Horton's heroics went far beyond the diamond

Horton's heroics went far beyond the diamond

Horton's heroics went far beyond the diamond
DETROIT -- Willie Horton's efforts in a Tigers uniform earned him his legacy as a hometown hero. But not all of that took place on a baseball diamond. Some of it showed not his brute strength but his strength of character.

Many athletes over the years have talked about Detroit being a city on the rebound and have admirably done their part to help. Horton was one of the few who was on the ground during the city's most trying time. He still can't quite explain why he took to the streets on July 23, 1967, with fires and looting taking hold of the town. He couldn't expect to stop it, but he had to try.

That night became a footnote to what ended up as one of America's worst weeks of unrest, but to Horton it was the start of a lifelong commitment to being a city advocate as well as a resident.

"Maybe," Horton wrote with Kevin Allen years later in his biography, "The People's Champion," "that was the night I embraced my community for the first time as an adult."

Though many cities remember the summer of 1968 as one of discontent, Detroit had its toughest days a year earlier. The roots of it started well before that, from a flight by residents toward the suburbs to an economic divide to housing conditions, despite Detroit's regard as a progressive city in social and racial issues.

The underlying causes, along with police harassment, came to a head early that July morning when 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.

"Any time a city breaks out in something like that, it's how you perceive it," Horton told MLB.com in an interview 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."

After those inside were arrested, looting and protests began. By the afternoon, as rioting and looting grew and spread to other parts of the city, smoke could be seen in the air along the city skyline as Tiger Stadium readied for a Sunday afternoon doubleheader with the visiting Yankees.

A news blackout was meant to prevent others from being inspired to join in the mayhem, but Tigers players and officials learned about what was going on soon enough as the smoke became obvious in the sky beyond the outfield bleachers.

Horton didn't start the first game but went 2-for-3 in the second, including his 13th home run of the year. He was on a hitting tear that weekend, but that was the least of his concerns. He grew up in the neighborhood around 12th Street, having moved there from Virginia with his family as a young child. Members of the community helped him rise from a talented kid to a high school star to a Tigers signee.

By game's end the word had spread to avoid certain parts of the city, especially around 12th Street. Horton not only did the opposite, he didn't bother to take off his jersey before leaving.

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

His best explanation, as stated in his biography, was simply that this was his community. It might not have been the smartest thing to do for a professional athlete, but for him, running out that night into a city in flames and trying to talk people out of it was the right thing.

Horton said that he climbed on the roof of his car and tried to get anyone's attention. What he saw were cars turned over in the streets, houses ablaze on either side and looters running about.

"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."

How dangerous was it? Congressman John Conyers, whose district included that neighborhood, also had tried to talk residents into calming down. He compared it to a war zone, just as Horton did.

"I didn't get hurt. I felt lucky," Conyers told the BBC a few years ago for a radio program recalling the riots.

Horton didn't care whether he got hurt. This wasn't just where he played, it was home. He wasn't hurt, but he also wasn't heard.

"People recognized me that night," Horton wrote, "and later some would thank me for at least making an effort."

Soon enough that week, the rumble of tanks was heard on those same streets, after President Lyndon Johnson had called in the U.S. Army and National Guard to quell the violence. 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 ran into the millions of dollars.

Moreover, the emotions were still raw. One of the few things that seemed to unite the city was baseball, and a Tigers season in 1967 that ended just short of an American League pennant. Horton hit just 19 home runs that year after homering 56 times over the previous two seasons combined.

The wounds to the city's psyche took years to heal. Horton and the Tigers tried their best to play a small part in it. The 1968 club captured the city's attention at a time when it desperately needed something to celebrate, and Horton was at the heart of it.

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

He finished fourth in MVP voting behind teammate Denny McLain. Yet in what became known as the Year of the Pitcher, his season arguably stands as one of the more productive single seasons by a Tiger in the last 44 years. It couldn't have come at a better time for his hometown.

Horton has been trying to help Detroit ever since. The unrest of the late 1960s ended up being a turning point for the city in some ways, Horton believed, an acknowledgement that change was needed. He was active in the community throughout his career, then reconnected when he became a Tigers special assistant about a decade ago.

Every Oct. 18, on his birthday, Michigan celebrates Willie Horton Day. He's just the fourth person in state history to be given that kind of honor, among them Rosa Parks. And as great as his playing career was, he couldn't have earned it just on the field.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.