Detroit Tigers legend Willie Horton hadn’t set foot on the site of Tiger Stadium since it hosted its final Major League Baseball game on Sept. 27, 1999. Yesterday Horton returned to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull to revisit his roots and get an up-close look at the field that he called home from 1963-1977.
Horton, a Detroit native and star of the 1968 world champion Tigers, was invited by the Travel Channel to discuss the state of the city and to reflect on Detroit’s remarkable history during his playing days, including the tumultuous 1967 season.
In the summer of ’67 in the midst of the city’s rebellion, Horton, then just 24, famously drove up 12th Street and tried to stop the violent uprising. Still clad in his Tigers uniform after a doubleheader against the New York Yankees on July 23, Horton stood on the roof of his car and pleaded in vain for peace.
“It looked like a war zone,” he said. “It looked like the world was coming to an end.”
With the recent disturbance in Baltimore, during which the Orioles played a home game to an empty Camden Yards on April 29, there were some eerie parallels to Detroit’s uprising nearly half a century ago.
But the Travel Channel and host Mikey Kay wanted to focus mainly on Detroit’s resurgence in recent years, and Navin Field (Tiger Stadium’s original name when it opened in 1912) seemed the perfect place to talk with Horton about it.
“It’s a blessing to be here,” Horton said as he walked onto the field for the first time since 1999. The former Tigers slugger, who today works for the Tigers as a special assistant to team president Dave Dombrowski, was greeted by a small group of fans and ballplayers from Dearborn Edsel Ford High School and Henry Ford Academy. Horton, whose breakout season came in 1965, put on a mini clinic for onlookers Thursday.
“I come by here every day anyway [on my way to Comerica Park]” he said. But his poignant memories and deep emotional ties to Tiger Stadium had kept him from coming out on the field after its demolition in 2009.
But with the recent work of the volunteer Navin Field Grounds Crew in restoring the old ballfield, Horton felt the time was right to pay a visit to his old stomping grounds.
“I’ve got a lot of great memories here,” he said.
After the grounds crew cut the grass and chalked the lines, Horton spent a few hours answering questions from Kay, a native of England who hadn’t played much, if any, baseball in his life. But after a few tips from Horton, Kay stepped into the Navin Field batter’s box and faced off against Dearborn Edsel Ford pitcher Austin Atwood.
After fouling off several fastballs, Kay smacked a few solid drives into the outfield, bringing a smile to Horton’s face. And with that, the clinic was over.
It was a special day at the old ballpark yesterday for Horton and his fans, and it proved that in some ways you really can go home again.