In June of 1979, Tiger fans still hadn’t grown accustomed to seeing Wille Horton in a uniform that didn’t have an Olde English “D” on it. The Detroit-born Horton had been traded two years earlier to Texas, but since then the slugger had also worn the uniforms of Cleveland, Oakland, and Toronto. Finally, prior to the ’79 campaign, Horton received the prize he’d been looking for – a two-year contract – from the Seattle Mariners.
On June 6, 1979, the Tigers were in Seattle facing the Mariners and their left-handed started Floyd Bannister. On the mound for Detroit was Jack Morris, making just his 41st career start on the way to many, many more in a stellar career. Morris had joined the Tiger staff in 1978, but manager Ralph Houk had shown little patience with the young righty, relegating him to the bullpen after three inconsistent starts. Morris spent the rest of the season trying to get back in Houk’s favor, earning a few starts here and there when the team needed an arm to spell someone else or as part of a doubleheader.
But in 1979, Morris was in the rotation for good, and he was 3-1 entering the game in Seattle. Horton, who had been an All-Star four times for Detroit was off to a great start for his new team. He’d already belted 11 homers and had driven in 24 runs in May alone. As strictly a designated hitter, Horton was locked in as an offensive force. In a game a week earlier against Toronto he’d socked a ball INTO the roof of the Kingdome, and after a few moments of confusion, the umpires ruled it a ground-rule double for Willie. Seattle fans had already taken to calling the 36-year old Horton their “Ancient Mariner”.
In the bottom of the first inning Ruppert Jones (a future Tiger) doubled and one out later he was still standing on second when cleanup man Horton strode to the dish to face Morris. It was a confrontation of two Tiger legends – one past and one future. No one knew that Morris would win 198 games, toss a no-hitter, and anchor a pennant-winning staff for the Tigers before his time in Motown was done. The tall, lean Morris would one day be “Rascally Jack”, an often cantankerous, but fiery competitor on the mound, but few realized just how good he’d be. He’d win 254 games in the big leagues. But as of that day in the Kingdome, Morris had just seven to his credit. Horton was the marquee draw in this pitcher/batter confrontation.
With Jones dancing off second, Morris uncoiled a fastball toward the plate. Willie’s muscular arms guided his bat through the strike zone and made contact. The ball soared over the head of left fielder Steve Kemp and into the stands, seemingly like a laser it didn’t even have time to arc as it left the playing field. With one swing of his mighty stick, Horton had put the Mariners up 2-0 against the future Tiger ace. It wasn’t an at-bat that Morris would remember, but for Willie it was – it was his 300th career homer.
Horton would go on to one of his finest all-around seasons, playing in every game and driving in a career-high 106 runs. He also set career-bests in runs scored and hits, while blasting 29 homers. It was his final hurrah – he retired after a disappointing 1980 season with Seattle. Morris won 17 games in 1979, impressing the new manager who took over the team just a week after his battle with Horton in Seattle. It was the beginning of something special for the Bengals, and on that June day in the Kingdome, Horton also reminded Tiger fans of his greatness as well.