By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
As a Detroit Tiger, Willie Horton was a four-time all-star, a World Series champion and the team’s first black superstar whose efforts earned him a statue at Comerica Park.
His No. 23 has also been retired by the club, and if Tigers fans were to anoint another Mr. Tiger, in wake of Al Kaline’s death on April 6, Horton, who belted 262 home runs in parts of 14 seasons with the club from 1963 to 1976, would be next in line.
One nickname that Horton will never have, however, is “Mr. Blue Jay.” But that’s not because the slugger never suited up for the club. As a Canadian baseball fan, you’ve probably forgotten (like I did) – or maybe never even knew – that Horton played 33 games for the last-place Blue Jays in 1978. (In case you don’t believe me, I offer the 1979 Topps card above as evidence.)
Horton, himself, probably wishes he could forget his tenure with the Blue Jays. In his late-season stint with the team, he batted just .205 with three home runs and to add insult to (literal) injury, he was clubbed in the head with a riot stick by a mounted Toronto police officer during a fracas in an Exhibition Stadium parking lot.
The right-handed hitting veteran was in his 16th major league season when he joined the Blue Jays. The youngest of 21 children (yes, 21!) in his family, Horton grew up in Motown and later enjoyed his most productive big league seasons with his hometown Tigers.
He was also a Civil Rights activist and following his club’s doubleheader against the New York Yankees on July 23, 1967 – despite many warnings not to – he drove to the neighbourhood of the 12th Street Riot in his Tigers uniform and stood on the hood of his car and pleaded with the rioters to stop. Most continued their destruction, but Horton was praised for his bravery.
The following year Horton was the MVP of a Tigers team that not only won the World Series, but helped unite the city. In what’s often recalled as the year of the pitcher (American League batters hit a combined .230), Horton batted .285 (fourth in the AL) and belted a career-high 36 home runs (second in the AL). The hometown hero also excelled in the World Series, hitting .304, with a home run, in the Tigers’ seven-game triumph over the St. Louis Cardinals.
Horton continued to be a key middle of the order bat with the Tigers until he was dealt to the Texas Rangers on April 12, 1977. Following one full season in the Lone Star state, he was swapped to the Cleveland Indians, where he batted .249 with five home runs in 50 games before he was released on July 3, 1978.
Ten days later, he was signed by the Oakland A’s where he proceeded to bat .314 and sock three homers in 32 contests prior to being flipped to the Blue Jays, along with 20-year-old right-handed pitching prospect, Phil Huffman, for DH Rico Carty on August 15.
At the time, the Blue Jays owned a woeful 46-71 record and were entrenched in last place in the American League East. Carty had enjoyed a productive campaign, batting .284 with 20 home runs in 104 games, and the Blue Jays likely wanted to cash in on the soon-to-be 39-year-old DH.
Horton met up with the Blue Jays on the road in Milwaukee the next day and was inserted into the lineup as the club’s DH batting in the cleanup spot. His right-handed bat was sandwiched between left-handed hitting sluggers Roy Howell and John Mayberry. With his third team in four months, Horton went 0-for-4 and grounded into two double plays, which proved to be an omen of things to come. Horton batted .125 in his first six games with the Blue Jays — all road contests.
But on August 21, in his first home game with the Blue Jays, Horton socked his first home run and enjoyed his first multi-hit game with his new club to propel them to an 8-6 come-from-behind win over the Texas Rangers. Horton’s home run was a two-run shot off Rangers right-hander Dock Ellis in the bottom of the fourth inning.
“I just hope maybe I can finish my career here,” Horton told a Canadian Press reporter after the game. “I’ve felt comfortable since the day I put on a Toronto uniform. It never takes me long to fit in. I never try to force my ways on anyone.”
This performance sparked Horton and the Blue Jays. The veteran slugger went on a nine-game hitting streak and the Blue Jays won seven of those contests. Horton enjoyed his second multi-hit game with the club on August 25 when he recorded a single, a double and scored two runs in the Blue Jays’ 7-3 win over the Minnesota Twins at Exhibition Stadium. He added two more hits in his team’s 4-3 victory the next day.
A week later, he belted his second home run as a Blue Jay, taking California Angels’ right-hander Chris Knapp deep for a solo shot in the second inning of his club’s 3-1 loss. That homer was the only hit Knapp allowed in his complete game win.
Unfortunately, following that game, three of Horton’s teenage sons and his wife, Patricia, were involved in a physical altercation with three men in an Exhibition Stadium parking lot. A Canadian Press report indicates that Horton arrived late to the scene. By this time, the Toronto police (on their horses) were there and were breaking up the fight, and in the confusion, when Horton sprinted to the scene, one of the police officers clubbed him in the head with a riot stick, temporarily knocking him unconscious. During the fracas, a horse also stepped on one of Horton’s sons and his other two sons sustained minor face and neck injuries. Horton and his sons were taken to the hospital for treatment and then charged with causing a disturbance. The three other men were also similarly charged.
Horton, who today would’ve been diagnosed with a concussion, reported to Exhibition Stadium the next day with a bandage on his right ear and cheek.
The veteran slugger later told people he didn’t feel right that season after the incident. Likely suffering from post-concussion syndrome, he found it difficult to concentrate and that showed in his numbers. He batted just .185 that September for a Blue Jays’ team that went 4-21.
With that said, Horton did have a couple of strong September performances. On September 11, he put together his only three-hit game with the Blue Jays. Two of his three hits were doubles. He also scored three runs and knocked in two in his club’s 7-1 win over the Indians in the second game of a doubleheader at Cleveland Stadium.
Four days later, he clubbed his third and final home run as a Blue Jay. It was a three-run shot off legendary Baltimore Orioles right-hander Jim Palmer in the first inning. Those three runs were all of the offence the Blue Jays could muster in an eventual 8-3 loss at Memorial Stadium.
Following the season, the Blue Jays re-signed Rico Carty on January 11, 1979. Sixteen days later, Horton inked a deal with the Seattle Mariners and proceeded to belt 29 home runs and register 106 RBIs in 1979 to earn The Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year honours.
Horton played another season with the Mariners, before finishing up with two triple-A campaigns in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and one last season in the Mexican League.
He later coached with the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees and has now been a special assistant to the president of the Tigers since 2003.
I greatly enjoyed your feature on Willie Horton. Do keep up your good work! Sincerely, Stephen Harding
Thank you very much, Stephen. I appreciate your support. I hope you are doing well.
In his last appearance, he went 0-for-4 against Ron Guidry at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 28. He did not appear in the final 3 games at Fenway Park. Considering the Jays were outscored 21-1 in that series, you’d think Hartsfield might have given him a shot?
(Sorry I’m a nerd about that ’78 race. Big Red Sox fan in those days.)
Thanks for sharing this, David. That’s interesting. I wonder if Horton asked out of the last series because of his concussion issues?
Wow, no idea. I just thought he was always a Tiger! Great story. Sorry to hear about his family incident though.
Thanks for reading, Scott. Yes, I didn’t know Horton played with the Blue Jays until I pulled out an old box of baseball cards and found his 1979 Topps card.
Thanks for another Cooperstowner.. Forgot all about Horton being a Blue Jay
Thanks for reading. I think most of us forgot about Horton as a Blue Jay. Thanks again for all your support.