Willie Horton is a Detroit baseball legend. A graduate of the city’s Northwestern High School, Horton signed with the Tigers in 1961 and went on to play 14 of his 18 big league seasons in Detroit, slugging 325 home runs. A star in the 1968 World Series, Horton famously walked, in full uniform, through the 1967 Detroit race riots in an attempt to restore peace to his besieged hometown. Currently a special assistant to the team’s President and General Manager, Dave Dombrowski, Horton has had his number 23 retired by the Tigers and has been honored with a statue in Comerica Park. David had a chance to sit down and talk with Willie this summer.
David Laurila: You’ve spent a long time in the game. Can you talk a little about the relationships players have with each other, both on and off the field?
Willie Horton: You become friends with people. It’s like me and Luis Tiant; we were close. On the field, Luis would get me, and I’d get him. One time he struck me out three times, and then he got me on a fly ball the fourth time. Now, we were already planning to have dinner at my home. My boys were with me, and they were mad as hell when I went to pick Luis up. They said, “What you doing? I said, “What I doing? I’m going to pick him up. He ain’t my enemy, he’s my friend.” They said, “He struck you out three times.” I told them, “Well, your mom is going to do worse than that if we don’t come home for dinner!” We’re in a competitive sport, and we’re proud of what we’re doing, but that didn’t have nothing to do with our personal relationship. What you do on the field doesn’t have anything to do with what happens off the field. That’s what I told them. It’s like with Sam McDowell–me and him had many battles. But we weren’t enemies. I wish the game would get back to that. Sometimes kids these days keep a grudge too far and long. I don’t know how you can have a grudge against anyone in sports. I mean, this is a beautiful game. You can be upset at a certain time, but then it should go away. That’s how I look at it. We should all be proud to be gifted to do something in life to bring so many smiles to people. What players should have is a bond. A bond is something I treasure in my life.
DL: Can you say a little more about that?
WH: With all this talk about steroids that’s been going on–what happened is that they let it get outside of the game. It had to get into political hands. There have been things that have happened in the game through the years, but we used to keep it internal and police each other. We took care of our own problems, I guarantee you. I don’t know if a lot of this stuff is true or not, but believe me, if it was true and we were playing, we’d have taken care of it internally, for the pride of the game. What it is now is that the players don’t have that bond like they should–the support. When I played, if players on other teams had a problem, then we felt like we had a problem. It wasn’t just our own team, it was togetherness. I just don’t see that now. I think that’s one of the wrong things happening in the game today, that players don’t have the willingness to police the game and help bring kids along. Al [Kaline] and Gates [Brown], and the older guys helped bring me along, and I helped bring Steve Kemp and Ron LeFlore, and those guys along. I explained things to them, like the pride of that English D.
DL: LeFlore had been in prison. How was he received when he first joined the team?
WH: Oh, we didn’t think nothing about it. He was just a Tiger. Once he put that Tiger “D” on he had to learn what it stands for. There’s a lot of principle and pride there. The prison thing–I think he talked about it more than anything. He probably talked about it too much, and I think it hurt him in the end. But we didn’t bring it up. We just looked at him as a kid with a lot of ability to play the game, and you accept someone until they show other things. If he’d have shown anything, we’d have handled it. What’s going on now is that too many things are wide open.
DL: What are some of the other ways the game has changed?
WH: Last night, that umpire threw the coach out; he threw out [Lloyd] McClendon. Today, umpires are above the law. You can’t say nothing to the umpire; you can’t ask no questions. Something’s got to give. You’ve got this discipline board, or whatever you call it, and they need to start looking at this. They’re too harsh, and forgetting that they played this game. Some of the guys passing out these fines did worse than what these kids are doing. There were mean people when they played the game, and now they’re passing out fines! But last night–that’s crazy. Then I seen on TV, in Philadelphia this catcher turned around and asked the umpire about a pitch and he put him out of the game. Charlie [Manuel] ran out there, and he jerked Charlie out of the game! I was like, “Wait a minute!” Guys like Billy Martin, they couldn’t manage today. It was entertainment. Baseball is entertainment. You see a guy like Piniella–that’s entertainment. People love that. They know how far to go and when to back off. But the umpires don’t. I guess they want it to be like we’re robots, where they punch a button and we play baseball. They’re taking something from the game. We’ve lost too much over the years, from the mound going low to not being able to pitch inside. You know, I wouldn’t want to be a pitcher today. I was a hitter, but hell–if I didn’t get knocked down I’d think they didn’t respect me. That was part of the game. Now the pitcher comes six inches inside and they’re out of the game. I take my hat off to all of these pitchers right now.
DL: Who was the most intimidating pitcher you ever faced?
WH: Stan Williams. He was mean. He was a good man–we was friends–but I’m telling you, he drilled me many times. If I hit the ball hard, I hoped that it was between the lines, because I knew that the next time he’d let me have it. That was the just way the game was played. You had guys out there who came at you hard.
DL: Was Sam McDowell intimidating?
WH: No, but he was a challenge. Guys who threw hard were a challenge to me, but I liked that challenge. I remember that I hit a home run against him when I came up, and we talked that evening. I talked to old Sam–I called him “holster”–and he said we’re going to have many battles. He got me many times, and I got him many times, but it wasn’t like we hated each other. Going out there, facing Palmer, Luis Tiant–those guys were all good.
DL: How hard did Tiant throw early in his career?
WH: Upper 90s, close to 100. And he wasn’t the only one in Cleveland who threw 95-plus. Do you remember Steve Hargan? He really got that [crap] up there. And McDowell. But Luis, before he hurt his arm–I remember Norm Cash used to say, when we went on a road trip to Cleveland, and Chicago, and Boston, “Boys, I hope you all filled up with that high-test gas, because low lead ain’t going to work on this trip!” He said, “If you go up there swinging low lead, you better hope for some walks or you’ll come back hitting 0-for-100!” That’s the type of trip you had back then, because every team had guys who could throw hard. Probably the worst team in the game at the time was the Washington Senators, and they had three quality pitchers. They had [Camilo] Pascual, Dick Bosman, Joe Coleman–we used to call Coleman “Junior.” That was the best trade we ever made, when we got old Junior. But I could hit a fastball. It was some of the guys who didn’t throw hard who were the real challenge for me.
DL: Who gave you a lot of trouble?
WH: A guy who gave me trouble was Mike Cuellar, and he couldn’t break that glass. He threw everything up there. Sometimes it seemed like the ball stopped before it reached the plate! One time he struck me out three times, and I told Gates, “He ain’t going to strike me out no four times.” I remember that Nestor Chylak was umpiring behind the plate–it was either the seventh or eighth inning–and Cuellar threw me a pitch and I caught it! Wasn’t no way he was going to strike out four times. That day he could have rolled the ball to the plate and I wouldn’t have hit it. Now every time he sees me at an old timers’ game, he’s like, “Come over here, son!” But he was a guy who made me work. See, guys like that make you work; they make you get ready. So I knew that when I left that ballpark–had he struck me out four times, I would have been messed up the next day when I faced Palmer. And I hit a home run off of Palmer the next day, because I got this day out of the way. My dad used to tell me, “When you leave a ballpark, you should know something. Good or bad, you should learn something.” That day Mike Cuellar had me so confused that I didn’t know if he was throwing it or rolling it or what. In the dugout they said to me, “OK big man, we know you’re going to get him.” I said, “I’m going to get him all right!” So he threw the ball and I caught it! Nestor Chylak said, “What the hell did you just do?” Earl Weaver was managing the Orioles, and he ran out there, and I thought he was going to swallow his tobacco! Weaver played the game under protest–they won anyway–because Nestor didn’t know what to do and sent me to first base.
DL: Weaver was pretty fired up?
WH: He was crazy as hell. You know how Weaver was. I used to call him Mickey Rooney. He’d be in the dugout, smoking, and then he’d run out and raise hell. But I’ll never forget that, because I left the ballpark knowing that I did something. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been ready for Palmer, or McNally the day after. Those are the things that make baseball. That’s what I always tell guys: when you go out there and play, you should always have something, good or bad, that you can take from that park.
DL: There’s a statue of you here at Comerica Park. Why is it there, and what does it stand for?
WH: Part of it is what I did as a Detroit Tiger, and part of it is for what I’ve done for the city through the game of baseball. What I did took me beyond just being a player. I got involved in a lot of things, like outreach programs. I caught the tail end of Jackie Robinson in my first two or three years. I had to walk to the ballpark when I went to spring training in Lakeland. I walked eight miles because I didn’t know I could ride a taxi. I went through all of those things for two or three years, and when I came up to the big leagues I went through things. The pain took me beyond the field, to where I got involved in the community and the people outside. My life is about the fans and the people. I think when you look at the statue you look at a combination of a legend ballplayer, but one who went beyond the field. My legacy beyond the field is something that I promised my dad. When I was a kid, he said my life belongs to the people, and I’m glad I’ve lived that life.
DL: What did you promise him?
WH: Before I signed my first contract, he grabbed my wrist and said, “Don’t sign that contract unless you make a commitment that your life belongs to the fans, to the people, and to the responsibility of that job.” So I learned to live my career through the fans. That got me involved with things like the riots in 1967 and integration in Lakeland–the Polk Theater in Lakeland–in the late ’60s and 1970. I’m proud of that, because I’ve seen things grow from what I did. I took my stand. One time I walked off the field to get more blacks on the Tigers. I took my stand for Dr. King, and what he stood for, and I’m very proud of that.
DL: Are you concerned about the decreasing numbers of African-American players in baseball? Ditto the number of African-American fans going to games?
WH: I’ve been seeing a lot of [African American] fans coming [to Comerica Park] in the last couple of years, and part of that is due to getting more black ballplayers. But, black or white, you see–people would see me at the drugstore, or the grocery store, or the theatre, but the way the game is structured now guys all live on the outside of where they play at. I think there are still a lot of Willie Hortons around here, but we have to take it to them. Not only black kids; all kids. And so many kids are on computers these days that they don’t even come outside of the house. You’ve got to create more programs in the city. We’ve got some beautiful ball fields in the city. They even dedicated one in my honor about three years ago, the Willie Horton Baseball and Softball Fields for Boys and Girls, at Northwestern High School. But we’ve got to take it to them. When I came up as a kid, the Tigers always had baseball clinics in the city. Every week there was a baseball something. That’s what we’ve been discussing here, that we have to start doing some of those things. I know it’s something that Mr. Ilitch has been concerned with, and it’s something I’ve been looking into. The key is that you have to take it to the community. You see, in Detroit, just like in a lot of cities, you have so many single parents–single mothers. They don’t have $125, or whatever it costs for initiating fees, and stuff like that. So we have to create some kind of partnership. My goal is a partnership in the community, something like what I did when I was at P.A.L. [Police Athletic League]. I created a good program, East Side-West Side that included more than just baseball. And the parents were involved too. It was successful, and hopefully in the future we can create something like that again. Baseball is a great game, and we have to bring it to the people.