He never made Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Few fans remember him. He shares a name with an infamous criminal. But when his city was burning on July 23, 1967, Willie Horton entered history with a memorable, hall of fame move—hitting a moral grand slam far more important than any of his 1,993 hits.
It was a scorching day in Detroit and Willie Horton’s Tigers played a double-header against the Yankees. Horton went two-for-three in the second game, including a homer. When the game ended, security guards insisted the players go straight home. They smelled smoke—and saw terrifying clouds blackening the sky. One of America’s deadliest riots was trashing their city.
Still wearing his sweaty uniform, defying police orders, Horton rushed to the Virginia Park neighborhood where he grew up. It “looked like a war zone,” he recalled later. “It looked like the world was coming to an end.” The riot had started after yet another police raid on yet another illegal after-hours “blind pig,”—an illegal, backroom speakeasy. But tensions between the mostly white police force and African Americans had been mounting. A few rumors here, a few too many billy clubs swinging there, 85 patrons busted that night, and boom: A riot erupted.
It’s the Great Society’s great anomaly. Just as the Civil Rights Revolution peaked, America’s cities exploded. The historian Thomas J. Sugrue details the “problems of limited housing, racial animosity and reduced economic opportunity” embittering African Americans in that neighborhood—and elsewhere. More than one quarter of young blacks were unemployed. “Growing resentment, fueled by increasing militancy in the black community, especially among youth who had suffered the brunt of economic displacement, fueled the fires of 1967,” Sugrue explains. The deindustrialization process that now hurts whites and blacks had started—and blacks suffered first.
When people riot most run the other way—but that was never Willie Horton’s way. Perhaps it was because he was the youngest of 21 kids and always had to scramble. Perhaps it was because he reached the majors in 1963, a prehistoric era in terms of American racial morality, which toughened him as he endured obscenities from fans at home, and indignities from motel owners on the road. But overcoming it all, he was an up-and-coming star on an up-and-coming team, which would win the World Series in 1968.
Now, overcoming his fear, Horton scampered atop a car and pleaded for calm. “I got in the middle of the riot, I just tried to say something,” he remembers.
A mark of just how foolhardy Horton’s move was comes from an equally courageous man, Congressman John Conyers. Conyers did the same thing—only to get barraged with bricks and bottles. I was “trying to talk to the people,” Horton explains. “I told them this wasn’t the way to do it. Don’t loot. Don’t destroy your neighborhood. This is your neighborhood. Your schools.”
Horton—who still works for the Tigers and is a Detroit icon—often says, “I didn’t know for many years why I was there.” He thanks Jesus: “He took me beyond the field and I’m proud of it.” Horton also credits his parents—who two years earlier had died in a car crash. They raised him with “no color,” just a commitment to “doing right in life with people.” And he recalls walking 6 miles every morning in Lakeland, Florida, to Tigertown where his team trained every spring, because no cab there would pick up a young black man. “It was one of the best walks I ever had in my life and it took me beyond the field… and it got me prepped for the future,” Horton recalls. It “got me involved with all people.”
Horton wasn’t just a batting star. He was the first homegrown superstar from the Jeffries Projects, born in 1942. His success bonded Detroit’s African-American community to the Tigers. He remembers rioters shouting, “We don’t want Willie getting hurt.” In his authorized biography, The People’s Champion, Horton would say, “That was the night I embraced my community for the first time as an adult.”
Nevertheless, the rioting continued until 7,000 National Guardsmen and soldiers shut it down five days later. Contradicting those who romanticize such vile violence as “rebellions,” Horton was right: The damage blighted Detroit’s black community—43 people dead, 342 more wounded, 1400 buildings torched, 1700 stores looted, 5,000 people left homeless, more than 7,000 arrested, $100 million in property damage absorbed. Some believe Detroit has yet to recover.
The Detroit riots were among the first of 150 riots in America in 1967 and 1968 that reflected many blacks’ disillusionment—and disillusioned many whites. The great promise of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society ended up buried under the riots’ rubble, paving the way for the Richard Nixon-Ronald Reagan conservative counterrevolution.
Meanwhile, Horton’s career took off, as did his parallel track as a community leader. The next season, in 1968, he batted .304 in the World Series and threw out the speedster Lou Brock at home plate with a once-in-a-career kind of throw in Game Five. In 1969, Horton sulked off the field and boycotted for four days. Reporters thought fans riding him amid a slump had annoyed him. In fact, he was confronting the Tigers’ management, demanding more African-American players. He returned, and within weeks, Ike Brown joined the Tigers.
Horton retired in 1980, after 15 years with the Tigers, 18 years overall, four All Star team appearances. He racked up impressive if not stratospheric statistics, batting .273, hitting 325 home runs, batting in 1,163 runs. Still, in 2012, he became only the fourth Michigan citizen to have a day named after him; Willie Horton Day is Oct. 18, his birthday. “It’s all about love, that’s what life is about,” he preaches.
Baseball’s Willie Horton is less famous than Willie Horton the murderer and rapist who symbolized crime (and liberal wimpiness) during the 1988 presidential campaign. Still, this everyday hero who took risks to fight injustice belongs in the American pantheon. In 1992, the actor Edward James Olmos would start sweeping the streets of Los Angeles, even as the rioting there continued. In 2015, Baltimore preachers urged rioters to stop destroying their own neighborhood.
As baseball season begins, we wonder who will lead the league in hitting and pitching. Is it too much to wonder who will lead the nation in hitting hard against injustice while pitching a vision of a more moral America, a more civil America, a more reasonable America? Willie Horton did that at a time when the effort seemed more quixotic. How dare we not try. How dare we not succeed.
Kevin Allen, The People’s Champion: Willie Horton (2004): an authorized biography.
Willie Horton Remembers (2012): a YouTube video with Horton recounting his modest heroics.
Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996, 2005): excellent overview that puts the riots in historical context.