Published Dec. 16, 2017
Even when he became a nomadic player late in his career, living in hotels in between trades, William Wattison Horton never put the Detroit Tigers away completely.
Horton played for the Tigers from 1963-77, then became a journeyman player, strictly a designated hitter who took his big bat from team to team, a suitcase never far away. Inside the suitcase was never a mitt, however.
Horton played for the Rangers, Indians, A’s, Blue Jays and Mariners—all between 1977 and 1980. Yet he never changed batting helmets; Willie would simply have the equipment manager for whichever team he was playing for at the time, paint over the previous team’s.
So buried under all the layers of paint, was the original Old English D.
Horton has a statue and his no. 23 retired beyond the left-centerfield wall at Comerica Park. It’s part of the romanticizing of Horton that media and fans have participated in. It’s tempting to do so, I get it.
Tigers overshot with Horton
Horton was born in Virginia but grew up in Detroit, on the city’s west side. His baseball legend began when, as a high school senior at Northwestern High School, Willie slammed an opposite field home run at then-Briggs Stadium in the City Championship game.
But Horton bitched a lot with the Tigers. He was prone to temper tantrums. He warred with management. He became such a pain in the you-know-where that GM Jim Campbell, fed up, practically gave Horton away in 1977, dealing Willie to Texas for a nondescript relief pitcher named Steve Foucault, even up.
All has been long forgiven; Horton has been employed as a consultant by the Tigers since 2002, and there’s that statue at CoPa.
Horton’s no. 23 is the only one retired by the Tigers that wasn’t worn by a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In the wake of last weekend’s news that Alan Trammell and Jack Morris, two heroes of the 1984 World Series champs, were being granted entry into the HOF, the Tigers got giddy and announced that Trammell’s no. 3 and Morris’ no. 47 would be retired by the team next August, sometime after the ceremony in Cooperstown.
Fine. The Tigers have my permission.
I’ve gone on record that I wouldn’t have voted for either player for the Hall, but that’s fine too. They’re in now, fair and square. Sort of—if you believe in Johnny-come-lately committees, which I don’t.
I also wouldn’t vote for Lou Whitaker, who many fans believe should be joined with Trammell at the hip into perpetuity.
But the Tigers have painted themselves into a corner with Whitaker.
If no. 23 is in mothballs, so should be no. 1
Horton’s no. 23 is retired as a non-HOF member. Whether that was necessary or deserving is another debate in and of itself. But it’s done.
So what to do with Whitaker’s no. 1?
It’s being worn now by shortstop Jose Iglesias, with Lou’s blessing. But that’s hardly the matter.
Though I don’t see Whitaker as a Hall of Famer, I do recognize that there will be awkwardness aplenty next summer when the Tigers put Trammell’s no. 3 away forever.
The elephant in the room will be Whitaker.
The Tigers can’t say that they only retire numbers of Hall of Famers, with Horton’s 23 beyond the outfield wall for all to see.
I don’t think Whitaker is a Hall of Famer, but I’m going to give the Tigers some free advice.
Retire Lou’s no. 1, along with Trammell’s no. 3 and Morris’ no. 47—at the same ceremony. It’s a reasonable compromise.
Fans will have talked themselves blue in the face about Whitaker not being in the Hall by the time next August rolls around. So why not assuage some of the angst and put Lou’s no. 1 in mothballs?
Heck, Tigers fans could even frame the gesture as giving the middle finger to the baseball writers who gave Whitaker such little Hall consideration.
The Tigers jumped the gun on the revelation of their intentions when it came to the uniform numbers of new Hall members Alan Trammell and Jack Morris. They practically stumbled over themselves in announcing the retirements.
But they should have taken their time and thought about the weirdness that will be cast over Comerica Park when Trammell, especially, has his day while his longtime double play partner is left out in the cold.
There’s still time, of course, for the Tigers to do the right thing. It’s a long way between now and August.
Lou Whitaker isn’t a Hall of Famer but neither is Willie Horton. And though Lou was sort of an odd bird, the team’s Garbo, he never gave Tigers management a hard time. Lou never quit in the middle of the season, as Horton did briefly in 1969. Lou never demanded a trade, or insisted that he play left field instead of being a DH, as Horton did.
The Tigers should do the right thing. Put no. 1 away. It’s better than nothing.