The future home run king had flown out to Horton twice in the 1965 All-Star Game, and so the All-Star Tiger was returning the favor, in a way.
Willie also led off the top of the fifth. This time around, it was a return engagement against the Giants’ Juan Marichal. Horton bounced a ball off the AstroTurf and up the middle. Second baseman Tommy Helms of the U.S. Marine Corps charged in and gloved it. Even though his momentum was carrying him toward third base, Helms was able to make a throw to nab Horton and rob the Detroiter of a hit.
(Helms, also a member of the Cincinnati Reds’ roster, was scheduled to begin active military duty upon completion of the season’s first half. The Marines granted him a leave of absence in order to play in the All-Star Game as a replacement for Pete Rose, Helms’ injured Cincy teammate.)
In the bottom of the fifth, AL manager Dick Williams changed up his defensive alignment, and both Horton and Freehan exited the game. Taking over in left field for Horton was Carl Yastrzemski of Williams’ Boston Red Sox. Yaz, who was beaten out by Horton in the ’65 All-Star balloting, started this game in center field.
By that point, though, all of the scoring was already done. The NL made their run in the first inning stand up as a winner. It was the National League’s sixth straight win over the American League. The history of All-Star competition between the two leagues dates back to 1933. So far, the 1968 Summer Classic is the only one to end in a 1-0 score.
Horton didn’t like his first experience with AstroTurf. Though he was awed by it, he said “it is just odd”. He agreed with Freehan’s assessment that playing in the domed stadium messes with a hitter’s depth perception. Horton said that he experienced that feeling while swinging at a Marichal slider.
Willie Horton Post-ASG
With the All-Star Game behind him, Willie Horton could once again focus his energy and talent on trying to help the Detroit Tigers win the American League pennant. The first-place Tigers went into the All-Star break with a 9 1/2 game lead in the AL.
Horton reached a major milestone at Yankee Stadium in New York on August 24. Facing Mel Stottlemyre, he knocked his 30th home run of the season. It came in the top of the seventh. Horton acknowledged that he hit a slider, which was the pitch Stottlemyre used to induce two groundouts off his bat earlier in the game. This time around, Horton swatted it 425 feet to the Tigers’ bullpen beyond the left-field wall. The adjustment that Horton made turned out to be a valiant effort in a losing cause. Detroit fell, 2-1.
On September 14 at Tiger Stadium against the A’s, Horton helped a teammate reach a special milestone of his own. Denny McLain was going after his 30th win of the season. Horton singled and scored on Norm Cash’s home run in the fourth inning. That put Detroit up, 3-2. The visitors from the West Coast later claimed a 4-3 lead and took it into the bottom of the ninth. With one out, the Tigers manufactured the game-tying run.
That set the stage for “Willie the Wonder”. He had runners on the corners, and there was still only one out. Horton came through in a big way for McLain when he singled Mickey Stanley in with the game-winning run. Horton admitted that he didn’t have a plan at the plate during that crucial at-bat. All he wanted to do was “hit the ball and run like hell.”
In the 1968 World Series, Horton hit .304/.448/.565 (7-for-23 with five walks) against the St. Louis Cardinals. He doubled, tripled, and homered while hitting safely in each of the Tigers’ four wins. The Cardinals won all three games in which Horton went hitless. In the decisive Game 7, Horton singled and scored in the three-run, seventh-inning rally that broke a scoreless tie and propelled the Tigers to their 4-1, World Championship clinching win.
Horton’s most memorable highlight from the ’68 Series is the throw that he made from left field to cut down St. Louis speedster Lou Brock at the plate in top of the fifth of Game 5 in Detroit. What Willie remembers the most about the overall post-season experience is the effect that the Tigers’ winning ways had on a city that had been torn apart a year earlier. Horton has often shared his belief that “the good Lord put us here to win, to heal the city of Detroit”.
In 1968, Willie Horton hit .285, two points behind team leader Al Kaline. “Willie the Wonder” led the Tigers in home runs (36), slugging percentage (.543), and OPS+ (165). All three of those figures are career highs. He also led the team with 278 total bases, which remained a career high until he topped it with 296 in 1979. Other than batting average and slugging percentage, each of those numbers cited from the ’68 season ranked Horton second in the American League.
Willie Horton finally got his elusive first hit as an All-Star in 1970’s game at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. He entered the game in the bottom of the sixth as a defensive replacement in left field. With one out and one on in the eighth, Horton singled of a nemesis from the 1968 World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Bob Gibson. Willie also scored in the inning to give the American League a 4-1 lead. The National League tied the game in the ninth. Horton singled in the 10th, but he was wiped out on a double play. He drew an intentional walk in the 12th inning but advanced no further. The NL won, 5-4 in 12 innings.
In his final All-Star appearance, in 1973 at Royals Stadium in Kansas City, Horton struck out in a pinch-hitting role to end the game.
When the Mid-Summer Classic returned to Detroit for the first time since 1971, Horton was among the dignitaries taking part in All-Star festivities at Comerica Park. He and fellow Detroit Tigers legend Al Kaline each threw out ceremonial first pitches.