Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis, MO is filled to capacity. The St. Louis Cardinals are on their home turf fighting for the rights to the 1968 World Series championship against the mighty Detroit Tigers.
The quest for the championship has advanced to Game Seven, but Willie Horton’s “… perfect throw to catcher Bill Freehant nailed Lou Brock in Game 5 [ turning] around the 1968 World Series…” in favor of Detroit.
The Cardinals lost for the first time in their history to the Detroit Tigers in Game 7
A sandlot hero
Hometown hero Willie Horton ranks as one of the most popular Detroit Tigers’ players in the team’s history. He was a graduate of Detroit’s Northwestern High School and he will always be remembered for his “home run power”. Horton signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1961 and he made his official debut with the team on Sept. 10, 1963.
Horton was not played very often during the first two years of his career. Being African American presented special challenges for him and other major league players. However, his tremendous strength, often hitting home runs with a one-handed swing could not be ignored by the front management.
Horton’s passion for players of color would soon strike a bone of contention with the front office. After a game in Chicago, Horton showered and left the ballpark. He did not show up for the team flight to Minnesota, so Manager Mayo Smith suspended Horton. The suspension cost Horton $1,300.
In Horton’s 2004 biography, he wrote that he walked out because he”… was upset with the Tiger organization for failing to bring up more black players to the major league club”.
“I was very upset because I wanted to see more blacks on the Tigers so I met with Mr. Fetzer and Jim Campbell to discuss the issue,” Horton told the Detroit Free Press in an article on the 50th Anniversary of Ozzie Virgil breaking the Tigers’ color barrier in 1958. When “Willie the Wonder” went AWOL, his actions made headlines in the newspapers and became one of the top stories on Detroit radio and television. “I won’t repeat everything I said but it paid off because we started to get more black players,” he said. “I got it off my chest”.
“Willie Horton’s throw to gun down Lou Brock at home plate changed the 1968 World Series and led to the Tigers’ third championship”.
Horton posted double-digit home run totals in 12 regular seasons from 1965–76, and hit two home runs in a game on 30 occasions. He had a career-high 36 HRs in 1968, a pitcher’s year in which Detroit won the World Series;
It is often called the biggest defensive play in Tigers history. Willie Horton threw out Lou Brock of the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, turning the tide in what was a 3-1 series deficit for Detroit.
The play; how it went down
It has been written that Horton was the most consistent bat in the Tigers’ lineup in the 1968 season.
Willie’s right arm did all of the talking in the 1968 World Series.
It was the fifth inning of Game 5. Detroit was trailing 3-2. Cardinal Lou Brock was up to bat. He was salivating to piggy back on Julian Javier who had just hit a single to left field.
Horton let go of his famous Willie Horton fireball. Freehan caught the ball and he tagged Brock out swinging the Series in Detroit’s favor.
The Tigers rotated four good hitting outfielders during the season; Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley, Al Kaline, and Jim Northrup.
Tiger’s Opening Day is as much about the City of Detroit and the nation as it is about the game.
In 1968 the Vietnam War was a sore spot in the nation; Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated; the Republican Party nominated Richard Nixon as their presidential candidate, and in 1967 Detroit had been the scene of one of the nation’s most deadly riots.
Winning the World Series was a much needed high for the city and a great momentary diversion from the War and the recent assassinations.
Willie Horton helped in taking the color barrier down and on Opening Day 2013, Horton threw out the first pitch at Comerica Park in Detroit. The Tigers went on to win 8–3 over the New York Yankees.
As the first black star of the Tigers, Horton stood out because he was “our” hometown hero and the team’s only regular starting African-American from 1965 to 1974.