Willie Horton Earns His PAL Field of Dreams
It was nearly 60 years ago, but Willie Horton remembers it like yesterday. Batting at an all-city high school game at Tiger Stadium in 1959, he was so surprised by the powerful home run he slammed that he just stood there watching the ball soar.
“It scared me,” he said with a laugh. “The ump told me to run. He said, ‘Hey, you got to go through the bases to get a home run!’”
Two years later Horton signed with the Tigers, and if the stadium at Michigan and Trumbull felt familiar, that’s because he had already spent a good part of his youth sneaking in with friends. “When the concession trucks came in and they opened the gate, we would jump into the empty dumpsters to get into the stadium,” he recalled.
One day in the late 1950s, Rocky Colavito, who was visiting with the Cleveland Indians, caught Horton and a friend in the act. Rather than turn them in, he showed them around and helped them land part-time jobs at the stadium. The charismatic player went onto become a Tiger for a few seasons, and Horton was crushed when Colavito was traded away in 1964. “He was my mentor,” he said. “I just talked to him a few months ago.”
Little did Horton know that his days of playing baseball with a broomstick at the Jeffries Projects would lead to becoming one of the Detroit Tigers most legendary players – he is a four-time American League All-Star – and so beloved both in and out of uniform that the stadium’s newly repurposed field will bear his name. The Willie Horton Field of Dreams presented by Meijer is the centerpiece of a $20-million PAL project called The Corner Ballpark presented by Adient.
“I am honored to death,” Horton said. “I still get chills when I see my statue [at the Tigers' new home in Comerica Park.]. You read about people who are on statues in school!”
A Good ‘Pal’
It’s fitting that a hometown hero like Horton is associated with Detroit’s PAL (Police Athletic League), which was founded in 1969 to give children the opportunity to learn through athletics. Horton is legendary in Michigan (which celebrates Willie Horton Day each October 18, his birthday) not only for his athletic prowess, but his efforts to quell the 1967 Detroit riots by driving right into the chaos, standing on his car in uniform and pleading for calm. “I did try to get involved to bring peace,” he said modestly.
It didn’t work, but it didn’t deter Horton from always looking out for his community. He first became involved with PAL at the behest of then-Mayor Coleman Young and has been associated with the organization ever since.
“It’s such a beautiful program for all the kids,” said Horton, now 75. “I am so excited to be a part of what they are doing down there.”
The site at Michigan and Trumbull has been vacant since the Tigers moved out in 1999, although the Navin Field Grounds Crew cleaned the lot and opened it up for public use for many years. Now it is being transformed into a 25,000-seat stadium called The Corner Ballpark presented by Adient that will also include a permanent headquarters for PAL, whose 11 athletic programs reach more than 14,000 boys and girls, and 1,700 volunteers each year. The grand opening is set for spring, and PAL plans to expand its programs to reach 20,000 kids citywide.
To help fund the ambitious project, and allow community members to claim their own little piece of The Corner, PAL is selling personalized bricks that will grace the front plaza of the redeveloped space. The perfect holiday gift, the bricks come in three sizes and prices, including $150 for a 4-by-8-inch brick with up the three lines of engraving, $250 for an 8-by-8-inch brick with up to six lines of engraving, and $500 for a brick that’s 12 square inches and can hold eight lines of text. Each line can be up to 20 characters long and the brick can also be adorned with a sports logo to make it even more customized. You can also buy a 4-by-4-inch keepsake replica tile with the same engraving for just $25.
Growing up as the youngest of 21 children, Horton said his father Clinton (who preferred to watch games from the bleachers, not the dugout) always told him he could be whatever he wanted to be, a lesson PAL teaches to its young participants.
“Sports makes you realize you can be anything and do anything you want in life. It’s about much more than batting a ball or holding a football in hand, it’s about these kids’ lives. And right now, we need that more than ever,” Horton said. “Before I signed with the Tigers my papa and grandma said, ‘Don’t sign that contract unless you can make a lifelong commitment to your job and to your fans.’ I have lived that through my life and I still think about that.”
He credits other positive influences, including Federal Judge Damon Keith, who began mentoring Horton at age 13 (“I could not have learned in eight years of college what I learned from him”) and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, for whom he worked after retiring as a player (“He was more than a boss, he treated me like his own son”). Not all kids are as fortunate to have such role models, Horton said, and that’s why he feels so committed to PAL.
“Some great people have been a part of The Corner over the years, and even when I was overseas – I went on tour with Bob Hope four times – people would talk about The Corner,” he said. “Even Nelson Mandela spoke there! I am glad PAL is bringing back the enjoyment I had there.”
Horton and his wife of 56 years, Gloria, have 37 grandchildren (including two great-greats). He’s had a rough year with his health but, “I hope I have a lot more years to come. My doctor told me to keep it in second gear, not high gear anymore.”
His father always encouraged him with positive messages, and Horton knows that PAL does the same for today’s youngsters. “When you believe you can do things in life, you can do them. I want to get that feeling back to the children.”
Learn more about PAL’s plan for The Corner Ballpark presented by Adient, and how can you buy a brick, by visiting Detroitpal.org.
Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.