DETROIT — Willie Horton was 4 years old when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
Horton was the youngest of 21 children in a coal-mining family in Arno, Va., and remembers his father, James, boarding a bus with some friends for a trip to see Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers play the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field.
“Papa would tell me all about Jackie,” Horton said.
In the mid-1960s, as an All-Star left fielder for the Detroit Tigers, his manager took Horton to meet his father’s hero in New York. Chuck Dressen, who also managed Robinson on the Dodgers, and Horton went to the Harlem liquor store owned by Roy “Campy” Campanella for the occasion.
Horton and Dressen made their way to the office in back of the store, where Campanella, paralyzed from the shoulders down following an auto accident, sat in a wheelchair next to Robinson, his fellow Baseball Hall of Famer.
“It was such a great feeling walking in there,” Horton said. “I could not wait to tell Papa that I met Jackie, and tell Momma, too.
“We sat and just talked about everything: history, baseball, community and life.
“My dad always told me, ‘Once you sign a contract, your life belongs to the fans.’ After talking to them, it really helped me live my life for the fans, community and my dad.
“You get bruised along the way, but you’ve got to make it better for the people coming after you.”
On Monday, April 15, the 66th anniversary of Robinson’s first game at Ebbets Field, all uniformed personnel taking part in major league games will wear Robinson’s No. 42.
Horton, 70, spoke on Wednesday in his office at Comerica Park, where he serves as an assistant to Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski. Horton crossed the bridge from being a home-run hitting star of the 1968 World Series champion Tigers to impacting not only the team but the city he moved to at age 9.
“You know,” Horton said, “I was the fourth person in the state to have a day named in their honor. Rosa Parks was the third.”
His birthday, Oct. 18, is Willie Horton Day in Michigan, by proclamation of the governor since 2004 for his continued humanitarian efforts in the city and state.
Horton chose the Tigers over the New York Yankees, who courted him during his phenomenal career at Detroit Northwestern High, partly because Detroit had called up an African-American second baseman named Jake Wood to start and lead off.
“My dad let me skip school on April 11, 1961, to see Jake Wood,” said Horton, who would be playing at Tiger Stadium with Wood, a life-long friend, just two years later.
Horton sensed prejudice at many turns in both the minors and majors with jeering, racial slurs and “Colored” and “White” drinking fountains.
He could not stay in hotels with his white teammates or eat in many of the restaurants they ate at. He had to walk “nearly five or six miles” daily from where he stayed in Lakeland, Fla., to the Tigers’ spring training facilities because no taxi driver would pick him up.
“I thought it was a joke,” Horton said, rhetorically. “So I walked every day. And those walks caused me to take a stand in my own organization, in Detroit during the ’67 riots and with military groups.
“But it was hard to get through. I went through hell the first five years I was up. But Ernie Harwell took me in and treated me like a son, and George Kell also took me under his wing. I learned how to accept things because of those two great men.”
Harwell and Kell, a Hall of Fame third baseman, were devout Christians from the South. The two Tigers announcers knew what Horton was up against and invited him into their homes and lives.
Tigers owner John Fetzer and general manager Jim Campbell also impacted Horton’s life.
“My family was threatened,” Horton said. “We had somebody internally telling people around the league how to pitch to me. I had hate mail coming from somebody in the organization. Mr. Campbell got rid of them and helped bring more blacks into the majors.
“I went AWOL for a couple games in 1972 to get the Tigers to call up black players like Ike Brown and Les Cain. I was taking a stand like Dr. (Martin Luther) King.
“During the riots, I went into the streets wearing my uniform after one game. People were afraid for my safety, but we had to bring peace to the city. And then I worked on things (with state government) in Lansing to heal the city.
“It shouldn’t be about black and white, you know. My grandmother was white; she married a black man.”
Horton leaned back in his office chair, smiling at the photo of fireworks going off when his No. 23 was retired and a ballpark statue of him was unveiled in 2000.
“I remember talking to Jackie Robinson about the truth,” Horton said, “and Jackie was a pyramid for me. Everything came down from Jackie.
“I look at that statue and remember a trail of pain and see a trail of beautiful hope ahead.”