You have probably heard that Al Kaline the former Detroit Tiger baseball great passed away this year at the age of 85. What you might not know is that without his former teammate Willie Horton he probably would have died 50 years earlier. Al Kaline became a legend in Detroit Tiger history when at the age of 20 he won the batting championship. He is the youngest player in history to win this coveted award even to this day. Kaline spent his entire 22 year career with the Tigers. At the time of the day of the collision Kaline was in his 18th season.
Willie Horton got called up to the Tigers in 1963. The Tigers were slow to integrate blacks into their organization. Although they had a couple of African Americans who were on the team before him, Willie was the first star the Tigers had. Being the first black star of the Tigers, Willie developed a fan following! In fact during the Detroit race riots in 1967 Willie showed up after a game, still in his uniform and tried to make peace while standing on a car. It was a hectic situation as buildings were burning all around and rioters were not hesitant to ignite destruction. It was Willie’s presence that helped to calm some of the hatred. Willie had a big heart filled with love and he cared for the city that had always been his home. He also cared for his teammates because they were “his family”, as he so eloquently stated.
Willie was counted on to do what needed to be done. Usually on the ball field it was with his bat. Willie’s physical strength was his strength. As a 16 year old high school player in 1959 10th grader Willie hit a ball in the Detroit Public Schools championship game that almost went out of Briggs Stadium. It landed on the roof and bounced back into the stands in right center field. His mighty blow happened in the very first inning and was missed by most of his Northwestern High School classmates. They didn’t start arriving at the park until later in the game as the Principal did not let them out early from school. Two years later Briggs Stadium was renamed Tiger Stadium and as an 18 year old Willie Horton signed with the Tigers.
Willie played catcher in high school but the Tigers signed another promising catcher from the campus of the University of Michigan named Bill Freehan. Willie was switched to the outfield. He learned how to play left field adequately and that was enough for the Tigers who cherished his big bat in the lineup. I remember watching Tiger games on TV in 1965. When Willie hit a home run they had a nickname for him that they flashed on the screen over and over. He was “Willie the Wonder”.
Although Willie was known for his bat he was a dependable fielder. When he got his glove on the ball he caught it. I’ll never forget one time in 1965 when the Tigers were playing the Cleveland Indians. It was in Cleveland and Willie as usual was out in left field. One of the Cleveland batters hit a high fly way back over Willie’s head. Willie went back to the wall and was looking up. He leaped for the ball but apparently it was out of his grasp. That is what George Kell, the Tigers announcer, concluded as Willie walked somberly away from the wall with his head down. The Cleveland fans were all loudly cheering and the batter was trotting his home run out around the bases when something very strange occurred. To the dismay of the cheering crowd and the happy Indian player, Willie straightened up from his slouch and threw the ball back into the infield.
Willie was also responsible for the turning point in the 1968 World Series. It was in the 5th inning of the 5th game and the Tigers were down to the Cardinals 3 games to 1. They were also losing to the Cardinals in this game 3-2. Lou Brock the Cardinals speedy outfielder was killing the Tigers with his bat. He was on second base and Julian Javier was the batter. Javier hit a line drive on one bounce to Willie. Although it looked hopeless with the speedy Brock running Willie threw without hesitation to home. The ball took one bounce and came right to Freehan just as Brock got there. A collision occurred and Brock was called out. The Tigers went on to win that game and the next two to win the World Series. It was Willie who once again made the unexpected difference making play!
As much as that play was important to the baseball team Willie made his most important play two years later. On May 30, 1970 Willie was in left field. A ball was hit by a Milwaukee player between Kaline and the center fielder Jim Northrup. They were both yelling at the top of their lungs that they had it. Unfortunately the crowd was loud and neither of them was heard. With both players running at full speed and the ball between them they collided in a horrible thud. Northrup was stunned and he wobbled to his feet looking for the ball. The Milwaukee batter ran out an inside the park home run. Willie was racing from left field. His first thought was to help any way he could to get the ball back to the infield. When he saw the play was hopeless he kept running at full speed to a dead like Kaline. When Willie reached him he noticed that Kaline was turning blue. Willie did not hesitate. He had CPR training as a youth when he was a golden gloves boxer and remembered what to do. Willie compressed Kaline’s chest, forced his jaw open and with his finger he pried Kaline’s tongue out of his throat unblocking his air passage. By the time the medical people had reached him Kaline was breathing freely again. He was put on a stretcher and carried off of the field and to a nearby hospital. Kaline spent the night there as they ran tests on him. He was able to return to the Tigers shortly thereafter.
Three months later Horton was honored for his heroics in a pregame ceremony. He was given a plaque by Dr Harold DePree from the Michigan Heart Association With Kaline standing next to him the plaque was read. “For seeing what needed to be done and doing it, thereby quite probably saving the life of his teammate Al Kaline. Unconscious after a collision in the outfield, Kaline’s jaws were locked and he was turning blue. Horton forced open his jaws, allowing air to reach his lungs. Speed in applying this first step in Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation is all important.”
Today the plaque hangs in Willie’s recreation room and it is his most cherished award. Perhaps this loving story of a black player and his white teammate should be remembered even more in the times we are living. A true love story going far beyond the call of duty resulting in a life saved. Willie expressed his feelings years later in a most humble way. “Al was part of my family and you do what you have to do to help anyone.”