MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

Horton reflects on '67 in Detroit in wake of Baltimore unrest

Horton reflects on '67 in Detroit in wake of Baltimore unrest

The evolution of the game has added a number of terms to baseball's glossary in recent years, and the specialization in the game has added a number of titles to the rosters of players and coaches.

We now have seventh- and eighth-innings guys -- hardly formal job descriptions -- as well assistant hitting coaches, bench coaches, infield coaches and the ever-critical situational lefty. Joe Torre had his Hall of Fame buddy Bob Gibson serve as the Mets' "attitude coach" in 1981. That designation wasn't official either.

And in 1985, the year that brought the fourth of five tours of duty for Billy Martin as manager of the Yankees, the club created a role for a man perfectly suited for the title.

Willie Horton was the Yanks' "tranquility coach."

Don Baylor hung that designation on the former Tigers slugger in the aftermath of the unpopular -- with the players -- dismissal of Yogi Berra as manager and the reappointment of Martin when the Yankees' season was 16 games old. That Horton also carried the title of assistant hitting coach was accurate but mostly cosmetic. He was in the employ of George Steinbrenner primarily to keep the peace.

Horton had experience in the role, though not in the game. Eighteen years earlier, he was a menacing, thick-muscled 24-year-old brute who became a peacemaker when his hometown was under attack from within. Detroit was ablaze during the perilous race riots of 1967. Horton used his celebrity, his heart and spontaneous words to try to calm the outraged city.

And now, with Balitmore in the throes of similar turmoil, the influence Horton had in what ironically coincided with the "Summer of Love" of 1960s counterculture is readily recalled.

Speaking from his home outside Detroit on Wednesday afternoon, Horton noted the parallels that exist between what he experienced 48 years ago and what he had witnessed in Baltimore while monitoring television reports this week.

"It's like a movie about what we went through," Horton said. "Different times, different situations, but it's the same, too. It hurt then. That was my city. And it hurt now. I've always hoped we'd never see things like we saw in '67 again. But we still have problems. And we're not good at solving them."

Horton was unaware of comments made earlier Wednesday by Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, yet what he expressed and what Jones already had said covered identical territory. And the voices of both men sounded like stereo echoes from 1967.

Orioles home games against the White Sox scheduled for Monday and Tuesday were not played, and when the teams did play Wednesday, they did so in a semblance of silence. No crowd, little noise and fears that had existed were assuaged.

Horton recalled how games at Tigers Stadium had been postponed in 1967. And he remembered leaving the ballpark by car -- he said Christ was driving -- wearing his uniform and an expression of dread.

"I found myself on 12th Street," Horton said.

It was 12th and Clairmount, not far from the Jeffries Projects where Horton had spent much of his childhood and adolescence. He found himself standing on the hood of his car, still dressed in Tigers garb. He was saying "Give Peace a Chance" before Lennon sang it.

"Trying to build peace" is what Horton called it Wednesday.

Some demonstraters did calm down.

"They were worried about me getting hurt while I was trying to bring them peace," Horton said. "They didn't want to hurt the Tigers."

Horton tried to reason with the rioters.

"I told them, 'Don't destroy your neighborhood. Your schools. You're going to live here when this ends. You're defeating the purpose.'"

Horton called on the looters -- he had little tolerance for them then and has little now -- to cease and desist.

"There's no excuse for looting," he said several times. Jones had expressed similar thoughts in Baltimore.

Horton recognizes what he calls "losing the sense of community." He sees it in general society. It troubles Horton that he thinks he sees it in baseball clubhouses, too. And, he said repeatedly, "It has nothing to do with color. ... There's no color to that."

Color was part of it once. Horton recalled his first Spring Training camp in 1961. The Tigers trained in Lakeland, Fla., as they still do. A cab refused to take him from the airport to Tigertown. So Horton walked the six miles. He later learned he couldn't room with a friend from Detroit who was white.

The long walk had given Horton more time to think than he wanted. But he used it well.

"It made me a better person," Horton said. "It made me better beyond the field."

Horton learned from other black players, including Larry Doby, the American League's Jackie Robinson. Buck O'Neil was a tutor too, and Ernie Banks called him regularly. He cheered when he saw the Baltimore mother discipline her son on the streets.

"Tough love is what we have to have," Horton said. "These kids have rights, but they don't have the right to tear down their city. They're pushing away their own community. How is that going to help?"

And Horton recalled how, in 1968, while other cities burned, Detroit was not the hot spot it had been a year earlier. He likes to think his words brought some calm to his hometown, and that they had a lasting impact.

The Tigers would go to the World Series that year. Denny McLain would win 31 games. Horton still is gratified by the relative quiet of 1968. It was uplifting, better than seeing his teammate Mickey Lolich armed and policing an area of Detroit as a member of the National Guard.

"Mickey was my friend," Horton said.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.