There have been a number of historic homers hit at Tiger Stadium including Babe Ruth’s 700th homer, the Ted Williams shot that won the 1941 All-Star Game in the bottom of the ninth, Reggie Jackson’s 1971 All-Star Game homer off the light standard, and Kirk Gibson’s 1984 World Series blast off of Goose Gossage.
Yet perhaps the most remarkable one occurred on June 9, 1959 in the Detroit Public High School championship game between Cass Tech and Northwestern at Briggs Stadium.
In the first inning, Northwestern catcher William Horton, a stocky 16-year-old sophomore from the Jeffries Project drove a ball into orbit that landed on the stadium’s right center field roof before it struck a light standard and fell into the stands. It was estimated to have traveled 450 feet.
Years later, William, better known as Willie by Tigers fans, recalled the home run in his 2004 autobiography, The People’s Champion: Willie Horton.
“The ball exploded off my bat and it kind of shocked me. I had never hit a ball quite that hard before. I just stood there and the umpire had to tell me to run. To be honest, not many people in the stands applauded my blast because it was primarily Cass Tech supporters in the early innings. The principal at Northwestern wouldn’t let students out of school early to see the game and our fans didn’t show up until the middle innings.”
Northwestern ended up winning the championship that day 13-10 as Horton went 2 for 4 with a homer, a double, three runs scored and three RBIs. However, the teenager’s legendary moon shot became the talk of the town.
Two years later Horton signed with the Tigers. However, he was disappointed when the team decided to convert him from a catcher to an outfielder. The reason? The club had signed a catcher out of the University of Michigan. You may have heard of him. His name is Bill Freehan. Incidentally, Freehan’s signing caused another catcher to be converted to the outfield: the one and only Gates Brown.
As a footnote, Willie Horton’s Northwestern teammates included future American League batting champion Alex Johnson, and Matt Snorton who would later play football at Michigan State and with the Denver Broncos.