In the history of major league baseball no player has died on the field during a game, but 45 years ago, Tiger legend Al Kaline nearly earned that distinction but for the heroics of teammate Willie Horton.
On May 30, 1970, at County Stadium in Milwaukee, with the bases loaded, and the scored tied 2-2, the Brewer’s light hitting infielder Roberto Pena connected on a serving from Tiger hurler Les Cain and sent it deep to right center field.
In full flight, center fielder Jim Northrup and right fielder Al Kaline both converged on the ball and collided as the ball glanced off Northrup’s glove and rolled to the wall. As Pena sprinted around the bases for what became the only inside-the-park grand slam in the ballpark’s history, Kaline lay flat on the ground, motionless.
Brewer’s bullpen coach Jackie Moore — a friend and former teammate — raced to Kaline’s side and later told the papers, “I could hear him gasping for air, he was choking and turning blue. I realized he had swallowed his tongue and I tried to pry his jaw open but the best I could do was get two fingers between his teeth.”
Racing over from his left field position, Willie Horton brushed everyone aside, and with his brute strength, pried open Kaline’s clenched jaw and pulled his teammates’ tongue out of the way. But Horton’s heroics didn’t occur before Kaline’s jaw clenched again on Willie’s hand that created a scar that he still has today. Kaline took two deep breaths and opened his eyes not realizing what had happened before being taken to an area hospital where he was observed overnight.
“I remembered that when a guy gets knocked out you got to grab him [by the] back of the jaw and with your fingers pop it open,” Horton said later when he received an award from the Michigan Heart Association who told Willie that he had very likely saved Kaline’s life.
Kaline, who had been batting .327, would miss just one game from the injury. Three months later, the man his teammates called “Six”, continued to count his blessings and was able to enjoy Al Kaline Day at Tiger Stadium with his family.
As a kid and budding sandlot star, Willie Horton had first seen Kaline play at Briggs Stadium in the 1950s, and would later meet him in the locker room when Horton worked as a clubhouse kid at Tiger Stadium. When they first became teammates, Willie would call him “Mr. Kaline” until he finally felt comfortable to call him “Al.” Horton of course must look back and think it surreal that he was largely responsible for saving the Hall of Famer’s life.
For the past thirteen years Kaline and Horton have worked together as special assistants to Tiger President Dave Dombrowski and still see each other regularly at the ballpark where large statues of the two ballplayers stand behind the stands in the outfield.
The two men will forever be linked of course, and for many reasons, although none can be more important than what happened on that near tragic day in Milwaukee 45 years ago.