Baseball fans who dropped in Tuesday’s Lunch ‘n’ Learn program on Baseball in Florida program at the Polk County History Center got an extra innings treat when surprise guest Willie “the Wonder” Horton, a veteran Detroit Tigers star, who practically stole the spotlight from guest speaker Dr. Kevin McCarthy.
McCarthy was outlining baseball’s history in Florida, while Horton was doing what he does: spreading the word about the Tigers. Horton, now 71 and a Davenport winter resident, leaned on his cane as he fielded questions, mostly about his illustrious career through the troublesome 1960s in Motor City.
While Horton’s prowess with a bat and lightning arm at left field won him at least two All-Star rings, he said his most important work was in helping players stay grounded and serving the mostly black community where he was raised. In the racially troubled early 1960s, Horton was known for leaving the Detroit playing field, still in uniform and heading into the riot-torn city, hoping to help restore order.
“It didn’t work,” he said, “but I tried.”
Detroit burned for more than a week as tensions escalated into full-scale riots.
Horton told the crowd of more than 100 that his “life started here in Lakeland in 1960. I had to walk from downtown all the way to Tiger Town. And, I’ve been coming here for 54 years.” He said that his presence also helped further improve race relations in the city and on the team.
“Those were hard times for us all,” he added. “And I hope I helped.”
While his fame is mostly about his hitting prowess with more than 300 career home runs, he’s been spending his time since his retirement from active playing as a “harmony coach,” first for the New York Yankees and since 2000, back with his beloved Tigers. He was, and continues to be, charged with making sure players don’t divide into factions in the clubhouse.
“What it boils down to is that we have to police each other,” he says. “And set an example for others to follow.”
And what an example he has been; such an example that a bronze statue of him taking a mighty swing was erected at Comerica Park beyond the left field stands where he made his name. He is the only non-Hall of Famer to receive that recognition.
His number 23 also has been retired by the club in his honor.
Since 2004, Horton has been further plagued by illness and injury and Tuesday he was still using a cane to steady himself as he continues to recover from back surgery.
“But I’ll get rid of this (the cane) in a few more weeks and be back in good shape,” he said.
Horton and his wife, Gloria, and their seven children and 19 grandchildren are still frequent visitors to the city that gave him his start.
“We love Lakeland and Polk County,” he said. “That’s why we bought a home here.”
When not busy in the clubhouse at Tiger Town or in Detroit, he’s busy working with charities like Boys and Girls Clubs, the Red Cross and the United Way. He also has toured with the USO.
“Willie Horton is one of those rare baseball players who really doesn’t need a diamond to truly sparkle and shine — he’s a star on and off the field,” said Michigan’s 2004 Gov. Jennifer Granholm. His star shone just as bright on Tuesday as it did that day almost 55 years ago when he walked through the Tiger Town gates.