Top Tigers Countdown #18: Willie Horton

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Willie Horton holds a special place in both team and city history, and now he's the #18 player to ever suit up for the Tigers.

Like a couple other players on this list, Willie Horton's place on our countdown isn't based entirely on the statistics he put up as a player. Sure, he was a great hitter and he put up some monster numbers in a Tigers uniform. However, Horton's popular playing style and off-field contributions to the team and the city are the main reason why he slots in at #18 on our countdown.

Year PA HR RBI SB BA OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
1963 43 1 4 2 .326 .326 .488 .358 124 0.2
1964 92 1 10 0 .163 .272 .288 .250 52 -0.5
1965 572 29 104 5 .273 .340 .490 .363 131 3.1
1966 578 27 100 1 .262 .321 .481 .350 127 2.5
1967 445 19 67 0 .274 .338 .481 .367 140 3.4
1968 578 36 85 0 .285 .352 .553 .401 167 5.2
1969 568 28 91 3 .262 .332 .465 .353 118 3.3
1970 404 17 69 0 .305 .354 .501 .374 129 1.7
1971 498 22 72 1 .289 .349 .496 .376 134 2.4
1972 367 11 36 0 .231 .293 .387 .307 97 0.9
1973 443 17 53 1 .316 .362 .501 .384 138 1.8
1974 263 15 47 0 .298 .361 .529 .399 150 1.5
1975 667 25 92 1 .275 .319 .421 .331 101 0.4
1976 456 14 56 0 .262 .342 .409 .343 114 1.0
1977* 573 15 75 2 .289 .337 .430 .336 107 0.8
1978** 425 11 60 3 .252 .303 .389 .309 91 -0.3
1979*** 696 29 106 1 .279 .326 .458 .345 108 1.3
1980*** 384 8 36 0 .221 .306 .328 .292 73 -1.2
Career 8052 325 1163 20 .273 .332 .457 .351 119 27.5

*Played for the Tigers and Texas Rangers in 1977.
**Played for the Cleveland Indians, Oakland Athletics, and Toronto Blue Jays in 1978.
***Played for the Seattle Mariners from 1979 to 1980.

William Wattison Horton was born on October 18th, 1942 in Arno, Virginia, the youngest of 21 (!) children in his family. He moved to Detroit as a child and attended Northwestern High School, winning the 1959 city championship. He signed with the Tigers in late 1961 and spent two years in the minor leagues before making his big league debut on September 10th, 1963. He made an immediate impact, hitting a game-tying home run in his second career at-bat on September 14th against the Baltimore Orioles.

That homer would be Horton's only long ball of the 1963 season, and it wasn't until he became a full-time big leaguer in 1965 that he started to show off his prodigious power. Horton hit .273/.340/.490 with 29 home runs and 104 RBI in 1965. These numbers earned him a trip to the All-Star Game -- one of four appearances in his career -- and an eighth-place finish in the AL MVP voting that season. He continued to drive in runs with abandon, reaching the 100-RBI plateau again in 1966.

He would not drive in 100 RBI in any given season again until late in his career with the Seattle Mariners, but Horton was a true slugger. He clubbed 262 home runs in 15 seasons with the Tigers, including 36 during the 1968 season, which led the team. Horton also led the club in home runs in 1969 and 1975.

Horton was not a defensive wizard by any stretch -- he was worth -15.7 wins with the glove in his career according to Fangraphs -- but the biggest moment of his playing career came with him in the outfield. In Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, Horton threw out speedster Lou Brock at home plate, turning the tide of the series.

At the start of the series, manager Mayo Smith moved center fielder Mickey Stanley to shortstop in order to keep Willie Horton's bat in the lineup. Oddly enough, Horton's glove may have won them the series.

Horton holds the distinction of being the only player in Tigers' history to have his number retired without being in the Hall of Fame. This somewhat dubious honor is because of Horton's role as a peacekeeper in the 1967 Detroit riot. Jason Beck wrote a memoir about Horton's efforts a couple years ago, and detailed Willie's description of that fateful day.

His best explanation, as stated in his biography, was simply that this was his community. It might not have been the smartest thing to do for a professional athlete, but for him, running out that night into a city in flames and trying to talk people out of it was the right thing.

Horton said that he climbed on the roof of his car and tried to get anyone's attention. What he saw were cars turned over in the streets, houses ablaze on either side and looters running about.

Not only did the Tigers retire his #23, but the state of Michigan hosts "Willie Horton Day" on his birthday every year to commemorate his role in helping the public during one of Detroit's most troubling hours.

As for Horton's playing days, he would end up spending time with five other teams in his last four professional seasons, including a mini-renaissance with the Mariners in 1979 when he hit 29 home runs and drove in a career-high 106 RBI. He hit his 300th career home run on June 6th in a home game against the Tigers, who sent a young Jack Morris to the mound that day. Horton retired after the 1980 season and currently works in the Tigers' front office.

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