Tigers great Willie Horton: 1967 riots ‘was like a war’

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Former Tiger Willie Horton talks about Detroit, the 1967 uprising and changes since.

This was Mike Ilitch. This was Willie Horton.

This was Detroit.

One day 15 or so years ago, the two men strolled from Comerica Park some number of blocks, north and west, to the neighborhoods around Masonic Temple and the old Cass Corridor.

They saw weary people on the street. Noticed someone getting into a car that hadn’t seen a showroom in 20 years. Observed kids walking together protectively.

“What’s the difference between them and you, and me — the difference in what the Lord feels?” Ilitch asked.

The Tigers owner had his own answer.

“There is no difference. The only difference is they’re unfortunate.”

Ilitch paused and said: “We’re all God’s children.”

This particular day came 35 years after Horton, a Tigers star through the 1960s and ’70s whose home-run muscle and historical distinction have earned him a monument at Comerica Park, had found himself in another Detroit setting.

It was at 12th Street and Clairmount, 15 hours after a blind pig had been raided by Detroit police, setting off one of the worst racial uprisings in American history.

Horton was still in his Tigers uniform following a doubleheader the Tigers and Yankees had split that afternoon at Tiger Stadium. He and the players had been urged to leave in a hurry, to head straight home, to stay far from the smoke and searing tempers that had turned a town into a cauldron.

Horton could do no such thing. He was a Detroit resident. He knew these neighborhoods. These people. These issues of poverty and justice that few could appreciate unless you, too, had been affected by the loss in only a few years of 156,000 manufacturing jobs, which later devolved into the flight of 246,000 jobs from a town that 10 and 20 years before had been a shrine to America’s might.

He, too, understood race’s ugly consequences, how they could bore into a man or woman, not daily, but hourly, moment to moment.

Horton pulled his Ford to an intersection as thick with simmering people and surrounding cops as with black smoke that could be seen for miles.

“I got there, by myself, around 7 p.m.,” Horton remembers of that evening of July 23, 1967. “It was scaring me. There were people on all sides of me. It was like a war. But a war isn’t supposed to be in your community.

“I got on top of the hood of my car. I had my uniform on. I had my street clothes in a duffel bag.”

Everyone knew Horton. Everyone knew he needed to be elsewhere.

“Go home, Willie, we don’t want you to get hurt,” Horton remembers hearing, continually.

Horton’s car already had been scorched by fire in an area where fire, more than any sense of order or law, increasingly ruled.

“Don’t defeat this purpose!” Horton pleaded. “This isn’t about looting.”

The crowd embodied the interior of a city weary of words, sick of losing jobs — and hope. They knew, only three years after the Civil Rights Act officially ended Jim Crow’s America, that 1960s black skin too often was viewed as representative of what shouldn’t be hired, what wouldn’t be allowed to live in any suburb or neighborhood but in those Detroit compounds, overseen by police who were 90 percent-plus white and whose dispositions toward African-Americans could be proportionally as toxic as any group’s.

The city that day and evening burned steadily until it became an urban conflagration. National Guardsmen later would join with overwhelmed police as store windows crashed and flames and gunshots mounted. Later, the Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions would descend. The Detroit uprising would end inside of five days. Upheaval and fury and despair would linger for decades.

A reprieve from chaos

Months after Horton mounted his car hood hoping to ease July’s chaos, Detroit revived, at least spiritually, because of what Horton and a 1968 Detroit Tigers team were able to create, from April through October, in the body of a baseball team that won games in steady and heroic ways. Their skills and souls merged for a final act: three victories in a row against the Cardinals to seal a seven-game World Series championship that offered a scarred, wounded city at least temporary relief from torment baseball could not, by itself, vanquish.

Willie Horton hugs Denny McLain after McLain won his 30th game in 1968.

“Ninety percent of us were at (spring) camp three weeks early that year — we were that ready to go,” Horton remembered, recalling, too, how the Tigers’ 1967 season had ended, in a manner that seemed consistent with July’s horrors: with a final-game loss that delivered the Red Sox the American League pennant and ruined what, 24 hours earlier, had looked as if it could be Detroit’s year for a World Series.

“We sat there after that last game,” he said, recalling a loss to the Angels, in the second game of a doubleheader that, had the Tigers won, would have tied them with the Red Sox and led to a one-game playoff for a World Series ticket against the National League champs, the Cardinals. Two years later, baseball would adopt a longer postseason playoff format.

“We were the best team in baseball that year,” Horton says of 1967 and how it became a prologue to 1968. “We made up our minds we were gonna beat people in ’68. And we did.”

Horton is recalling all of this history, this lore, during a late-afternoon conversation on his sprawling redwood patio deck in Bloomfield Hills. He is seated in a black metal chair, stretched beneath an overhead awning, squinting into a 5 p.m. sun. Horton’s mustache is charcoal and white, a testament to his upcoming (October) 75th birthday. He is dressed summer-casual in gray and white jogging pants and a light-gray Tigers T-shirt.

His voice is strong even after an early June bout with pneumonia put him in the hospital, in truly grave shape. The episode — “They lost me, twice,” Horton says, not exaggerating — left Horton and his wife of 56 years, Gloria, shaken.

Today, though, is serene. There are pink impatiens spilling from flower boxes that rim a broad rectangular deck where Horton can entertain family and friends, in surplus. Maples, pines and elms grow in the backyard in a kind of small forest. His daughter, Pamela, who had earlier stopped by, kisses him, then heads for her errands.

This is far away, in years and in setting, from the Detroit he knew as a boy and would later know during 1967’s carnage.

Racism follows from South

Horton came to Detroit as a child, with his parents and siblings, from Arno, Va., which had closed its coal mine and left men like James Horton without work — and without great hope for dealing with black lung’s ravages.

There might at least be auto-plant employment in Detroit. But job fortunes were intermittent — auto plants for a while, construction, all as James’ black lung intensified, and all as the Hortons found themselves stuffed into the Jeffries Housing Projects where Horton and some of his 20 — yes, 20 — siblings “slept like bats in a batrack,” as one baseball scout later related.

Heavy-hitting Willie Horton was always a fan favorite playing for his hometown team.

Willie had at least caught a break. Damon Keith, the retired federal judge who was then a young lawyer and Detroit civic leader, had arranged for Willie, then 13, to live with him and his wife in a home that would offer basic needs and comforts not many in the projects would ever know.

“You ain’t giving me away, are you?” Willie asked his father.

No. Keith was a graduate of Detroit Northwestern High, where Willie was headed and where a boy with baseball skills already beginning to flourish might find adolescent life more nurturing. And more disciplined, as Horton learned one night when he had the audacity to arrive home at 11:15 p.m., rather than 11, and learned that a soon-to-be federal judge was committed to the ethic of laws.

“You’ve got a decision to make,” Keith told him that night, fury in his voice. “You either live by the rules, or go back to the projects. And if you do, you might not live to 21.”

By the time he was 16, Horton was slamming home runs into Tiger Stadium’s upper deck during high school championship games. He signed two years later, as a catcher, with the Tigers who saw all that muscle in a man who always has been listed at 5-foot-11 but who, in fact, is significantly shorter.

Horton was also about to learn of old realities that hadn’t departed the South’s landscape when he and his family moved north.

He remembers the night as a minor leaguer in Asheville, N.C., when Mickey Stanley, another young Tigers prospect who would make 1968 eternal in Detroit’s baseball timeline, stuck with him rather than entrust that Willie would be OK overnighting in a tough, segregated neighborhood.

He remembers that first spring training at Lakeland, Fla., when the team trained at ancient Henley Field, with its “whites” and “coloreds” drinking fountains and restrooms.

He recalls how a guard, seeing him arrive at the ballfield one day, waved him toward the “colored” section of Henley’s outfield seats.

Horton ran into the same usher a year later. It was a Grapefruit League game day and Horton was wearing his Tigers uniform.

“What position do you want me to play?” Horton asked the usher, making sure the previous year’s taunt had not been forgotten.

He recalls all too vividly how he and teammate Gates Brown could not stay with the team at its Lakeland hotel. Not until the Civil Rights Act later passed.

“My first spring training there I had to walk,” Horton remembers of how discrimination could make even a cab ride impossible. “I couldn’t take no taxi. But that walk connected me with the future. That walk became my life.”

Life didn’t necessarily get better when he moved north with the Tigers as the second black player to have been signed by Detroit (Jake Wood was the team’s pioneer).

“I caught hell here my first five years,” said Horton, who came home one day to find Gloria sprawled on the floor, in anguish, because of racist calls from agitated fans, upset with Horton’s early struggles.

The team and the town were yet stuck in color-line divisions all but sanctioned by the overt racism of former Tigers owner Spike Briggs.

“I know about all that,” Horton said of 1950s dispositions Briggs held a decade after Jackie Robinson had supposedly signaled an end to baseball’s whites-only ways.

Changing the culture

A new owner, John Fetzer, and a new general manager, Jim Campbell, “cleaned things up,” Horton recalls, even as poisons that bred 1967’s horror slowly, steadily turned Detroit and other American cities, such as Newark, N.J., into forlorn sectors rife with despair and destruction.

Horton credits certain men, beginning with Campbell, for changing the Tigers’ racial tenor. George Kell, the great Tigers announcer and former Tigers third baseman now in the Hall of Fame, earns Horton’s salute as being critical there.

Willie Horton throws out the first pitch before a game between the Tigers and Yankees at Comerica Park on April 5, 2013.

Ernie Harwell, too. An announcer and southern gentleman from Georgia, also bound one day for Cooperstown, had served in the Marine Corps and was a man of faith whose principles made racism intolerable.

The great Hank Greenberg, a Jew who carried his own scars from prejudice, was gracious and soothing, Horton remembers. As, of course, was Stanley, Rocky Colavito, and Brown, the pinch-hitter extraordinaire who was signed at the same time as Horton and who shared with Horton every moment of discrimination in Florida and every blessed day of brotherhood with the Tigers.

Horton played for Detroit into the 1977 season and three more years in the big leagues before retiring. Ilitch bought the Tigers in 1992 and 10 years later began to assemble his old Tigers legends as consultants, beginning with Al Kaline and with Horton, each of whom remains a Tigers special assistant to the general manager.

Horton in the years since has been renowned for his particular insight. He sees players as people and sees deeply, with his own Detroit-crafted street cred, into their lives and experiences. And how certain people manifest themselves as men who are far more than big-league performers.

Ramon Santiago, the Tigers’ annual back-up infielder during Jim Leyland’s era as manager, and a man regarded as nearly saintly by those who knew him in Detroit, is one Horton mentions multiple times.

Lance Parrish is, in Horton’s view, a ground-breaker for the way he fought against prevailing mythology (“Lifting weights will make you muscle-bound,” manager Sparky Anderson would insist) and helped establish a weight room at Tiger Stadium.

He saw qualities, which begin, Horton says, with a man’s soul, in a free-agent outfielder the Tigers brought aboard in 2004: Rondell White.

He saw it in two part-time players the Tigers counted on during their 1968 fairy tale, Eddie Mathews and Elroy Face. And he sees it now in a pair of Tigers who play third base and left field: Nick Castellanos and Justin Upton. He even sees it in an outfield prospect now busting his way through the minors, Cam Gibson, son of another jewel from the Tigers’ last World Series team, Kirk Gibson.

He can spot it in players as easily as he could detect it years ago in Keith, Congressman John Conyers, and Ed Davis, the Big Three automakers’ first black dealer, all of whom stood as Horton heroes.

Game ‘built for the fans’

But it is Ilitch whom Horton also holds in a kind of sustained awe. Not only because the late Tigers owner saw resources in his Tigers alumni that could help rebuild a baseball brand in Detroit, but, rather, because Ilitch simply got it.

Ilitch himself was Detroit-born and raised. He was schooled in how a city can and must work. He saw what Foxtown could become as a downtown focal point in Detroit’s revival. He understood, above all, why he and Horton needed to stroll those streets that day 15 years ago.

Former Tigers great Willie Horton poses by a statue of himself in 2007 at Comerica Park in Detroit.

“We did things together, walking through the community, every year walking around the ballpark,” Horton says as afternoon gives way to evening at the Horton abode “Mr. Ilitch always wanted feedback. He taught me how to talk to people, at the ballpark. He didn’t want fans to be left out.

“This game, he’d say, is built for the fans.”

Horton, too, has built in Detroit something more permanent than his steel sculpture that sits alongside similar structures glorifying Kaline, Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer and Hal Newhouser. He slammed 325 home runs but was never a Hall of Fame player. Ilitch, though, knew why Horton would be given his due.

A seasoned man from Detroit knew how many Willie Hortons, how many African-American players of equal or greater skill, big-league cities might have known had bigotry not been America’s and baseball’s entrenched policy deep into the 20th century.

He also would have wondered how many fewer nights and experiences as lamentable as that awful Sunday at 12th Street and Clairmount a city and nation might have known minus the racism Horton and Ilitch each tried, in two men’s distinctly different ways, to counter in their lives.

Ilitch saw all of that embodied by Willie Horton. He would see that a sculpture and its life-story inscription educated others.