Horton with the Detroit Tigers in 2010
|Left fielder / Designated hitter|
October 18, 1942 |
|September 10, 1963, for the Detroit Tigers|
|Last MLB appearance|
|October 5, 1980, for the Seattle Mariners|
|Runs batted in||1,163|
|Career highlights and awards|
Willie Wattison Horton (born October 18, 1942) is a former left fielder and designated hitter in Major League Baseball who played for six American League teams, primarily the Detroit Tigers. He hit 20 or more home runs seven times, and his 325 career home runs ranked sixth among AL right-handed hitters when he retired. He enjoyed his best season in 1968 with the world champion Tigers, finishing second in the AL with 36 homers, a .543 slugging average and 278 total bases. In the later years of his career, he was twice named the AL's top designated hitter.
Horton is the youngest of twenty-one children of James Horton and his wife Lillian (Wattison) Horton. He was born in Arno, Virginia, a small community in the corporate limits of Appalachia. Willie Horton hit a home run at Tiger Stadium when he was 16 years old during an all-city high school game. After winning a city championship with Detroit Northwestern High School in 1959, he signed with the Tigers in 1961, playing for the Tigers' farm team, the Duluth Dukes, on the shores of Lake Superior, and made his debut with the Tigers on September 10, 1963. He had a pinch-hit home run off Robin Roberts in his second at bat.
He saw limited playing time in his first two years before a 1965 rookie campaign in which he was second in the AL with 104 runs batted in (RBIs) and third with 29 home runs. He was named to the All-Star team, and placed eighth in the MVP balloting. Becoming known for his tremendous strength, often hitting home runs with a one-handed swing, he again collected 100 RBIs in the 1966 season. During the 1967 Detroit 12th Street riot, he tried bravely to restore peace. He stood in his Tiger uniform on a car in the middle of the chaos, pleading for calm. However, despite his impassioned pleas, the city burned for five more days.
Horton posted double-digit home run totals in 12 regular seasons from 1965–76, and hit two home runs in a game on 30 occasions. He had a career-high 36 HRs in 1968, a pitcher's year in which Detroit won the World Series; he finished second in the AL to Frank Howard in homers, slugging and total bases. In a year in which the league batting average was .230 and Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 mark, Horton's .285 average was good for fourth in the AL, and he finished fourth in the MVP voting.
He also batted .304 in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. In order to combine Horton's offensive power with a good defense, manager Mayo Smith moved regular center fielder Mickey Stanley to shortstop as a replacement for Ray Oyler, who was benched because of his paltry .135 batting average. He kept Al Kaline, a multiple Gold Glove Award winner, in right field and put Jim Northrup in center field; the two had platooned in right field for much of the year. When the Tigers were safely[clarification needed] ahead, Oyler would replace Stanley at shortstop, batting in Horton's lineup spot; Stanley returned to center field, and Northrup would move over to replace Horton in left field. In Game 2, Horton had a solo home run to give the Tigers an early 1–0 lead, and they won 8–1. While not considered a great defensive outfielder, he made a pivotal play in the fifth inning of Game 5. With the Cardinals leading the Series 3–1 and the game 3–2, Lou Brock doubled with one out, and tried to score on Julián Javier's single; but he chose not to slide, and Horton's throw reached catcher Bill Freehan on the fly to beat Brock on a close play. Horton still lists the throw as the most memorable moment of his career. Detroit scored three runs in the seventh inning to win 5–3, and went on to win Games 6 and 7 as well; Horton had two runs and two RBI in the 13–1 blowout in Game 6, and two hits and a run in the final 4–1 victory.
Horton was a four-time member of the AL All-Star team (1965, 1968, 1970 and 1973). He hit three home runs against the Milwaukee Brewers on June 9, 1970. On April 14, 1974, he hit a popup which struck and killed a pigeon at Fenway Park. He was named the AL's Outstanding Designated Hitter in 1975 after hitting 25 home runs with 92 RBIs. On July 18, 1969, playing against the Cleveland Indians, he tied Boston Braves outfielder Earl Clark's record for most put outs in a nine inning game by a left fielder, nine, a record that has since been tied by Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox.
Early in the 1977 season he was traded to the Texas Rangers, and he again hit three home runs on May 15 against the Kansas City Royals at Royals Stadium. He spent 1978 playing for the Cleveland Indians, Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays, before finally settling with the Seattle Mariners from 1979–80.
In 1979 with the Mariners he was again named the AL's Outstanding Designated Hitter after hitting .279 with 29 HRs and a career-high 106 RBIs, and he received The Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year Award as well. On June 5, against the Tigers he hit what seemed to be his 300th career home run, but it struck a speaker hanging from the roof of the Kingdome and bounced onto the field for a single; he would collect number 300 the next day against Jack Morris. His Mariners record of 106 RBIs was broken by Alvin Davis in 1984, his marks of 180 hits and 296 total bases were broken by Phil Bradley in 1985, and his record of 29 home runs was broken by Gorman Thomas in 1985. His record of 646 at bats was broken by Alex Rodriguez in 1998; Horton remains one of only four Mariners to have played the full 162 games in a season. He played his final major league game on October 5, 1980.
|Willie Horton's number 23 was retired by the Detroit Tigers in 2000.|
In an 18-season career, Horton posted a .273 batting average and .457 slugging average with 1993 hits, 284 doubles, 1,163 RBIs, 873 runs and 20 stolen bases in 2028 games. His 325 home runs in the AL placed him behind only Harmon Killebrew (573), Jimmie Foxx (524), teammate Al Kaline (399), Rocky Colavito (371) and Joe DiMaggio (361) among right-handed hitters.
Horton played two more years in the Pacific Coast League and another season in Mexican baseball. In 1978, he became the manager of Venezuelan team Navegantes del Magallanes, whom he had guided to the Championship of 1979 Caribbean Series with a 5–1 record. Among his baseball superstitions was his use of the same batting helmet throughout his career; he repainted it when he changed teams. After retiring, he coached for the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox. On July 15, 2000 Horton became just the sixth former player given the ultimate honor by the Detroit Tigers; a statue of Horton was placed in Comerica Park and his number 23 was retired, joining a select group that includes former Tigers players Ty Cobb (who did not wear a number), Charlie Gehringer (number 2), Hank Greenberg (number 5), Al Kaline (number 6), and Hal Newhouser (number 16). While Horton's career body of work was solid and workmanlike, it was not quite of the same caliber as that of his Tiger brethren enshrined in Cooperstown; nevertheless, the statue is a testament to the crucial role he played in restoring peace and quelling eruptions during the 1967 riot, and to this day endures as an important symbol of peace and harmony in a hardscrabble city often beset by racial tension.
Since 2003, Horton has served as a Special Assistant to Tigers President/CEO/General Manager, originally Dave Dombrowski, and now Al Avila. Former Tigers teammate Al Kaline also holds this position, and the two threw out the first pitch of the 2006 World Series at Comerica Park.
For the ninth consecutive year, the state of Michigan recognized one man's ability to overcome obstacles and achieve a lifetime of success when "Willie Horton Day" was celebrated on Thursday, October 18, 2012. Horton is the fourth person in Michigan history to be given a day, with the third being Rosa Parks.
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