Long before Willie Horton became a leader both on and off the field for the Detroit Tigers, the eventual four-time All-Star was making his mark on the high school and sandlot fields of Detroit.
He was known as “Willie the Wonder” as a youth.
Born in Arno, Virginia, Horton’s father moved Willie and his family to Detroit when Willie was just five years old. He grew up in the shadows of Tiger Stadium, known at the time as Briggs Stadium.
The youngest of 21 children, Horton lived in the Jeffries Projects located near the Lodge freeway in Detroit. Despite his big family, it didn’t take long though for Horton to stand out. His baseball skills were quickly getting noticed.
Wille attended Northwestern High School in Detroit, he soon displayed the skills that eventually would lead to a career with the Tigers.
Northwestern High School was a hotbed for athletic talent. Along with Horton, the Colts produced Alex Johnson, Henry Carr and John Mayberry among others.
Johnson would go on to win a batting title in 1960 with the Angels. Carr won two gold medals in the 1964 Olympics in Track and Field, and Mayberry, a 15-year major league veteran, played in two All-Star games.
But Horton’s credentials took a back seat to none among Detroit’s homegrown baseball talent.
Before crafting an 18-year major league career, Horton flashed his skills as a 16-year-old sophomore. Representing Northwestern High, Horton led the Colts to a 13-10 win over Cass Tech in the City League Championship in 1959.
One at-bat, in particular, is still talked about to this day. In his first at-bat in the first inning, Horton launched a ball over the right-field fence at Briggs Stadium. The ball not only cleared the fence but landed on the roof after hitting the light tower. The same light tower that was famously reached by Reggie Jackson in the 1971 All-Star game.
What made the blast memorable is that Horton was a right-handed batter and reached the roof to the opposite field. Again, he was only 16 years old. Let that sink in.
The nickname “Willie the Wonder” was born.
In his 2004 autobiography, The People’s Champion: Willie Horton, He remembered the mammoth blast this way:
“The ball exploded off my bat and it kind of shocked me. I had never hit a ball quite that hard before. I just stood there and the umpire had to tell me to run.”
Horton’s teammate Matt Snorton also homered in the game for the Colts. Snorton went on to play football at Michigan State in the 60’s and was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 2nd round of the 1964 NFL draft.
After his senior year, Horton was signed by the Tigers for $50,000. He promptly bought his parents a new home.
Nearly 40 years later, Horton had his number 23 retired by the Tigers. One of just seven numbers retired in team history.
Horton would spend 15 seasons of his major league career with his hometown Tigers, hitting 262 homers.
But it was a June night in 1959 when the legend of “Willie the Wonder” was born with one mighty swing.