There was probably never a more popular player in the history of the Detroit Tigers than Willie Horton.
The reasons for that are many: Horton was raised in Detroit and was a high school standout as a youth; he was the first black man to become a star for the team; Willie was good-natured toward the fans and cultivated a relationship with them from his position in left field; he was also, of course, a very good player. As a result, Willie was wildly popular in the city and across the state of Michigan while he played and is still revered today in his role as an adviser in the front office. When the fans get a glimpse of Willie, they always give him a roaring welcome.
That’s why it was so painful when the Tigers traded Horton in the 1977 season. In a move that made Detroit rooters cry foul, the Bengals shipped Horton to the Texas Rangers on April 12 for reliever Steve Foucalt. The trade surprised many, including Horton, who (the story goes) cried when he heard the news.
Detroit general manager Jim Campbell was known for two things: being unsentimental about his players and for his frugal nature. When I say frugal, I mean cheap. But I wanted to be nice. Campbell traded Horton because he was an “old 34” and the Tigers were rebuilding around a younger core of players streaming up through the farm system. The team also had trusty Rusty Staub, a player who as a right fielder was a really good designated hitter. Trading Horton might have made good baseball sense, but it was a ruthless thing to do to a man who was beloved by fans.
“I never thought I’d wear any other uniform,” Horton told a reporter years later. “The Tigers were the only team I knew.”
Willie spent the next four years ping-ponging around the depths of the league, first to the Rangers, then to Cleveland, Oakland, and Toronto, before winding up in Seattle. in 1978 he played for three teams, one of which released him, and that was the Indians. How low do you have to get to be cut loose by Cleveland? But Horton still had some baseball in him. In 1979 at the age of 36 he played every game for Seattle, drove in 106 runs, blasted 29 homers, and set career-highs in hits, runs, and total bases. That’s pretty damn rare for a man so late in his career. Just as in Detroit, Willie endeared himself to fans everywhere he played. In Seattle he was dubbed “The Ancient Mariner” and he even earned an MVP vote.
After an injury-plagued 1980 season, the Mariners traded Horton to the Rangers, where Willie worked hard to make the big league club. But he was cut by Texas just before the final 25-man roster was set in spring training in ’81. A month later he signed a minor league deal with the Pirates and packed his bags to play in the Pacific Coast League, the top minor league system on the west coast. At 38 years of age, Willie was riding buses, carrying his own bags, and playing left field for the Portland Beavers. Wearing the same helmet he’d worn in Detroit and his other major league stops (he painted to match his new team), Horton hit .302 with 17 home runs and 75 RBIs in 104 games for the Beavers. The big league may have been done with Horton, but Horton wasn’t done with baseball.
Unwilling to step away from the game he loved, Horton came back to the Beavers in 1982, his 21st season in professional baseball. That season, Horton played under manager Tom Trebelhorn, who was six years younger than Willie. The former Detroit star had another fine season for the Beavers, slugging 22 home runs and driving in 82 runs in 119 games. But the Pirates didn’t need his right-handed bat and he never got the call to the big leagues. It’s probably a good thing – Willie just wouldn’t have looked right in a Pittsburgh uniform.
As spring training opened in 1983, the 40-year old Horton found himself without a job in baseball for the first time in more than two decades. Finding nothing in the U.S., he took a small non-guaranteed contract with Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican League. The pay was bad, the fields were dusty and rock-filled, and the bus trips were bouncy, but Horton gave it a shot. But after a few weeks playing south of the border, Willie called his family in Detroit and said simply, “I’m coming home.” He was done.
But even then, Willie wasn’t ready to take off his uniform. “I know I can still help a club,” Horton said. “Even if I never touch a bat again, I know one thing: I can still help somebody.”
In 1985, Willie got a job from an unsuspected source: former manager Billy Martin. By that time, Martin was in New York for one of his several stints as George Steinbrenner’s whipping boy. He brought Horton in as his “harmony coach,” a role never before seen in baseball history. As I wrote in my biography of Horton for the book, “Sock It To ‘Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers,”: “Essentially, Willie was responsible for making sure that Martin’s players didn’t divide into warring factions in the clubhouse.”
Willie eventually made it back to Detroit in 2000 when Mike Ilitch welcomed him back to the fold as a special adviser to the front office. He’s usually been in uniform every spring training since, helping to guide young players in the “Tiger Way.” It’s right where Willie belongs.