Before Willie Horton was nicknamed “Willie the Wonder” and became one of the most popular players in Detroit Tigers history, the Motor City native, and youngest of 21 children, had hard choices to make living in a tough environment.
Horton has always said that if it wasn’t for his love of baseball and the positive influence of others he could easily have gone down the wrong track.
He loved to play pick up softball and baseball games with his friends from Poe Elementary and Jefferson Junior High School and he could often be found playing “strikeout” against the outside walls of nearby Briggs Stadium.
As a product of the sandlots of Detroit in the 1950s, Willie Horton is forever grateful for the mentoring he received from his coaches, and the opportunity to prove himself and be discovered by major league scouts.
When he spoke with me for a Detroit Free Press feature in 2011, Horton expressed concern for the lack of organized baseball and mentoring in the city.
“So many kids are walking the streets, and they don’t have the resources or the place and opportunity to play baseball,” said Horton. “When I grew up we had some great leagues and coaches along with businesses that sponsored the teams and that is something that is lacking now. We need to find businesses to help sponsor the program in addition to finding and training coaches who can work with the kids,” he said.
Well once again, Willie Horton is stepping up to the plate to help teach the game in the city.
This Saturday, August 16th from 9AM to 2PM, the Willie Horton Foundation, the Major League Baseball Alumni Association, and Woodbridge Baseball Academy are hosting along with sponsors Ford and the UAW “The Willie Horton Games”, a free event for ages 8 to 18 at Northwestern High School’s Willie Horton Field. You can register online here. Northwestern High is located at 2200 Grand River Avenue in Detroit.
The event will include a baseball clinic, a home run contest, and other skills competition.
In addition to Willie Horton, the following former major league players are scheduled to help with the event: Dave Rozema, Tom Timmerman, Jon Warden, Rick Leach, Rod Allen, Alex Johnson, Steve Grilli, Scott Lusader, Chuck Scrivener, John Young, Scott Kamenicki, Gene Roof, Fernando Arroyo, Jim Essian, Alex Johnson, Craig Monroe, Marvin Lane, John Knox, and Ike Blessitt.
Horton, as a 16-year old sophomore catcher, helped Northwestern High capture the public school championship against Cass Tech on June 9, 1959 with a towering home run at Briggs Stadium.
“Willie hit many homers at Northwestern’s Diamond 3 that went onto Grand River Avenue and bounced up against the Michigan Bell Building,” his high school teammate Walt Terrell told me. (Terrell is not the former Tiger pitcher.) “We called Grand River “Willie’s River.”
To honor Willie’s legacy, in 2004 newly constructed baseball and softball diamonds at Northwestern High School were named Willie Horton Field and a monument was installed.
Horton has always cared for kids.
For years, and without any fanfare, on his way to Tiger Stadium he would often stop at hospitals to visit sick children or stop by local playgrounds to visit with kids. “It was something I just needed to do, I guess that was part of my Mom in me,” said Horton, who also used to pay for tickets for 200 to 300 kids who were bused in to attend a Saturday ballgame.
One can only wonder if and when the next great ballplayer will be produced from Detroit.
Who knows, he just might be there on Saturday.
But at least it looks like Willie Horton has hit another home run for the kids.