Hometown hero Willie Horton, without question one of the most popular Detroit Tigers’ players in team history, will always be remembered for his home run power, the mutual love affair with his fans in the left field Tiger Stadium stands, and for his perfect throw to catcher Bill Freehan that nailed Lou Brock in Game Five that turned around the 1968 World Series for Detroit.
As the first black star of the Tigers, the second to the last team to break baseball’s color barrier, Horton also stood out because he was the team’s only regular starting African-American from 1965 to 1974.
And so it became a shock to Tiger fans when Horton mysteriously walked out on the team for four days in the middle of May, 1969.
When “Willie the Wonder” went AWOL, his actions made headlines in the newspapers and became one of the top stories on Detroit radio and television.
Batting just .213 and going 2-for-24 including striking out 10 times when Horton and the Tigers faced the White Sox on May 15th, for the first time in his career, #23 became the victim of boo birds at Tiger Stadium, something other Tiger sluggers like Rocky Colavito and Norm Cash had been subjected to during home run droughts when their bats found nothing but air.
Upon striking out in the sixth inning for the second time to Tommy John, the boos rained down on Horton as he slowly walked to his position in left field.
After Chicago was retired in the top of the 7th, Horton went into the clubhouse, showered, and left the ballpark. When he didn’t appear for the team flight to Minnesota, Manager Mayo Smith suspended Horton.
The former Detroit sandlot star rejoined the team in Chicago four days later but his suspension would cost him $1,300.
On May 23 when Horton made his first appearance at Tiger Stadium since the walkout, Tiger fans gave him a loud ovation when his name was announced. The cheers continued when he singled in his first at bat and all seemed forgotten.
Although most assumed Horton had walked out on the team primarily because of the slump and the boo birds, he later admitted in his 2004 biography and in an interview with me in 2008 that the underlying reason was because he was upset with the Tiger organization for failing to bring up more black players to the major league club.
While he was missing in action, Horton met with owner John Fetzer and General Manager Jim Campbell to lay out his grievance.
“I was very upset because I wanted to see more blacks on the Tigers so I met with Mr. Fetzer and Jim Campbell to discuss the issue,” Horton told me for a Detroit Free Press article on the 50th Anniversary of Ozzie Virgil breaking the Tigers’ color barrier in 1958.
“I won’t repeat everything I said but it paid off because we started to get more black players,” he said. “I got it off my chest, and carried the torch as well as I could.”
Within one month the Tigers’ brass called up 27-year old Ike Brown, a perennial minor league infielder who had been an All-Star in the International League and batted .356 in Toledo for the first half of the ’69 season.
Brown, who became a valuable utility player for the next four seasons in Detroit, would also hold the distinction of being the last major leaguer to have played in the Negro Leagues. In 1961 the Tigers had purchased his contract from the Kansas City Monarchs.
Former catcher and current Tigers’ broadcaster Jim Price once told a reporter that Brown was a very popular player with his teammates. Roommate Gates Brown said, “Ike would wake up everyday and say ‘it’s a beautiful day’ whether it was or not.” (In 2001 Ike Brown died of cancer at age 59 in Memphis, Tennessee.)
Slowly, by the mid-1970s, the Tigers’ rosters included more black players and Willie Horton was looked upon as not only a fan favorite and ’68 champion but also as a pioneer, who like Jake Wood and Gates Brown helped open the door.