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Exercising Compassion – Willie Horton

(Willie Horton Foundation)

The home of the Detroit Tigers, Comerica Park, boasts of 6 commemorative sculptures of their most outstanding ballplayers of all time (listed in alphabetical order): Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Willie Horton (pictured above, at base of his impressive statue), Al Kaline, and Hal Newhouser.

“Willie Horton is synonymous with the Detroit Tigers.
His storied career on the field and his continued dedication to
the organization as Special Assistant to the President,
coupled with his lifelong efforts to give back to others -
especially veterans and military families
- make us all very proud.”
- Michael Ilitch, Detroit Tigers Owner

The Man Called “Willie-the-Wonder”

William Wattison Horton, the youngest of 21 children, came into the world on October 18, 1942 in Arno, Virginia.

In search of a better life, Clinton and Lillian Horton moved their family to Detroit, Michigan in 1950. However, that “better life” was not to be realized for quite some time. Faced with the reality of poverty, the Horton family struggled to make ends meet. Many days at home were cold, and with little food, but the Horton's had an abundance of love and support for each other. Their strong familial relationship and mutual caring brought them through those trying times.

Challenged by the streets of Detroit, Willie had his share of temptations. Warnings from local police officers urged him to change his direction before he got into serious trouble. Willie took up that challenge and redirected his energies on his love for athletics. Boxing and football attracted Willie, but his father and role model, Clinton, disapproved of boxing. His dad encouraged his young son to develop his obvious athletic abilities with a ball and bat. Raised in a Detroit housing project, Willie steadily overcame adversity to become a Tiger hometown hero, major league baseball legend and goodwill ambassador of hope. Horton expresses special gratitude for his personal heroes Ron Thompson, Sam Bishop and Judge Damon Keith for their support. He credits them with the positive difference they made in his life.

Lou D’Annunzio of the Detroit Tigers got his first glimpse of Willie when he was only 13 years old. D’Annunzio immediately recognized in him the exceptional abilities that held out the strong probability of a career in professional baseball. By the time Willie was 16 at Northwestern High School in Detroit, he was one of the most powerful hitters for his age. In fact, he hit a home run into the upper deck of Detroit’s Tiger Stadium to capture the Northwestern High School championship. Upon reaching 17, several Major League clubs were bidding against each other for Horton and, on August 6, 1961, Willie’s dream came true. In the office of Rick Farrell, Willie Horton became a member of the Detroit Tigers Baseball Club.

Willie’s first two years were spent in the Minor Leagues, but his self-evident baseball prowess and love for the game would eventually prepare the way to becoming a true “baseball legend.” To Willie’s many fans, there was only one place for him to be . . . in the left field of Tiger Stadium. There his devoted followers called him “Wonderful”.

During Willie’s memorable 2,028 game career, he distinguished with: 7 All Star Game selections, became only the second player in Tiger history (after Rocky Colavito) to post back-to-back 100 RBI seasons in his first two years, produced nearly 2,000 hits, 325 homeruns, and a .487 slugging percentage. He could do more than hit with power – he was a skilled batsman who could connect to all fields – his 3 seasons over .300 attest to that. He achieved a career batting average of .273 with 1,163 RBIs.

When Horton left the Tigers in 1977, he ranked 4th in Tiger homeruns with 262. In 1975 and 1979, Willie was both the American League “Designated Hitter,” and “Come-Back Player of the Year” award winner. He was also esteemed as the Tigers’ “Triple Crown” winner in 1975, American League “Player of the Week” for the weeks of April 25 and August 3, 1975, and accomplished 20 or more homeruns for 7 consecutive seasons.

Willie Horton was immortalized on July 15, 2000, when the Detroit Tigers Organization inducted him as a distinguished member of the Tigers Hall of Fame. On that occasion, the baseball club officially retired his familiar # 23. To further mark the event, the addition of a larger-than-life statue of “Willie the Wonder” has taken its rightful place among 5 other fellow Tiger legends: Cobb, Charlie Gehringer, Greenberg, Kaline, and Newhouser at Comerica Park.

1968 World Series - Willie Horton’s Amazing Arm “Guns-Down” Speedy Lou Brock at Home Plate (“The Horton to Freehan Classic)

Arguably the most stunning play of Willie Horton’s memorable career occurred on Monday, October 7, 1968, during game 5 of the 1968 “Fall Classic” at Tiger Stadium. This best-of-seven series presented Detroit with the daunting task of overcoming a 3 games to 1 deficit with the then-defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. At the top of the 5th inning, the Tigers were trailing by a score of 3 to 2. After Cardinals’ base-stealing ace, Lou Brock, reached second base, he threatened to steal third base. Then when teammate, Julian Javier, batted a screaming base hit to Willie Horton in left field, Brock swiftly rounded third base and sped for home. Undeterred, Horton made an incredible throw from his outfield position to Detroit catcher, Bill Freehan, who made a photo-finish put-out on Brock at home plate. This miraculous play, witnessed by 53,634 hometown fans in attendance, proved the definitive turning point of the World Series. Following the Cardinals’ stunning 5 to 3 loss to the “Bengals”, the Detroit Tigers swept the next two games to become the 1968 World Series Champions.

1968 World Series: Reasons a Kid in Detroit Had to Smile

“I was really proud when [the Tigers] won the pennant in ’68,
and gave folks in that riot-torn town
something to smile about again.
Heroes don’t quit when things get hard.
And [during Game 5 of the World Series]
the enigmatic winds of fortune suddenly changed in our favor.
…And all these years later,
especially when things aren’t going as well as I’d like,
I sometimes think about those Tiger Champions
Who wouldn’t quit, and gave a kid who cared about ‘em
A reason to smile.”

-Richard Hurd (from “A Reason to Smile”)

1968 “Go Get 'em Tigers” World Series Theme Song

“[Willie]… you are truly a hometown hero who has used
his considerable platform to benefit others –
the heroes of our armed forces, the people of Detroit,
our future generations, and those who could use a helping hand.”
-Bud Selig, Commissioner, Major League Baseball
(Comment made to Willie Horton as he received the Abner Doubleday Patriot Player Award)

“The People’s Champion”: An Enduring Legacy of Caring and Compassion

When civil unrest erupted during Detroit’s 1967 riots, Willie abruptly left the safety of Tiger Stadium (while still in uniform) in a courageous attempt to appeal for calm amid the irate crowds, violence. Tragically, his appeals fell upon deaf ears, and the city burned for nearly a week. Many years later, he reflected: “This is my city and I had to do something to try and save it. I was never scared. The Lord put me in a position to help. If the Lord puts you in a position, there’s no reason to fear anything.”

His numerous awards and honors have not been limited to his days in Major League Baseball, as is evidenced by many awards and expressions of appreciation bestowed by a wide variety of charitable organizations, including: tireless support of the U.S. Armed Forces, Honorary Membership with the U.S. Army Infantry Training Brigade, Fort Benning, GA; Tri-Cities, TN/VA creation of the 1st Willie Horton’s Annual “Baseball of Kids” Benefit Weekend; City of Detroit ‘s “Senior Service Award “for his contributions toward making the city a better place; “Brown Bomber Jacket Award” (in honor of Joe Louis for Horton’s exemplary community involvement with youth; Ohio All Sports Hall of Fame; Abner Doubleday Award recipient as well as commemorative granite paver placed beneath the State of Michigan Flag in Heritage Walk Founders Circle (The National Infantry Foundation); Willie Horton Library, PACE Academy in Southfield, MI; “Hank Aaron Champion for Justice Award”, Atlanta Braves and the National Center for Civil & Human Rights.

“For years, and without any fanfare, on his way to Tiger Stadium
he would often stop at hospitals to visit sick children
or stop by local playgrounds to visit with kids.
[Willie] also used to pay for tickets for 200 to 300 abused kids,
[so they could] attend a Saturday ballgame.”

Bill Dow (Respected Detroit sports history writer / Freelance Contributor for the Detroit Free Press / Published work for Baseball Digest)

Drawing upon the same indomitable spirit that made him such a stand-out and fan favorite during his Major League Baseball career, since January of 2002 Willie has served as an exemplary ambassador of goodwill in his capacity as Special Assistant to the President & CEO of the Detroit Tigers.

In addition, Horton also oversees his own company, Willie Horton Incorporated Technologies, while implementing his personal outreach efforts by means of the Willie Horton Foundation.

Willie Horton never forgot his humble beginnings. He praises the Tiger organization for giving him the opportunity to do what he loved; play baseball. In his new position with the Detroit Baseball Club, he is also now part of the decision making team. Deep down in his heart, he still believes that he can help pull society together by making a difference in the lives of our nation’s children. The inscription at the base of his commemorative statue at Comerica Park well summarizes this fact.

His birthday, October 18th, is now officially recognized as “Willie Horton Day” by the State of Michigan. Willie is only the 4th person in Michigan history to be given a day; the 3rd person was Mrs. Rosa Parks.

“People ask me why I do all the things I do.
Helping people was just something my parents (Clinton and Lillian Horton)
always did, and I learned from them. You don’t think about why.
That’s just the way they brought me up.”
–Willie Horton

WILLIE HORTON

“Willie the Wonder”

A Hometown Hero
Whose Accomplishments
On and Off the Field
Are a Credit to the City of Detroit”

From the Inscription on the Base of Willie Horton’s Commemorative Statue, Comerica Park, Detroit, MI)


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