Willie Horton in . . . the All-Time Franchise All Stars

July 18, 2008

A couple days ago, after hurling web-scenities at Wade Boggs, I got on an airplane, worrying that bad vibes from the vulgar, spiteful post would cause some sort of Old Testament-style high-altitude smiting. Yesterday in the hippie-thick city where a lot of my family has recently relocated to, I came out of a grocery store and some bearded dude was sitting near the carts and playing a sitar. And I thought to myself, yeah, a sitar, why the hell not? Gotta spread those good cosmic vibes, man. Ain’t no time to hate. (At least until my return flight safely lands.)

So on that note here’s Willie Horton, one of the more beloved figures in baseball history. As I see it, Willie does not quite make the cut for the all-time Tigers team, even if a designated hitter spot is added, because the Tigers have no less than four Hall of Fame outfielders ahead of him on the depth chart, plus one other candidate for the DH position, Norm Cash, whose numbers seem to be a bit better than Horton’s estimable career record.

Cash, by the way, a first baseman who gets sent to the bench by Hank Greenberg, might also have a case for the wild-card position that I have included in these lists as a way of including the one player who can’t find a spot in the starting lineup but who needs to be on the team anyway. I’m no expert on how Tigers fans generally feel about Cash, but he played for the team for a long, long time, and if the incident in which he went to bat carrying a table leg late in a game against an unhittable Nolan Ryan is any guide, his personality was surely the kind that would endear him to the fans.

But I don’t think there’s a statue of Norm Cash at the Tigers’ current ballpark, and there is one of Willie Horton. I hope that some Tigers fans can chime in about this subject, but it seems from my distant viewpoint that Willie was not only a great player for a long time but was also one of those rare players with a special knack for letting the fans know that the love they are showering down is reciprocal. In a way it’s very dumb that we fans put so much emotion into this game, but the truth is, right or wrong, we do. And we want to get the feeling that the players we are cheering for hear us and appreciate it. I think Willie Horton was able to do that.

So he’s a member of the All Time Tiger team to me, in the extremely important wild-card spot. As for the other members of the team, I’m going to leave that open for debate in hopes of encouraging smarter fans than me to chime in with their picks. I’ll eventually add my own ballot and then tally up the results.

Here are the Tigers batting and pitching leaders.

And here’s the ballot:
Wild card:


  1. 1.  What a loaded franchise. This is the kind of team that could take on the all time roster and give it a good row.
    C: Freehan
    1B: GreenBerg
    2B: Gehringer
    SS: Trammel
    3B: Ray Boone
    LF: Heilmann
    CF: Cobb
    RF: Kaline
    DH: Cash
    Wild card:Dick McAuliffe (Could play 2nd, SS, 3rd)
    SP: Hal Newhouser
    RP: Willie Hernandez

  2. 2.  1 How about George Kell at 3B. Otherwise I like your choices.

    Sentimental choice-Mickey Lolich.

  3. 3.  C: Freehan (longevity over Cochrane)
    1B: Greenberg
    2B: Gehringer
    SS: Trammell
    3B: Kell
    LF: Horton
    CF: Cobb
    RF: Kaline
    DH: Fielder
    SP: Lolich
    RP: Hiller

  4. 4.  Although Gehringer gets the obvious nod at second, let’s also consider Sweet Lou Whitaker as our intangible, if only to make Trammell feel more at home on this team. They made one heckuva tandem.

    One of the first real books I ever read as a kid was Bill Freehan’s BEHIND THE MASK, which I absolutely loved. It’s a great inside look at baseball — or at least it was when I read it, when I was about ten or eleven.

  5. 5.  Mike Dukakis wouldn’t put Horton on HIS team.

    I always felt bad for the Cardboard God Willie Horton during that episode. I wonder how many people thought he was a furloughed murderer and rapist.

  6. 6.  Believe it or not, Kaline doesn’t make my team. Sam Crawford beats him out, because:

    (a) career record for triples, 309. (Not to mention career OPS+ of 144.)

    (b) I get to keep intact what may be the greatest outfield of all time: Cobb, Crawford, Heilmann.

    (c) I love the name “Wahoo Sam” Crawford.

    I agree with Horton as the wild card. If not him, I’d choose Gates Brown.

  7. 7.  C: Freehan
    1B: Greenberg
    2B: Gehringer
    SS: Trammell
    3B: Kell
    LF: Heilmann
    CF: Cobb
    RF: Kaline
    DH: Horton
    Wild card: Cash
    SP: Lolich
    RP: Hiller

  8. 8.  2
    I was surprised at how average Mickey Lolich was. Several weeks ago someone was talking about fat pitchers so I remembered his 1968 World Series performance but in reality his career was nothing special.

    Boone or Kell, but I went with Boone and his OPS+. Hard to leave Whitaker off the list but the team was loaded at 2nd base. Tigers seem to have so many underappreciated players that I remember watching in awe. Freehan, Parrish, Northrup, Whitaker, McAuliffe, Fielder, Cash, Horton, Gibby, and my favorite Chet Lemon.

    As a kid I was astounded when the Tiger manager had the balls to move Stanley from CF to SS during the 68 world series. When Northrup hit that ball over Curt Floods head my yelling could be heard all over Germany. Little did I know at the time that Curt Flood would later make such a big sacrifice for his fellow players.

  9. 9.  I remember as a kid getting excited when I found a Mickey Lolich baseball card pretty cheap and had recalled how an older baseball fan in my family had raved about how great Mickey Lolich was so I bought the card. Thought I scored a major steal. Then I looked at his career numbers. And kept tracking the value of the card, which was never very much, and felt duped. But there apparently was something about him a lot of people liked and he had that World Series, I guess.

    can’t disagree with most of the choices here. Any team that has Hank Greenberg at first is A-OK with me.

  10. 10.  Does this team have a manager? Can I nominate Sparky?

  11. 11.  6 “(b) I get to keep intact what may be the greatest outfield of all time: Cobb, Crawford, Heilmann.”

    I think you have Heilmann confused with Veach. Heilmann and Crawford overlapped slightly, but were never great together.

  12. 12.  I was never a Tigers fan, but as a kid I was amazed at the stats on the back of Lolich’s 1973 card. I remember staring at 1971 in particular — 45 games started, 376 innings pitched. That’s 45 games started, 376 innings pitched.

    I did some quick math (maybe not so quick — I was probably nine years old), then scribbled my results on a scrap of paper.

    Now, imagine you’re my father, and you’ve invited a business associate over to the house on a Saturday afternoon for some important work talk. Suddenly your son runs into the room, clearly wanting to tell you something but not wanting to interrupt, so he hands you a folded scrap of paper. It reads:

    “Mickey Lolich averaged 8.3 innings per start in 1971”

    Honestly, how do you react to something like that? I wish I knew, but I’d already run back out of the room.

  13. 13.  That would be an interesting experiment even now — just write “Mickey Lolich averaged 8.3 innings per start in 1971” on a bunch of scraps of paper and walk around handing them to people randomly — at the mall, to your mailman, whatever.

  14. 14.  In one game, this Tigers team could hang with anyone. More than that and they’re in trouble, because it’s really unbelievable how bad their pitching is.

    There can, of course, be no such thing as a Tigers team without Sam Crawford on it. I’m going to solve the outfield problem by putting him in left, where he played only 46 games for the Tigers. But I’m guessing he could handle left.

    C Freehan
    1B Greenberg
    2B Gehringer
    3B Fryman (An easy choice going by the numbers — I’m surprised he hasn’t been mentioned yet.)
    SS Trammell
    LF Crawford
    CF Cobb
    RF Kaline
    DH Heilmann
    SP Newhouser
    RP Hiller

    Wild Card – Kirk Gibson

  15. 15.  11 Heilmann effectively replaced Crawford. Heilmann was, ever so slightly, the better hitter, but Crawford was the better player due to his multi-dimensional skills. I’m not sure who you’d compare him to… maybe Larry Walker except with a little bit better hitting?

  16. 16.  14 : I think that’s the closest to my list so far; I’ve got Willie Horton instead of Gibson, naturally, and I’m leaning toward Kell at third. He was supposed to be a great fielder, I think, and he actually had a higher OPS+ for the Tigers than Fryman. He had a .390+ OBP, which would fit in nicely to the Tigers’ overall gameplan of turning games into never-ending merry-go-rounds on the bases.

  17. 17.  15 exactly – 6 implies Heilmann, Crawford and Cobb played together to comprise the greatest outfield of all time.

  18. 18.  I’m enjoying the comments. About Mickey Lolich: recently I was looking at the back of some old card and it pointed out that Lolich had more strikeouts than any left-hander in history. Obviously, Carlton and Randy Johnson (and maybe others that are slipping my mind) have passed him, but for a while he was pretty large in both the record books and in person.

    FYI: Some new comments are in on the following older posts: Cubs 1977 and Larry Biittner (Cubs), plus some lingering discussion on the recent Wade Boggs and Randy Jones posts.

  19. 19.  To make things easier, here’s a list of the Tigers third basemen with at least 500 games played, with their hitting stats:

    In retrospect, Fryman over Kell is not as easy a choice as implied in 14 . Fryman had a longer Tigers career, Kell was a somewhat better hitter. Both were good glove guys, though Kell was probably better in that regard.

  20. 20.  Eric you are right about the pitching, even when you take the peak seasons to build a rotation the pickings are slim. So many of their best seasons were during the great war. Still some nuggets can be found.

    How about Hank Aguirre and that 1962 season. Where did that come from. So not including the war years these are the season I’d use to pick my rotation.
    1962 Hank Aguirre
    1968 Denny McLain
    1976 Mark the bird Fidrych
    1997 Justin Thompson
    I’m staying with the four man rotation. Anything else is an abomination.

  21. 21.  11 , 15 Thanks for the correction about the outfield. Of course, Cobb, Crawford, Veach. Lord knows my memory gets a lot cloudier than that sometimes.

    But also thanks for the support of Crawford’s candidacy. He’s a favorite of mine, and he’s still got the 309 triples (309!) and the nickname.

  22. 22.  14 , 16 Tough for me to leave Gibson off. He was one of my favorite players to watch. Still, that was an adult pleasure for me, and it goes without saying that the players of our childhood were greater figures. I remember Willie Horton as a Yankee-killer – even though for his career he wasn’t, I’m probably exaggerating a season or even a few games – and his place in Detroit’s heart is unarguable.

    And Gates Brown was a strange, almost mythic character in those years, renowned for having pinch-hitting superpowers.

  23. 23.  When I was a kid, a friend told me that Horton snapped a bat on a check swing. I believed it then and he was the only Tiger I was a fan of.

  24. 24.  When I was a kid in the mid-1980’s, a neighbor gave me a torn-up book about every World Series through about 1973. I remember that Lolich had a boil on his penis during his big series. At least I think he’s the one. I’m at work, and I don’t want to Google Mickey’s penis boil.

  25. 25.  If you Google “penis boil” and “World Series”, the #1 result is this thread.

    None of the other results offer anything useful.

  26. 26.  Wait, actually, it’s not this thread. It’s a Baseball Think Factory thread where someone made a post essentially the same as #24.

  27. 27.  Au-reee-leee-oh

  28. 28.  Say him play for the Senators, what a defensive whiz.

  29. 29.  28 Not only was he brilliant defensively, but his first name had all five vowels, exactly once each.

  30. 30.  29 Jeez, I shouldn’t try to construct a meaningful sentence before coffee. Exactly once? As opposed to, say, 1.4 times?

    Let’s say “without repeating.”

  31. 31.  C Parrish
    1B Greenberg
    2B Gehringer
    3B Kell
    SS Trammell
    LF Crawford
    CF Cobb
    RF Kaline
    DH Heilmann
    SP Newhouser
    RP Hiller

    Wild Card – Sweet Lou Whitaker

    It might come as a surprise to some, but I grew up a Tigers fan. My dad was born in Detroit and the first game I ever watched was at Tiger Stadium. Even though I was born only 2 years before it, I reveled at the time in the fairly recent history of the 1968 Tigers, who I would still rate my favorite team. (Weird how you can have a favorite team, even though you never watched them. I grew to love them from books I read.)

    My 2 favorite Tigers were Willie Horton and Norm Cash. It is really hard for me to leave them off, but Whitaker is one of the 15 best 2nd baseman in the history of the game. I have discussed at my site that I think Trammell is the most glaring omission from the Hall of Fame, as his stats at a premium defensive position should make him a slam dunk. Whitaker is not that far behind him and is the player I’m most on the fence about if he should be in or not. His dumbass comments during the player strike might be enough for me to say no, but he should be on the roster. Here are his similar batters list from baseball reference.
    1 Ryne Sandberg (901) *
    # Alan Trammell (899)
    # Barry Larkin (879)
    # Ted Simmons (871)
    # Buddy Bell (861)
    # Roberto Alomar (858)
    # Brian Downing (853)
    # Joe Torre (853)
    # Joe Morgan (850) *
    10 Carlton Fisk (845)

    Norm Cash might have had the greatest overlooked season in baseball history. For those of you that don’t know his stats for 1961, here they are.
    Avg. .361
    OBP .487
    SLG .662
    HR 41
    RBI 132

    For that he finished…4th in the MVP race. He was behind these guys named Maris and Mantle and also finished behind Jim Gentile.
    Cash had an OPS higher than all 3 of them, with it being .157 points higher than MVP Maris. He never batted higher than .286 the rest of his career, but he did have a top 10 finish in OPS 6 different years. 9 times he was in the top 10 in homers and twice finished second in the category.

  32. 32.  It is pretty close between Parrish and Freehan and to be honest Freehan should win the battle considering he was slightly better defensively and playing during a time when .301 could win the batting title. I just put Parrish on my list because I always liked him and think he was forgotten in the discussion.

  33. 33.  31 , 32 : Looks like Lou Whitaker is edging out the other contenders in the wild card race. Norm Cash is close to Whitaker in the voting, counting DH votes. That famous ’61 season of his has a little of a shaky feeling for me; he admitted he used a corked bat that year.

    Bill James sees little to choose from between Freehan and Parrish, but he does rank Freehan higher.

  34. 34.  5 What? You mean this isn’t the Willie Horton that Lee Atwater and company made famous?

  35. 35.  C: Freehan
    1B: Greenberg
    2B: Gehringer
    SS: Trammell
    3B: Kell
    LF: Heilmann
    CF: Cobb
    RF: Kaline
    DH: Horton
    Wild card: Cash
    SP: Newhouser
    RP: Hernandez

    ….the shakiest of my selections was Willie Hernandez at RP. I think that I would rather face Hiller in his prime than Hernandez. It was a tough call between Freehan and Parrish. Coincidentally, all Tigs that have their #’s retired are on my team….Kaline, Gehringer, Greenberg, Newhouser, Cobb*, Horton

    *technically…didn’t have a uniform number, but otherwise would be retired.

    I also have to admit to giving the edge Kell at 3B (he was the tiger’s t.v. play-by play announcer growing up alongside Kaline.

  36. 36.  20 I like your 4 man rotation (throwing out the war years, but with one change…Mickey Lolich 1971 (25 wins, 308 Ks, 2nd in Cy voting) for Justin Thompson.

    Also, as a life-long Tiger fan….thanks to everyone for not including “Cardiac” Todd Jones as the RP. He’s the all-time Tigs leader in saves and the 00’s leader in disappointment.

  37. 37.  35 : Thanks for chiming in, Champ. Glad to have a Tigers’ fan’s input. I think in the overall vote Hall of Famer Sam Crawford is being edged out in favor of a Cash/Horton combo at DH/wildcard. Also, I think your Wille H. vote is edging him ahead of Hiller. Tough call.

  38. As someone who was lucky enough to see 2-4 Tiger games a year in person (between Little League bus trips and a generous older brother) during Horton’s prime, I’m pretty confident that the Horton statue at Comerica Park (gag) has more to do with his unofficial role as the Tiger’s good-will ambassador than his way more-than-respectable career numbers. “Beloved’ doesn’t begin to describe his relationship with the fans, especially the young kids. We usually sat behind the left-field fence; Willie would often come up to the fence between innings to talk to us–ask our names etc.- and often, when returning a couple innings later, he’d pick up where he’d left off, remembering the names of those he’d spoken to earlier. He’d also occasionally throw the between-innings warm up ball to us.
    Unbelievably decent guy, warm without the slightest phoniness. Being an actual homegrown Detroiter didn’t hurt his relationship with the fans either.

    If I remember correctly, he later had some bad blood with Tiger management, though. It was at the end of his career after his time in Seattle. He was seven hits short of 2,000 and kind of lobbied for the Tigers to bring him back to get those hits. It seems like he was pretty pissed for quite awhile when they didn’t bring him back. I’m glad things worked out, though; I can’t imagine any player being more deserving of a statue.

  39. This lineup may be shocking…

    C: Freehan
    1B: Greenberg
    2B: Gehringer
    3B: Kell
    SS: Trammell
    LF: Wahoo Sam Crawford
    CF: Cobb
    RF: Kaline
    DH: Norm Cash
    Wild Card: Cecil “Big Daddy” Fielder

    SP: Schoolboy Rowe
    RP: Guillermo Hernandez

    Ask this again in 10 years and watch the Hank Greenberg vs. Miguel Cabrera debate erupt. Provided they can continue to afford Miguel for any length of time.

    Rowe is a sentimental choice on account of the nickname. And Crawford’s triples record is IMO the one untouchable record in baseball.

  40. To this East-coast National League fan, Willie Horton is a mythical figure; proud, consistent, devoted, and a champion. Sort of an AL version of Willie Stargell, (with less glossy numbers, albeit); a leader associated with a particular city, a particular turbulent era, a particular team.

    To this same fan, (who grew up in Manhattan and loved Rusty Staub), Mickey Lolich reamains a Fat Bum.

  41. I’m too young to have any recollection of Willie Horton as a player beyond his Cardboard Gods late 70s stint as a Mariners DH… But having grown up in the burbs of Detroit, with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc who lived in Detroit proper during the race riots of 1967, I’ve heard plenty of Horton stories.

    He has a statue in Comerica Park for many reasons… He was the aforementioned goodwill ambassador / fan favorite, had a killer season during the 1968 championship year and most importantly… he’s black.

    Don’t get me wrong… I am not suggesting any kind of silly fuzzy feelgood affirmative action nonsense got him the statue… I’m just saying that I don’t think Horton could have meant as much to the city in the era in which he played if he was white. The man stood out in his Tigers uniform in the middle of a 1967 race riot and tried to bring the peace. Plenty of people I’ve talked to that grew up back then in Detroit.. parents, relatives, coworkers, teachers, you name it… They all said that the Tigers pennant run in ’68 calmed the whole city down after the firestorms of ’67… and Horton was a big part of that… both with his play and his contributions on the field.

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