DETROIT — They hit a giant home run for Holy Redeemer Grade School. The Holy Redeemer Alumni benefit committee held a recent scholarship event at ‘The Corner’. It was at the new Detroit Police Athletic League complex at Michigan and Trumbull Avenues in old Corktown.
While a youth baseball game was being played in a slight drizzle between the South West Essex and the Ecorse Jr.’s, the capacity dinner crowd was saluting Detroit native son, Willie Horton.
Chairman of the Committee, Dan Clinton, Esq., thanked all who helped in making the event a huge success. Sr. Elizabeth, I.H.M., a former administrator and educator, gave the invocation and prayer of thanksgiving. The founder of the event, journalist Dan Ewald, was highlighted and memorialized warmly by Sr. Elizabeth. Ewald was a longtime confidant and advisor to both Sparky Anderson and Bo Schembechler.
Clinton introduced Fred Lauck, a longtime trial lawyer and now an active author, who was the evening’s moderator. Lauck had the special connection of being an amateur teammate of Horton’s. “Willie batted clean-up and I batted fifth for Brown’s Construction in D-Federation ball,” said Lauck. “Needless to say, there were hardly any baserunners for me to knock in, as Willie usually cleared the bases.”
It was a great show of support for historic Holy Redeemer and Willie Horton. Over 280 folks attended the dinner donated by Ron Cooley and the Slows B-Q Team while sipping beverages also donated by Tim Springstead of Nemo’s Tavern and concluded with the splendid sweet table contributed by Ana Cipres. All are longtime Michigan Avenue corridor contributors to the Southwest Detroit community.
Horton was gracious in telling antidotes of his longtime baseball career and those special people who greatly influenced him. He included his father, James, who taught him the message of ‘find a way’, the lesson of empowerment and support. He thanked his high school coach at Detroit Northwestern, Sam Bishop, who educated him about perseverance. Horton highlighted Judge Damon Keith, who presented him the important message of helping those less fortunate. This motivated Horton to get active in the civil rights field. He wholeheartedly thanked Mike Ilitch for showing him the lesson of humility. “Mr. Ilitch put the little boy back in me, he is still inspiring me,” said Horton affectionately.
Horton also brought the house down with laughter while telling of the humorous complications of being the youngest of 21 brothers and sisters. “Now I have 25 grand-babies.”
Besides his long association with the Detroit Tigers, when he retired from professional baseball, Horton had been the Executive Director of Detroit PAL. He also talked fondly about his affection for Tiger Stadium. He echoed Sparky’s term for ‘The Corner’. “It was our cathedral of green,” said Horton. The stadium held so many warm memories for him. The recollection’s kept flooding back to him. The journey was coming full circle.
Horton, told great baseball narratives of the 1968 World Series and what the support of Mickey Stanley meant to him in struggling against racial discrimination in Lakeland, Florida early in his career.
At Horton’s nearby dinner table he took great pride in expressing about what a fine and powerful athlete Gates Brown was, especially how fast the ‘Gater’ was. Horton added, “Gater could have been an All-Pro N.F.L. running-back. He was the fastest Tiger on the ’68 team.”
“And regarding the famed Lou Brock play with (Bill) Freehan at the plate, “It was a planned defensive maneuver,” said Horton distinctly and emphatically. We had scouted St. Louis and we had a team meeting and made a strategy to contest Brock every chance we could.” Baseball historians and coaches have studied the play extensively. Whether Brock would have slid or not, it has been generally concluded that he would have been still been called out because of Horton’s near perfect throw and Freehan’s plate block.
Horton deflated and cleared-up a longstanding Detroit baseball urban legend about his youth baseball. This was the account of his massive home run at the Northwestern Field complex administered by the Parks & Recreation Department. “No, No, it wasn’t on diamond #1, it was on diamond #3 and the ball wasn’t over Grand River Avenue, it landed in Grand River Avenue,” Horton said laughing heartily. “In 1959 my high school home run in the city championship game against Cass Tech at Briggs Stadium did land in the upper deck in right-center though. Matt Snorton also homered for us.”
The alumni committee stressed that the students of Holy Redeemer Grade School should be involved with the festivities. Chosen to represent Holy Redeemer was seventh grader Victor Moreno and eighth grader Yaneth Romo. Both gave short and creative talks on what Willie Horton’s support means to them and the entire Holy Redeemer community.
Sr. Mary Beth Kiley, S.O.L.T., the new and youthful principal of Holy Redeemer Grade School said, “We are approaching 200 students for next year. This event means everything to the success of the Holy Redeemer Mission Statement.”
Attorney Charles A. Haas said, “This is a wonderful of night enrichment, it makes me proud to be a Detroit native son.”
Lauck concluded by reciting a poem by Ring Lardner and introducing a special guest, Dan Heilmann, who is the grandson of former Tiger Hall of Famer and former longtime play-by-play broadcaster for Detroit, Harry Heilmann. Auctioneer Steve Graus then made the ‘last call’ regarding the silent auction.
Willie, who winters in Florida, finished his presentation by enlightening the audience about his 360 Degree Foundation in Lakeland, FL. The same passion which carried him to success in baseball was readily conveyed. His next mission is to expand the program throughout the rest of Polk County, Florida. The evening concluded with a heartfelt standing ovation.
Another attendee, retired attorney and baseball enthusiast George Ward said, “It was a great evening at the old ballpark. What quality education produces was much in evidence.”
Editor’s Note: Raymond Rolak, was a past president of the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association. He was also the former director of the City of Detroit, Parks and Recreation Baseball Program.