Little League helped prepare Willie Horton for professional baseball

The 1972 Topps baseball card set had a little bit of everything: action cards, the first-ever subset of traded cards, a terrific series of World Series photos, some weird cards depicting trophies and awards, and the always enjoyable subset of cards known as “Boyhood Photos of the Stars.” I imagine that these latter cards became a source of embarrassment to some players; after all, what major league star wants to be seen during an awkward phase of childhood while wearing clothes that his mother likely insisted that he wear? As a young collector of cards in 1972, I didn’t care much for the boyhood shots at the time; I much preferred seeing what the players looked like as major leaguers. But in retrospect, these cards have become fun. It’s rare to see shots of players, particularly from that era, during their youth. There’s also something cute and nostalgic about seeing these guys during their formative years.

Each of the Boyhood Photos featured the same format, including a bright red frame that set the cards apart from the regular issue cards in 1972. The majority of the face of the card included a large photograph of the player from his days growing up, always in black and white and sometimes with unusual accompaniments. (For example, Jim Fregosi’s Boyhood card shows him playing the accordion. Bob Bailey’s card put him in the picture with his pet dog. And perhaps most memorably, Wilbur Wood’s card shows him holding a fish!) In the lower right-hand corner, Topps included a small photograph showing the player in a contemporary shot. Those inset photos were so small that you often didn’t even notice them until your second or third examination of the card.

The backs of the cards also provided some value. Each Boyhood photo card featured a short, one-paragraph bio about the player’s childhood. At a time when it was difficult to find background information on players, these cards provided some keen insight into what occupied the players’ time during their youthful years.

Of the 16 Boyhood Photos cards that Topps included in 1972, only one member of the Detroit Tigers was featured. That was the great Willie Horton, the burly slugger who could intimidate with his physique but quickly disarm you with his personality and charm. In the lower right-hand corner, we see a standard shot of Horton wearing his Tigers’ road uniform. The rest of the card gives us a glimpse at Horton from his days as a youngster, when his physique was hardly intimidating. I would guess the photo was taken sometime during his elementary school days, perhaps when he was in fifth or sixth grade. Set against a strange bright blue background, Horton is giving us a genuine smile, while wearing a fashionable white turtleneck shirt. While Horton is a bit older than me, I can remember wearing similar style shirts during my formative years. It seems the white turtleneck was something that remained a preferred choice of mothers from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Although we will always associate Horton with Detroit, the Tigers’ legend was not actually born there. He originally hailed from Arno, Virginia, where he was born in 1942, during the early stages of World War II. It was not until Horton turned five that the family moved to Detroit, where his father found regular work. Horton spent much of his youth living in the Jefferson Projects, located in downtown Detroit. While the neighborhood was poor and at time dangerous, it did put Willie within close range of Tiger Stadium, known as Briggs Stadium at the time. With the ballpark so close by, it became a natural destination for a young boy who loved to play the game.

In his earliest days playing ball, Horton hit from the left side, before his father made the wise decision to switch him to right-handed hitting. Making a smooth transition at the age of 10, Horton played Little League ball, which was highly competitive in Detroit during the 1950s. Horton’s coach was a man named Ron Thompson, whom Willie would often credit for laying a proper foundation of fundamental baseball. At the time, the Detroit Little League featured a number of future major leaguers, including Dick Billings, Ted Sizemore, and two names who would later become familiar to Tigers fans: Alex Johnson and Dennis Ribant. Given such high-caliber competition, along with quality coaching from Thompson, Horton received a solid base of training in his early years.

Horton also received a boost from a lawyer, Judge Damon Keith. Horton’s father, concerned that his son might be swept away by band influences in a tough neighborhood, asked Judge Keith to serve as a kind of advisor and mentor to young Willie. Horton has long cited Judge Keith as one of the most important figures in his life. The two remain friends, with Judge Keith continuing to serve as a justice at the age of 95.

With Judge Keith as his side, from Little League, Horton played for coach Sam Fisher at Northwest High School, where his teammates included Alex Johnson. Horton played primarily as a catcher, a position that he would continue to handle until the Tigers moved him to the outfield. His most memorable high school moment came at the age of 16. It was June of 1959, when Horton and Northwest played in the city’s high school championship game, which was held at Briggs Stadium. Appearing in front of a sizeable crowd, Horton delivered a deep drive to right field—the opposite field for the righty-swinging slugger.

Not only did the ball clear the right field wall, it landed in the upper deck of the right field stands. It was a home run of major league proportions, a moon shot that would have been impressive for a major league player, like a Rocky Colavito. Coming from a teenager who had yet to play college or professional ball, it was a home run of Ruthian dimensions. It was also the home run that earned Horton the nickname of “Willie the Wonder.”

That home run, part of a two-hit, three-RBI day, helped Northwest win the Detroit city championship, 13-10. But Horton wasn’t done. As a senior, he would hit eight home runs in only eight games, providing a springboard to signing his first professional contract with the Tigers’ organization in 1961. That first contract included a $50,000 bonus.

Horton would remain with the Tigers as a player through 1977, later returning as a coach and as a front office advisor. His story has become well known throughout Michigan, but it all started rather quietly when his father made that fateful decision to move the family from Virginia and set up a new life in Detroit. What better way to learn more about those early days than a nostalgic look back at his 1972 card, one of those wonderful Boyhood Photos of the Stars.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.