Horton stood for peace in tough times for Detroit

Former Tigers great was proactive when riots broke out in 1967

Horton stood for peace in tough times for Detroit

DETROIT -- Willie Horton has a day in his honor every Oct. 18, his birthday, having been honored by the state of Michigan. For the city of Detroit, however, his more significant day arguably happened 50 years ago this summer, after he left the field at Tiger Stadium.

"Maybe, that was the night I embraced my community for the first time as an adult," Horton said 37 years later in his biography written by Kevin Allen.

While many athletes and civic leaders have done their part over the years to help Detroit, Horton was there during the city's toughest stretch. As Detroit began to burn, and riots turned to arson and looting, Horton didn't run away. He ran toward the worst of it, taking to the streets and pleading with neighbors and fellow residents to stop the violence.

Horton couldn't stop it, and the four days of tragedy that followed left an indelible mark on the city's history. Yet the same instinct that told him to run to the violence started him on a lifelong commitment to his home city, becoming an advocate as well as a resident.

Horton sits down with Gammons

It wasn't what Horton envisioned when he took his usual spot in left field at Tiger Stadium on July 23, 1967. Hours earlier, a raid on an after-hours social club -- known in those days as a "blind pig" -- interrupted a gathering for two local servicemen returning from the Vietnam War, setting off tensions.

"Any time a city breaks out in something like that, it's how you perceive it," Horton said a few years ago. "A lot of people on the outside don't know what a city is going through. It's the people internal who know what's really going on.

"It started years ago. It just triggered off that night at the blind pig. Many years ago, it wasn't anything hidden. [Authorities] just misused black people and it just pushed itself on people."

Horton didn't start the first game of the Sunday afternoon doubleheader, striking out as a pinch-hitter for Mickey Lolich, but he had two hits in the finale, including a solo homer to left field. By then, the smoke from burning buildings could be seen beyond the center-field bleachers.

Horton knew the neighborhood where the riots began. He grew up near 12th Street after his family moved from Virginia when he was young. His rise from sweet-swinging kid to high school standout to Tigers signee came with help from the community, from coaches to leaders.

Horton didn't even bother to get out of his uniform when the game ended. He just took off for his old neighborhood, ignoring caution from the team to stay away from hot spots across the city.

"To this day, the only thing I remember is people telling us to go straight home," Horton said. "And then the next thing I know, I still have my uniform and I was out in the middle of the riots."

Horton climbed onto the roof of his car and tried to plead to anyone who would listen. He couldn't believe what he saw.

"I had walked these streets a thousand times without a fear in the world," Horton said in his book. "What I witnessed on those streets this night scared me."

Horton throws out Brock

People recognized Horton, he said, and some thanked him. By then, though, the anger had already overheated the situation. Congressman John Conyers also tried to calm the situation, and rioters threw objects at him.

Soon enough, those same streets welcomed the rumble of Army tanks, having been sent by President Lyndon Johnson to intervene along with the National Guard. By the time the fires were extinguished and calm crept over the city days later, 43 people had been killed, more than 1,000 injured and thousands arrested. The damage counted into the millions of dollars.

The Tigers didn't play another home game for two weeks. They made a late-season rally to take the American League race to the final day of the regular season. Splitting back-to-back doubleheaders against the Angels wasn't enough to get them past the Red Sox, but the run in the face of adversity set them up for a dominant 1968 campaign that many in Detroit credited with helping keep the city off the precipice of another violent summer.

Horton's 36 home runs were the second most in the AL, and 11 more than anyone else on the Tigers. His 85 RBIs and .285 average both ranked fourth in the AL. Only Frank Howard had more total bases. He was an AL All-Star starter in left field, and eventually a World Series hero, throwing out St. Louis' Lou Brock at home plate to help Detroit take a must-win Game 5, before it went on to win in seven games.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.