Willie Horton and a few attorneys rolled up their sleeves and knocked it 'out of the park'


Photos courtesy of Dan McGraw

By Raymond Rolak

In baseball terms, they socked a mammoth home run for Holy Redeemer Grade School. 

The Holy Redeemer Alumni Benefit Committee recently held a scholarship event at “The Corner,” home of the new Detroit Police Athletic League complex at Michigan and Trumbull in Corktown. While a youth baseball game was being played in a slight drizzle between South West Essex and the Ecorse Juniors, the capacity dinner crowd was saluting Detroit native son and former Tiger great Willie Horton at the fund-raiser for Holy Redeemer.

Dan Clinton, Esq., chairman of the Alumni Benefit Committee, thanked all who helped in making the event a “huge success.” Sr. Elizabeth, a former administrator and educator, gave the invocation and prayer of thanksgiving. The founder of the event, the late Dan Ewald, was highlighted and memorialized warmly by Sr. Elizabeth. Ewald, a former sportswriter and public relations director for the Tigers, was a longtime confidant and adviser to both Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson and legendary University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler.

Clinton introduced Fred Lauck, a longtime trial lawyer and now an active author, who served as the evening’s emcee. Lauck had the special connection of being an amateur teammate of Horton’s. 

“Willie batted cleanup 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.”

The event, according to Lauck, served as a great show of support for historic Holy Redeemer as well as for Horton, who helped spark the Tigers to the 1968 World Series title. More than 280 Holy Redeemer supporters attended the dinner, which was donated by Ron Cooley and the Slows Bar BQ team, while sipping beverages provided by Tim Springstead of Nemo’s Tavern. A dessert table was contributed by Ana Cipres. The three businesses are longtime Michigan Avenue corridor contributors to the Southwest Detroit community.  

A product of Detroit Northwestern High School, Horton was gracious in telling anecdotal stories of his longtime baseball career and those special people who greatly influenced him. He saluted his late father, James, who taught him the message of “find a way,” the lesson of empowerment and support. Horton then thanked his high school coach at Detroit Northwestern, Sam Bishop, who educated him about the value of perseverance. 

Horton also paid special tribute to the late U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith, who imparted upon him the timeless message of helping those less fortunate, spurring him to become active in the civil rights field. 

In addition, Horton wholeheartedly thanked Mike Ilitch, the late owner of the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings, for showing him the lesson of humility. 

“Mr. Ilitch put the little boy back in me. He is still inspiring me,” said Horton of the founder of the Little Caesars Pizza empire.

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,” he said with a smile.

He also talked about his special affection for Tiger Stadium, one of Major League Baseball’s most historic shrines.

“It was our cathedral of green,” said Horton, who formerly served as executive director of the Police Athletic League.

Horton later told a number of stories about the 1968 World Series, while also noting the support he received from Tiger centerfielder Mickey Stanley when faced with racial discrimination in Lakeland, Fla. during the early days of his playing career. 

He also took great pride in recounting stories about the late Gates Brown, one of the finest pinch-hitters in baseball history who made it to the Major Leagues after spending time in prison for burglary.

“Gator could have been an All-Pro N.F.L. running back,” Horton said of his close friend who grew up in Ohio. “He was the fastest Tiger on the ’68 team.” 

In pivotal Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, Horton was involved in perhaps the key play of the contest, nailing St. Louis Cardinal star Lou Brock at the plate with a perfect throw to Tiger catcher Bill Freehan. The play, which denied the Cardinals a run, shifted the momentum to the Tigers, who rallied for a 5-3 win in Game 5. The Tigers pounded the Cardinals in Game 6 behind the pitching of Denny McLain and then won the deciding Game 7 by a 4-1 score to wrap up their first World Series title since 1945.

“It was a planned defensive maneuver,” said Horton of his Game 5 throw. “We had scouted St. Louis, and we had a team meeting and made a strategy to contest Brock every chance we could.”

Horton also cleared up a longstanding Detroit baseball urban legend about his youth baseball exploits, particularly the account of his massive home run at the Northwestern Field complex.

“No, no, it wasn’t on Diamond  No. 1, it was on Diamond  No. 3, and the ball wasn’t over Grand River Avenue, it landed on Grand River Avenue,”  Horton said with a hearty laugh. “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.”

In planning the fund-raising dinner, members of 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.

Horton, who winters in Florida, finished his presentation by enlightening the audience about his 360 Degree Foundation in Lakeland. Horton said his next mission is to expand the program throughout the rest of Polk County, Fla.

Sr. Mary Beth Kiley, the new 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.”

Lauck concluded the event by reciting a poem by legendary satirist Ring Lardner and then introducing a special guest, Dan Heilmann, the grandson of former Tiger Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Heilmann.

One of the attendees, retired attorney and baseball enthusiast George Ward, summed up the event thusly:  “It was a great evening at the old ballpark. What quality education produces was much in evidence.”

(Editor’s Note: Raymond Rolak is a past president of the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association. He also is the former director of the City of Detroit, Parks and Recreation Baseball Program.)