PERRYSBURG – Sharing wisdom, stories and his love of the game, Detroit Tigers great Willie Horton spoke Sunday at the Way Public Library.
Horton was there to sign his autobiography, “Detroit’s Own Willie the Wonder, the Tigers First Black Great.”
“I just don’t want them to stop loving like I did, this game,” Horton said as he spoke of today’s players. “Because this game to me is a brotherhood, a fraternity you belong to.”
He said that after games, the shirt of his baseball uniform never touched the floor in the clubhouse.
“That’s the pride,” Horton said.
Horton, a left-fielder, played 15 seasons with Detroit, winning the World Series in 1968 against the St. Louis Cardinals. A four-time All Star, Horton has worked in the Tigers’ front office since 2003.
Speaking on his life, Horton said that growing up in Detroit, he didn’t realize the racial problem in the United States at the time until he left home for Florida in his early career with the Tigers.
Taxi cabs, he said, for instance, were always available in Detroit. However, he couldn’t get a ride there in Florida and had to walk miles to his destination. He also wasn’t able to room with white players like he’d been able to in the past.
He said others, however, took him under their wing – including Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell and player Hank Greenberg. Through Greenberg he would go on to meet both trail-blazing player Jackie Robinson and legendary comedian Bob Hope, who helped Horton start his work with the military, which he said continues to this day.
Horton said that in his journey through life, he learned that the hardships he’s experienced made a better man out of him.
“I just thank the good lord that he surrounded me with good people, helped me grow,” Horton said. “My grandkids are my strength, what keeps me going with my life. My wife’s been my backbone all these years… We lean on each other to walk straight,” he said.
More than 90 people were in attendance at the program at its 2 p.m. start time, and Horton took a large number of questions from the audience.
Asked about the size of bat he used (Horton said he swung a bat 35.5 inches long, weighing 38 to 40 ounces), Horton said that at most he’d use three bats a year, fixing the ones he’d broken.
“You can’t hit nobody unless you respect the pitcher,” he said. “I just learned to adjust to them.”
“I learned to respect all pitchers, whether you’re a 20-game winner or a 20-game loser. That’s something I promised my dad,” Horton said in response to another questions about curveball pitchers. “What it does, it helped me to do my homework. I think that’s the best way.”
Asked whether he’d rather hit a home run, or throw a man out at home plate – as he famously did to Lou Brock during the 1968 World Series – Horton responded “Whatever wins the game. I learned to play for the ‘W’.”
Asked about the difference between today’s baseball and when he played in the 1950s and 1960s, Horton opined that some rules today are getting away from the “human” part of the game.
“As far as the players,” he said, “I think the players are more conditioned, more stronger, even the little guys. They train year-round and they got their own strength coach. And I’m concerned about the pitchers,” because they seem to get injured frequently. He said pitchers should back off from weight training, which feels is the reason for their injuries.
Horton said the players “still have the love (of the game) but maybe not show it the way I did,” noting that, for instance, after a loss, the team members would sit in the clubhouse and talk about it for hours. Now, players just leave after the games are done.
“I think for us playing the game, emotionally and love and respect, I think they have the same feeling we have,” Horton said of today’s players. “You’ve got to have fun in this game, for you to keep learning.”
Asked another question about hitting, Horton – who said he recently turned 80 years old – rose from his chair and proceeded to put on a demonstration for the crowd, getting into batting stances and pivoting easily.
One fan in attendance was 9-year-old Noah Olszewski, Fort Wayne, Indiana, who was there with his grandfather, Jack Hammon, Perrysburg, and other family.
“I like that he was one of the greats,” he said of Horton. Noah said he liked baseball because “it’s always a fun game, you can just relax and it’s just really fun playing the sport, because you just feel like nothing in your mind and you can just play ball.”
Mike Pegorsch, Maumee, was also in attendance. A life-long Tigers fan, he said he watched Horton play.
“I always liked him,” Pegorsch said. “He was always one of the best players.”