50 Years Ago Willie Horton Became “Willie the Wonder” In His Breakout Year

All eyes watch the ball as Willie Horton blasts his 13th home run of the year off of Minnesota’s Jim Kaat on June 13, 1965.

All eyes watch the ball as Willie Horton blasts his 13th home run of the year off of Minnesota’s Jim Kaat on June 13, 1965.

He would become Detroit’s most famous black athlete this side of boxing legend Joe Louis and serve as an idol to hundreds of Tiger fans as one of the most popular players in the team’s storied history.

But before Willie Horton became a fixture in Tiger Stadium’s left field and an integral part of the 1968 World Championship team, 50 years ago this spring Detroit’s former sandlot star earned the nickname “Willie the Wonder” when he belted a barrage of long distance home runs in his 1965 breakout season.

First called up by the Tigers in September, 1963 Horton spent virtually all of the 1964 season in the minors and nearly quit baseball when on New Years’ Day 1965 he learned that his parents had been involved in a tragic auto accident on I-94 near Albion. His father had died instantly and his mother passed away a few days later.

In a 2011 interview with me, Judge Damon Keith, who at one point served as Horton’s legal guardian before becoming a life long mentor told me how he consoled and counseled the 22 year old.

“Willie was so distraught he wanted to quit baseball. I took on a bigger role in his life at that point. I set him down and said ‘your mother and father would be disappointed because God gave you this ability to play baseball and you shouldn’t let it get away from you.”

Horton heeded Keith’s advice and dedicated the 1965 season to his parents.

With a new focus and determination Horton quickly cemented his position as the Tigers’ regular left fielder while becoming the talk of baseball as he pounded American League pitching in the spring of 1965.

During a road trip to Washington and Boston in May, Horton belted six homers in four games with each of the blasts traveling more than 400 feet. Between May 11-18 over an 8 game span, he had seven multiple hit games and drove in 18 runs while hitting .615 (20 for 32).

Suddenly, Willie Horton’s photo and feats dominated the sports pages of the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News and he became THE talk of the Motor City and baseball.

While Berry Gordy was recording 15 year old Stevie Wonder at his “Hitsville USA” Motown studio on West Grand Boulevard, a few miles to the south at Michigan and Trumbull, Willie Horton became known as “Willie the Wonder” as his hits bounced around the far reaches of the upper deck at Tiger Stadium.

During the Summer of ’65, it seemed like on every WJBK Saturday afternoon Tiger telecast, broadcaster George Kell would blurt out in his homespun Arkansas drawl, “Willie the Wonder has done it again………….. he hit it a mile for another home run.”

As Horton rounded the bases, the TV screen would flash the words “Willie the Wonder” under a rather primitive graphic of Tiger teeth chomping up and down.

Fans flocked to Tiger Stadium to see the new young star, and those in the lower deck left field area with whom Horton developed a special bond, would rise out of their green seats and cheer as he returned to his position following yet another home run or key base hit.

By the end of June, with Horton leading the American League with 15 home runs, 46 RBIs and a .363 average, the young slugger was named to the first of his four All Star teams.

Horton would finish his banner year of 1965 batting .273 with 29 homers, (14 of which traveled 400 feet or more) and 104 RBIs (second highest in the American League).

Just three years later, Horton would help lead the Tigers to the American League pennant finishing second in the American League in home runs with 36, and fourth in batting with a .285 average. And although he hit an impressive .304 average in the Fall Classic as the Tigers won the World Series, the most famous moment of his career occurred when he threw out Lou Brock at home plate in game five which became known as the turning point of the Series.

The love and respect for Willie Horton and what he has meant to Tiger baseball is best reflected in the stainless steel statue of his likeness that stands next to sculptures of Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Hal Newhouser at Comerica Park.

And if you are old enough to have witnessed it, the memories of seeing Willie Horton blast his way into the hearts of Tiger fans a half century ago will not likely fade away.

One reply on “50 Years Ago Willie Horton Became “Willie the Wonder” In His Breakout Year

Comments are closed.