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The Other Willie Horton

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Yeah, there's a beloved Tigers player with the same name as that famous foul ad. Kinda blew my mind.

Best wire photo I could find. Nice teens behind, but wrong uniforms.
Best wire photo I could find. Nice teens behind, but wrong uniforms.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

On July 23, 1967, some Detroit people were celebrating the safe return of two soldiers from Vietnam. It was in a bar, and that bar didn't have proper licensing to be a bar. Bored/underpaid cops showed up to crack some skulls. One woman was thrown down a flight of stairs.

The bargoers were African-American, or "black." (I'll use "black" for the rest of this, as it's easier to type, although race is an imaginary construct.) Frustrated by decades of segregation and mistreatment, local citizens were appalled that cops showed up to crack skulls for no good reason. They began busting shit up. It soon got out of hand.

News spread quickly. Attendees at a Tigers game in progress were warned to avoid the area. One Tiger, who'd grown up in that neighborhood, ignored warnings and checked out the roiling rage for himself. He tried standing on a truck, in his baseball uniform, to call for a calm-down. It didn't work, and couldn't have.

That Tiger player was named Willie Horton.

Now this story floored me -- because I'm too young to remember the baseball Willie Horton, and just old enough to remember the other one. If you do a web search, the other will come up far more often.

For younger readers, here your nutshell version. During the 1988 Presidential race, Bush I was trailing Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis in the polls. Bush's team came up with a new ad campaign, centered on a convicted murderer who'd been given time off under a Massachusetts program. The prisoner, Willie Horton, ran away instead of returning to finish his sentence, and at one point knifed/raped a white couple.

The ad featured scary photos of Horton, suggesting that if Dukakis became president, black rapists would be coming to get whites everywhere. (The time off program was already being adjusted by then.) It was considered a major turning point in the campaign, and the media expert who devised it went on to run a cable network using similar race-baiting code in its news coverage. Ever since, politics wonks refer to sly xenophobic tactics as "pulling a Wille Horton."

I hoped to find a quote from Detroit's Horton on the 1988 Horton ad blitz; I didn't. But he's an interesting guy.

Horton's dad, a Virginia coal miner, moved to Detroit in 1942 hoping for a less physically damaging job. Some of the auto manufacturers, particularly Ford, were hiring blacks at the time (not that Henry Ford cared about minorities, only using ethnic division to weaken unions.) However blacks consistently were given the most difficult/dangerous tasks -- and forget about being promoted to supervisor, much less management. Competing with younger, healthier black applicants was impossible; Horton didn't find steady work.

Willie Horton, an infant when the family moved, was the youngest of 21 kids (14 survived into adulthood, and 12 were already married/living on their own when Horton was growing up.) I'd guess his parents were very much in love, but even loving homes are often stressful when poverty's involved. Horton fell into the bored teen trap of street pranking; he was warned and watched by cops. (Imagine if he'd gotten sent to a juvenile facility; his life would have been far different.)

Scouts learned of his baseball talent and his police attention. The Twins were turned off by that Bad Boy rep. Tigers scouts kept Horton in high school, paying for his baseball equipment and some new school clothes when Horton almost dropped out, ashamed of the rags his mother stitched together.

Horton signed with Detroit in 1961, yet he'd play for one Minnesota team; the Duluth-Superior Dukes. He was powerful but perhaps too large. At his first serious (expected to break camp with the team) Tiger spring training, in 1964, manager Charlie Dressen demanded Horton lose 22 pounds. Horton did, and Dressen bought him a 22-pound ham. They remained friends until Dressen's death; Dressen became hugely important to Horton once his parents died from car-crash injuries in 1965 -- a few years after Horton had bought their first-ever decent house.

Horton would play through 1980, making four All-Star teams and winning a World Series in 1968. He only received 4 HOF votes his first year of eligibility. It wasn't his on-field talent (very good, just not mind-blowing) which inspired one of six statues outside Comerica Park.

Actually, the reason can be read on that statue's plaque; "He was instrumental in helping crush the violence that erupted during the 1967 riots in Detroit." Now, this is completely untrue (folks, don't always trust plaques.) Horton's admitted as much often; he talked for a few minutes, and locals asked him to stop before he got injured.

So why the inaccuracy? Partially because I imagine the Horton-on-a-truck story has emotional appeal for a city that's been rife with racial division since its founding. It's nice to dream how well-meaning individuals can heal those divides (and a bit lazy, as we should be healing them ourselves.) That dream has special relevance for Detroit residents who've seen their population dwindle from America's fifth-largest to 18th in fifty years, due to many causes. A major one being white flight (under way long before the 1967 explosion, itself not remotely the first in Detroit history.)

A better reason for the plaque's embellishment is because the events of 1967 started Horton on a lifelong crusade to help Detroit neighborhoods. He's called the truck speech (and its failure) an inspiration for diving into community service. Maybe his first move came in 1969; Horton skipped a Minnesota road trip, angry the Tigers weren't promoting more black players. The team responded by promoting Ike Brown -- the last Negro Leaguer to debut in MLB.

Horton hasn't stopped working for Detroit. (Never tell a baseball player not to try something just because it's an uphill battle.) The best account I've found of his public life since, you can read here. The author, Terence Moore, says about the two Hortons:

"'Detroit hugs Horton, and the same goes for Michigan, but everybody else has a ways to go. In fact, the world should hear "Willie Horton" and shout, and it should do so with joy.'" Exactly.

That's the perfect quote to end on, but I can't help sharing a few other things.

One strange: During a 1979 game, then-Mariner Horton had his probable 300th HR robbed by a Kingdome roof speaker. (Sound familiar?) No worries -- he got #300 the next day. Off Tiger pitcher Jack Morris.

One hilarious: Even before the 1967 drama, Horton was doing PSAs for local youth services. One, the Happening Center, repurposed a Supremes song "The Happening" and you can hear Horton on the radio ad here. I guarantee the way he speak-sings "call 224-6440" will give you a chuckle.

One creative: Horton didn't switch batting helmets when he switched teams. A gifted painter, he'd paint the new team's logo on his old helmet. That by itself is so awesome it justifies this post, but I don't want to be too lazy, so I found other stuff. You can see a Rangers baseball card here with Horton's handpainted helmet.

The man painted his own damn helmets. If that's not enough to love him, what is?