S:Is this piece supposed to be for Western New Yorkers or mostly Motor City residents? As Willie Horton’s latest memoir is sure to interest Detroit Tigers fans, especially those old enough to remember their march to the 1968 American League title and (after trailing in three games), an improbable World Series victory, the near-miss Bob Gibson and Bob Gibson. his St. Louis Cardinals.
They will learn here that, as always, teamwork was a key element in that stellar season, with various unheralded cogs in the wheel contributing. As did Tigers stars like Danny McLain (a 30-game winner in ’68 and probably his last), and especially in the series, rugged southpaw Mickey Lolich. (Who grew up right-handed).
Of course, the big name in that club was the much-adored Al Kalin, a future Hall of Famer. Playing only for the Tigers in a career spanning more than 20 years, the all-round right fielder once epitomized all that was good about the national pastime.
The old adage goes that no one is a hero to their valets, and while Horton was markedly out of touch with Kalin, he was close to the man on a daily basis during his many years on the team. And he confirms every good thing you’ve heard about Al K before. Even up close, Willie felt the man was classy and a role model worth emulating, though he didn’t talk much and never out of place.
Horton believes the icon’s poise comes from being a teenage “bonus kid” with the Tigers in the early ’50s and necessarily walking on eggshells around veterans twice his age. It also came after Kalin, then suddenly shot to stardom in his 20s, via a batting championship and expectations that he would now be nothing less than the next Ty Cobb. It all made him just hunker down and do his thing, which he did so well.
But if Horton or other teammates had questions about how to hit certain pitchers or where to position themselves on the field, Kalin was ready to offer help, and reliably so. Somehow, Willie returned the favor by running to Al after the fielding collision and pulling his tongue out of his throat, which he had swallowed and which would have choked him.
Naturally, Horton doesn’t shy away from the once seductive Motown Fire (1967) and his involvement in trying to stifle violence and destruction as the titular Tiger.
He also doesn’t sidestep the issue of how few blacks made it to the majors in the ’50s and early ’60s, especially in the AL. He really outlines all that discrimination in an evocative way.
But he does not allocate a place to the current irony. that today, with almost no discrimination in probaseball, at least on the diamond, American blacks aim less and less at that sport’s greats in favor of football or basketball. , or other pursuits. This is also true of many whites (drive around the country in the summer and see all the empty parks that once held game in abundance).
Leaving the playing field more open to players from Mexico, the Caribbean or Central and South America. Basically, they’re just hungrier and less grinning. So now it seems. And the owners are paying handsomely for the talent they’ve honed more casually than many homeboys do in what was once America’s favorite game.
Overall, fewer and fewer Hortons or Hank Aarons are coming down the pike. And less Pete Roses or Kalines. To quote another cliché, nothing stays the same, right?
But it sure is nice to bask in that kind of nostalgia, right? Not all co-authored Golden Age memoirs are created equal. Quite a few others are coming out too, and plenty of graying boomers (like me) keep gobbling them up.
But within this genre, give me Horton’s as a pretty unique proposition. This is a truly fine man who brought a lot to baseball as well as the world outside the ballpark. And his book will make both football fans and social history buffs wonder just how radically things have changed in this country, for better or for worse.
BB Singer taught at several area colleges, including Niagara University.