Willie Horton, December 7th, 2017


Willie Horton, December 7th, 2017


In this interview, Willie Horton discusses growing up in Detroit in the 1960s in the Jeffries Housing Projects, his impressions of the city, his actions during the events of 1967 as a member of the Detroit Tigers, and his ongoing work with the community both in Detroit and in Lakeland, Florida.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Oral History

Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Willie Horton

Brief Biography

Willie Horton was born in Virginia and came to Detroit as a boy. He attended Detroit Northwestern High School and signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1961. He made his major league debut in 1963. After retiring from professional baseball, he worked with the Detroit Police Department and was active in the formation of the PAL program.

Interviewer's Name

William Winkel

Interview Place

Detroit, MI



Interview Length



Julie Vandenboom

Transcription Date



WW: Hello. My name is William Winkel. Today is December 7, 2017. I'm in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society's Detroit 67 Oral History Project, and today I'm sitting down with Willie Horton. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.

WH: Thank you.

WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when you were born?

WH: I was born in 1942, in a small town: Arno, Virginia. My parents came north when I was about nine or ten, and I went back down south so I could play baseball down there for a year, and then I came back, been here ever since - before my early teens. Raised up in Detroit. Jeffries Projects. And, matter of fact, this is our old neighborhood. We used to run around over here at Wayne State.

WW: Why did your parents leave Virginia for Detroit?

WH: Well, my dad's mine got shut down, and that's when he came back up this way. You know, they closed down all the mines down there in Virginia, where we were living at at the time.

WW: When you came to Detroit for the first time, do you remember your first impression?

WH: Well, when I first came to Detroit, I was about five or six. My mom's people lived here. I was coming down today, I was thinking about the streetcars I used to get on and ride down Grand River. And then I - that's the first time. Then after that, just come back here, getting raised up in the neighborhood around people, and raised up around the Jeffries Projects. And you know, what fascinated me, everybody thought it was all black, but there were just as many white people in the Jeffries Projects. A lot of people went to Wayne State and stuff like that. But it was a very experience - helped me in my life - coming through that era.

WW: When you came up to Detroit to live, did you feel comfortable when you went around the city and hung out?

WH: When you're a young man you just didn't - you didn't worry about it. You just did things. I tell people, I came up during the time - my first five years in the big league were racial. And that's many years after Jackie Robinson. But our neighborhood, you know - and I talk about this a lot - was churches and schools. We need to get - them two things need to get back together. You had drugs. Drugs been here, but churches and schools, whether your race was black or white, they was your community. And that's what I think about. We did things together - maybe didn't go to school with, but we did everything in the community - neighborhood - together, so I think about that a lot, through my life, as I travel. And it helped me as I started in baseball.

WW: And you said you went back South to start playing baseball again?

WH: Well, when I was younger I went back, and for some reason they wanted to play tee ball or something up here, I forgot, and I'd always been advanced. I went back down to Tennessee and I used my brother Billy's birth certificate so I could play in a higher league. So, I stayed down there one year with my brothers and then after that Mr. Thompson was going to Wayne State - which he was, got drafted by the Rams, and he got hurt, and he was over at Wayne getting his degree, and he came by [Poe ?] School ground, and one day he stopped, and he asked you guys, do you want to play baseball? So, he said, meet me back here next Monday.

So, all the kids in the community, we met him back over there. That's how we got started and actually I talk about how he started the Ravens, from the Ravens to Brown Insulation to the west side clubs. And that's all that started years ago, but thanks to Ron Thompson and people like that, that's the reason I'm here speaking today.

WW: What year did you head south to play ball?

WH: I really don't know. It had been early - I'd go back - I was about nine years old, so you go back - I'm 75, so you can kind of go back in the years and figure that out, but right off, I can't say.

WW: No worries. When you were away from the city did you stay away, or were you coming back intermittently?

WH: I came back at the end of the summer. I'd go back, that first time I played baseball in Kingsport, Tennessee, and actually we had a tournament up in around Louisville, Kentucky, that area, and that's the first time I met Pete Rose as a young man - kid - and Eddie Brinkman. And we all started, the first time I ever laid my eye on them, and later on in my career, playing in Detroit, going to a tournament where I met him again. But I think if you look back, what kept me going in life, I always wanted to do try to do something. I didn't know what at the time. I'm very fortunate my parents got Judge [Damon] Keith at the time to become my legal advisor when I was 13 years old. And what I learned from him, between thirteen and seventeen I signed on - I don't think I could have gotten that learning from eight years in college. But I'm just thinking - today he's still my dad. I call him dad. And he went on - been a famous judge in this country and - but he was a lawyer and people don't realize he was the first black firm to come across Woodward. At the time, you know, on the west side.

WW: As you're coming back to the city and growing up, through the fifties, do you see any rising tension in the city?

WH: Naw, not really. You didn't think - when you were a kid, a young man - you didn't think about it. A lot of things you heard were going on, but, you know, adult, whether you're black or white, they kept a lot of things away from the kids. And we didn't know the difference. Probably a lot of things going on we didn't know - all we looked for, going out to school, going out to the playground and play, doing things together, walking out to Belle Isle and stuff like that. I think as I heard about these things, coming up a kid, I guess when I got involved and paying more attention to it, is after I signed the contract.

WW: Similar question. When you were in the South, did you see the Civil Rights Movement in action?

WH: Not really. We - like I said, down there we only - it was the neighborhood. We always did things together and - you didn't go to school - but I've been around white people, down in Virginia, in Arno, just as much as I've been around black people. Only thing was different - you noticed you just didn't go to school with your best buddy. When I did my first book, years ago, I reunioned with a kid I ain't saw since we were little kids. His name is Munson, in Virginia - but all you did, you would go fishing together - and I mean, we used to - we called them creeks, and we used to catch these fish, we called them suckers – they were like catfish – with our hands, in the creek, and I think about that, and I met him walking to go downtown to play baseball. I cut through their neighborhood, where he's living. We start walking and then I got more involved in baseball, and he did too, and I think what he learned from sports he went on and became a great man in the political world.

WW: Aside from baseball did you play any other sports in the city?

WH: I played - well, you know, I played football. I played basketball. I boxed. Boxing gym was not too far from here - I see they should put a historic site over - used to be Kelsey Recreation Center, but they're going to put some kind of power plant there. They should put some kind of historic name - a lot of people came through there, went on and had fame in life. But you know, we just kept it together. You know, my boxing coach, matter of fact, he got to be up around 90, he's still living. He's still sitting on the boxing committee on Parks and Recreation, the city now. Martin Gillgate.

It just - it kept us busy. You know, you get out of school, you go do one thing. You kept busy. But I think where they learn you - I'd like to see kids get involved in more than one sport. I think it helps your decision skills when you play more than one sport. You might not be good in all of it, but it helps your decision skills, where you can make better choices in life.

WW: Throughout the 1950s and going into the sixties, did you continue living at the Jeffries Projects?

WH: Back and forth. My mom and daddy had a two-room - actually, a two-room apartment, but Jeffries Projects was close to where my mom then, I stayed with my sister, Faye Griffin, and from that, I used to go home, back and forth. It just - you know, in our community, actually, your house - your door - for the people in the community, the door was open for anybody. They'd help you, feed you. I don't think - I don't think I ever went hungry, because you can eat at anybody's house. But I think - I think about that - I go by all the community where I was raised up, now they got new condos and houses over there, they just put a new baseball field several years back, at the playground where we started playing ball as a kid - and usually on the way down to the ballpark I usually drive through there. I usually drive down there two or three times a week.

WW: Going into the sixties, you, of course, joined the Tigers in '63?

WH: No, I came up. I signed in '61. I signed a hardship case to help my parents. And from the hardship case, Judge Keith got involved. There was still racial problems in baseball and stuff like that. And actually, my dad requested that I stay at home with the Tigers, because he let me - 1961, before I signed, to go see Jake Wood, the first black player - African American player - 12 years after Jackie Robinson came through this organization. And that's the reason I signed with the Tigers. I thought I was going to sign for the Yankees, Baltimore, I'd been working out with them. But going down Trumbull towards the ballpark, I asked Papa why we're going that way. He said, “I decided, young man, let you see play baseball, back in June - I mean in April - I think the eleventh or tenth - that I think you can stay home, maybe you might make it different for more black players in the future.”

WW: As you're now on an MLB [Major League Baseball] team, and you're growing in national significance, do you become involved in the national civil rights discussion, or do you focus on baseball?

WH: Well yeah, I got involved, to tell you the truth, go back when I left home. I talk about this a lot - I probably experienced what Mother Parks - Rosa Parks - experienced on the bus - but at the time the bus was full, and I went to the back anyway, but in Lakeland, I got out at the bus station, I want to get a ride to Tigertown - and I thought that - he said he can't take me. You know, at home, I see Yellow Cab, Checker Cab, I said I want to go to Tigertown. He said "I can't take you." And I - to me, I thought - thought he was playing a joke. You know, you leave away from home, you hear about people playing jokes on guys go to college - freshmen and stuff like that - I get my duffelbags, I walk six miles - between four and six miles to Tigertown. And it's funny, after I got there, it still didn't sink in until there was a white kid - I forget his name - we played baseball against each other in Detroit, and we wanted to room together, and I couldn't room together with him.

So, from all the hardship case that I experienced, got me where I went beyond the field. I think to Ernie Harwell and George Kell kind of helped prep me, what I was going to have to go through when I come up with the Tigers. Actually, I used to go eat at Ernie's home on Sunday, to have dinner with him and his family. And they kind of got me into doing that, and I kind of got ready for what I would have to come toward in the future.

And after spring training, we left, and then here going to Duluth, Minnesota my first year, and I have highest respect to [Al Lakeland ?], our manager - that we couldn't stay at the hotel and he took the older guys, and they drew - driving all the way to Duluth, Minnesota, so I think about him in life, and he kind of - people like that help you get where you want to go out and try to make a difference for everybody. And through Ernie Harwell I met Bob Hope. I got involved with the military bases and I'm still involved with the military bases. I've been overseas with Bob Hope for a time, and six other times, and you know, I just - from that, it makes you say - things that you appreciate, that you can reach back and try to put some things together to help all people. Through the military, and I think it helped me get more involved in the community. You know, if you get exposed - standing out in the woods with them at night, not just going there to say hi and goodbye, but you got totally involved. And actually I'm still doing that today with the Tigers. We've got a partnership with Fort Benning. We bring soldiers to spring training, and the families. I go down in November to graduation, et cetera.

WW: Were you in town in '63 for the march down Woodward?

WH: I was out playing in '63. My dad was a part of it. He called me, and Papa, he was part of it, when Dr. King did the march, and I learned through Judge Keith, as a lawyer, that was going to happen. Then I had the opportunity later on meeting Dr. King through Judge Keith, and that's when I said I met a lot of famous people: presidents, entertainment and movie actors through Judge Keith, but I never forget that. But I had opportunity of meeting him before I got home down in Memphis, Tennessee, when he gave a speech down there and I never forget that. And things like that keep you growing. And through life, I look back, and I think that's what keeps me going now, and I try to carry myself according to that.

WW: Getting closer to '67, did you feel any rising tension in the city, or sense anything coming?

WH: Nope. And I remember, it's a funny thing about that. Jake Wood, after he got involved, and I hear his story, and Jake – I got him back involved with the Tigers now, and Jake, he's 80, 81, still playing 72 games of softball. But to hear him speak, he didn't realize that was going on. And I - you'd think, but he'd been hearing about it, he came from New Jersey, and to hear him speak, he said he looked up to me, I looked up to him, because that's the reason I signed with the Tigers, because of him, but he made a statement many times - he didn't realize until he started reading about it.

And I guess because your mind is playing baseball and being part of the fan base, which I call my extended family, and I learn how to play through the fans and made them part of my game, and listen to him say that - I would do the same thing over again because I learned an important benefit of being a professional athlete is going to play the game - and I never put the game before the fans.

WW: In '67, were you still living near the Jeffries Projects? WH: No. I - actually, Jeffries Projects, I got out of Jeffries Projects years before. Judge Keith became my league adviser when I was 13 years old. And he lived on Woodrow Wilson. I was going back and forth, staying at his place. And I actually, after I signed my contract, got mother and them a nice home out near Highland Park, and I set up a pension for my dad for ten years or so, and I think - I still didn't get away from the Projects because I never get - when I went off the first year, '61, I had met a guy that - like my mentor, that I looked up to, was Gage Brown, I talked him into coming home with me. I introduced him his wife, Norma Sterling at the time, and she was in the Projects. We were raised up together, and - but - I think about that. The connection, through people, and actually, I used to stop by there all the time. And I was in the big league and I used to stop, before they started building - developing that new development over there. But I used to stop through there and see people from the past. And that's - I never forgot where I came from. I'm very thankful and humble through God, that he kept me humble. That I never got away from that.

WW: Going into the start of the week, on Saturday night, late Saturday night, Sunday morning, how did you hear - how did you first hear about what was going on?

WH: Well actually, it was Sunday. I didn't hear about nothing like that until actually, I got involved. We had a doubleheader, I think, with the Yankees. Second game, they called the game off, they told us they wanted all of us to go home, and for insurance purposes. And I ended up putting all my clothes in a duffle bag and I end up in the middle of the riot and try to bring some peace to the people. I used to wonder why I did that, but I had no control. I think God had control over that, through the people that I mentioned in the past - Judge Keith, Ernie Harwell - they got me where I was - got involved in things like that. I think about the riot, you know, down there, seeing all this looting and burning, and I talk - try to bring peace - but I mean, the people that kept me going back - they weren't about my security. Go home, Willie, get out of here, and stuff like that.

But I didn't do that. I went home and I come back, and when I told I got involved in the city, government, trying to make it better for people in the city, and one of my pet [inaudible] in life is the PAL [Police Athletic League] program, that Mayor Greer, I think, started that after the riot. Started developing that in 1969 - 1968 - started developing the PAL program and they opened up in '69.

WW: Can you correct the mayor?

WH: It's Mayor Griss.

WW: Gribbs, okay.

WH: And it started for a program that I'm very proud of, that I came back part of that program for many years after that, after playing sports and retiring, that Coleman recruited me to come back and work through the city government, through the police department. Then I came to be a Deputy Director and a Secondary Chief, that Detroit PAL kind of helped spearhead Philadelphia PAL and other PAL around the country, and all the bylaws that they do in PAL today, that we was involved putting that together, and they still use the same bylaws through the schools and PAL around the country, that we had - Inspector Bowham, that got involved in that, and went to the national PAL convention. And they still use the regulations and rules that we established back that many years.

WW: Going back to '67, you mentioned that you were going from near the epicenter, or the scenes of violence, back to your home, and back and forth. Did you run into any issues going to and from your house -

WH: No -

WW: Or did you see anything?

WH: Actually just a few days ago, we left going into Baltimore, playing that weekend, so I didn't see anything like that. But after we came back off the road I was able to have meetings, certain meetings and stuff like that, and I started going to some of the meetings and things like that, but I'm just - and I think that's the beginning of me kind of appreciate the good Lord gave me the ability to do something, that I can get involved doing other things, far as human era of people, that I can try to make a difference in their life.

WW: Did any of your family members have their property damaged, or -

WH: No.

WW: That's good.

WH: No. We - actually, my sister and them, actually still staying living in the Projects and stuff like that. And I know some people down Twelfth Street, that's the only problem got messed up a little bit. I seen a lot of history things - and last year they did a book, a story on the riots in '67 and I never would ask. I used to wonder why I never asked to be part of that, because I was very incidentally involved in that, but I think I've seen a lot of people say the bad things about the riot, but I seen some good things come out of the riot. I seen Detroit grow at the time - whether you want to admit that, or people to admit that, you know, most black people was in the Black Bottom. And through the riot, that's when we started branching out. You might call it a hardship at the beginning when you branch out into the community, but I think that was opportunity. And I seen Detroit grow in the minority area.

WW: You’ve referred to '67 as a riot a number of times. Is that how you frame what it was?

WH: I don't know what time, we was just playing. I don't - I can't say. All I seen was black smoke, look across, over the right field stands. And I didn't have a general idea what was going on until they called the game off.

WW: Oh no, I'm sorry. I mean - do you see it as a riot? Do you see it as an uprising, as a rebellion?

WH: Well, I was concerning, to me, in life, arise - you know, you do it, but don't get away from the meaning. I was telling the people, don't burn your own stuff down. Don't be looting, taking stuff. You defeat what the purpose was. And I'm just - we're just very fortunate they didn't get away from that, because they got busy trying to handle the problem with our own, tick that off, and try to correct it for the future. But sometimes you get - you get out there, defeat the purpose, and people thing you're out there just to start a riot, looting, it wasn't about that. It was about what went on with the police officer and some private people at a club or something.

WW: The police are routinely cited as a major force in inciting '67. How did you feel later on when you joined the police department? Did you think it had changed by that point?

WH: Well, that's many years after I played. You know, I came back - Coleman had a person named Charlie Pringman recruited me. I was living in Seattle, came back and got involved through that, and through the PAL organization. And I had opportunity to get involved with the Police Academy and stuff like that, understand all the bylaws and responsibilities, respect the uniform. I got totally involved. I'm very fortunate, I ended up as Secondary Chief, but that was many years after I retired from baseball.

WW: You mentioned that you became much more - not more involved, but you stayed involved in the community after '67.

WH: Well, actually, I started back in the community involvement back after I signed in '63 - '62, '63, when I met Bob Hope and et cetera. Actually I went back down in 1968, and had the war going on, went back down - and what's the name -

WW: Vietnam?

WH: Vietnam War. And I went back down there after the World Series and I'll never forget Mr. Fessie called, so what are you doing down there? You know. And they're concerned. I came back. But it's something that through that relationship with the military, and I think, working in the community, what got me today doing the same thing in the community, down in Florida now, is through churches and schools.

WW: Did anybody question that? Did anybody else - did anyone wonder why you were becoming so involved when so many people were leaving?

WH: Not really. I didn't - you know, I did things, and my heart's always been about Detroit. And the state - the people of the state of Michigan. I never been questioned why I did, right to today, and I just did things. And you know, I think that's one reason I'm back doing things now and thanks to Mr. Illitch and his family got me involved many years ago, and - but he got me back, not only in baseball, got me involved with the people in the community and their concern of treating people right.

WW: Going into '68. The '68 World Series win was really big for Detroit, and many people cite it as a moment of Detroit coming together. From your personal experience, what do you think it did for the city?

WH: I think it did a lot for the city. It started after we lost in '67, one game, and going into the winter, going into spring training, and started to open the season. People don't realize, newspapers were on the strike then. And I think playing good baseball, and people listen to Ernie Harwell's voice, I seen people - start getting more people at the ballpark and I seen black and white people sitting together, talking together, cheering us on, and a lot of times you need that support when you're with the newspaper, but we didn't have that. I think this town grow closer, because the newspaper's on the strike. I think sometimes, political-wise, things you read might keep you separated. But I seen where we went on, I think that's one of the reasons we won. I think - I always said to myself, I think on the plat down on the ballpark, I think the good lord put us here to win, to heal the city of Detroit. So I think it played a big important role, but I think it helped us as people, the guys that are playing this game - supporters are - we didn't think about it. We started taking, leading in baseball. And I think it started from the riot, and we went to spring training, so we knew we had the best team, we're going to win. And I think that newspaper on the strike, and Ernie Harwell's voice, I seen this city kind of grow together.

WW: Are there any other stories you'd like to share today?

WH: Well, I can talk all day when it comes to people and stuff like that. You know, I'm just very fortunate, back involved, and still involved, like I said, Mr. Illitch got me involved, and his family. And I think about - I go back many years ago, and what's going on in the city now, thanks to Mr. Illitch and his commitment through Coleman Young, that things that are going on, there's been a commitment for him to move downtown, which you see going on, and I think, if you go down there now, you see things growing every week, every day. And I'm 75, and I hope, I envision, I see - I know I won't see Hudson's back, because I used to love to do downtown around Christmas time to see them light up the Christmas lights on the side of the Hudson's building - but now he's got other things down there, and I really enjoy looking at the pictures of downtown at nighttime now, you see a lot of life.

But I think it goes back to - thank Mr. Illitch's family for doing that, for his commitment with Coleman, what's going on now, downtown, but I always think about uproar and the riots and stuff. Most young people don't realize what's going on. It's just like, you go to college, they see things going on in college, you start one of them. I'm following this kid. I'm following this one. They don't have an idea what's going on, they're just following the crowd. But - and that's why I said a couple years back, when Baltimore was having a problem. I said, if they get the people together, the people are going to heal that. And that's what I saw. Political wise, they kind of keep you far away, getting to the truth. But if you listen to the people in the community, that's who heals things like that. And primarily I think, that's what I'm still doing. Doing here, and I'm involved in a program down in Florida in spring training and Polk County and Lakeland and it's something that it's all - the story what we're doing down there is all about what I just explained to you. Go back three years ago and Mr. Illitch told me to go for it. You know, and this thing is growing across Polk County and I hope one day it might be a model for this country, what started when our childhood, coming up in Detroit, and my vision of the future, and Mr. Illitch's support, that right now we - I think we've got over 2200 foot soldiers in the Polk County community. And it's started from incident. But the key to this is churches and schools, and I'm - it's - if you look at life, sometime in the last 50 years or so, I seen churches and schools got separated. We lost a lot of faith in our schools. But you bring them two back together, I think they'll teach you about - remind you how you know your next door neighbor's name and stuff like that. But that's what I like to see. How many more years I've got left, thank the good lord, that I can see that come together, and I think that'll be nice for here in Detroit and for this country.

WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.

WH: Thank you.

WW: I really appreciate it.

WH: Thank you.

Original Format



30min 44sec


William Winkel


Willie Horton


Detroit, MI


“Willie Horton, December 7th, 2017,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed January 25, 2022, http://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/643.

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