GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — While the Detroit Tigers are working to reclaim their place atop the Major Leagues, fans can always cling to the past. But as the years go by, just like our heroes, some of those stories are lost.
The names and the numbers are still there. Beyond the fence in left-center field, hallowed names of former greats adorn the bricks of Comerica Park; Cobb and Gehringer, Greenberg and Newhouser. There’s even a spot set aside for legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell.
Past that, a series of bronze statues. Among them, two Tiger greats from overlapping generations: Al Kaline and Willie Horton. They are remembered as great players and ambassadors for the team, but one memory ties the two together that no win or championship could ever top.
Al Kaline was practically born to play baseball. Born and raised in Baltimore, several of his relatives played semiprofessional baseball. He was a great pitcher as a kid but when he joined his high school team his freshman year, he moved to the outfield to get more playing time.
Fresh out of high school, 18-year-old Kaline signed with the Tigers and was immediately added to the roster, skipping the minor leagues altogether. He made his major league debut on June 25, 1953 and quickly made his home in right field, now known at Comerica Park as Kaline’s Corner.
Kaline earned the name “Mr. Tiger.” He played 22 seasons of big-league baseball, all of them in Detroit. An 18-time all-star, Kaline also won 10 Gold Gloves and finished his career with 3,007 hits — one of only 33 players to crack 3,000.
Willie Horton, who was raised in Detroit, became one of the Tigers’ most popular players and the team’s first Black superstar.
A local legend in his own right, Horton hit a home run in Tiger Stadium during a high school game and worked as a clubhouse attendant as a teenager, rubbing elbows with big leaguers. He signed with the Tigers in 1961 and after some time with the club’s minor-league affiliate, the Duluth Dukes, Horton made his big-league debut on Sept. 10, 1963.
With Horton in left field and Kaline in right, the Tigers began to climb the standings, culminating in 1968. The tigers won the American League pennant with a 103-59 record and beat the St. Louis Cardinals for the World Series crown.
The duo played six more seasons together but the Tigers never returned to the World Series. Kaline retired after the 1974 season and Horton was traded to the Texas Rangers in 1977.
BASEBALL’S LONE FATALITY
On Aug. 16, 1920, the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees were locked in a tight race for the AL pennant. Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman stepped to the plate at the Polo Grounds. It would be his last at-bat.
The game was different then. Pitchers would intentionally get the balls dirty to make it harder to see and would use any substance they could find to add more grip or more spin to their pitches.
Chapman stepped into the box with everything stacked against him. Not only was the ball dirtied but it was also raining on and off. According to the Society of American Baseball Research, Carl Mays, who threw the fateful pitch, claimed the ball was wet and slipped out of his hand. Add onto that Mays’ unconventional submarine delivery, with his upper-body virtually parallel to the ground and his arm whipping around from behind.
The pitch hit Chapman in the left temple. Witnesses say Chapman didn’t even react to the pitch, as if he didn’t see it. The ball bounced back into play. Mays, who told reporters he first thought the ball hit the handle of Chapman’s bat, fielded the ball and threw to first base.
Teammates helped Chapman to the visitor’s clubhouse. He was brought to a hospital, where he eventually slipped into a coma. That night, doctors decided he needed emergency surgery. After removing a part of his skull, they found Chapman had damage to both sides of his brain and several blood clots. He passed away within a few hours.
Mays, who was known as a dirty player, was eventually absolved of any wrongdoing. But Chapman’s death led to several changes. Spitballs were immediately banned. Now, balls that get dirty or scuffed are quickly replaced with fresh ones. Chapman’s death was also cited as a reason to justify wearing batting helmets, which was eventually adopted by both the American and National Leagues in the 1950s.
KALINE’S CLOSE CALL
To date, Ray Chapman is only Major League Baseball player to die from an injury suffered on the field. Kaline was nearly the second.
On Saturday, May 30, 1970, the Tigers were playing their second game of a nine-day road trip, starting with a three-game series in Milwaukee. The Tigers won the series opener 5-4, with Kaline going 3 for 5, including a home run.
Les Cain took the mound for the Tigers the next day. With one run already in and the bases loaded in the first inning, Brewers second baseman Roberto Pena stepped to the plate. He connected with Cain’s pitch, sending it deep to right-center field. Kaline and center fielder Jim Northrup gave chase. According to Bill Dow, who researched and chronicled the incident for the Detroit Free Press, both men called for the ball and neither relented, crashing into each other at full speed.
Northrup, stunned, got up quickly and looked for the ball. Kaline laid motionless, while Pena circled the bases for the only inside-the-park grand slam in the history of Milwaukee County Stadium.
The collision happened in front of the Brewers’ bullpen. Milwaukee bullpen coach Jackie Moore, who played for the Tigers during the 1965 season, immediately knew something was wrong. He hopped the fence and ran toward Kaline.
“I could see right away that his face was turning blue. It was a very, very scary situation,” Moore told Dow. “I tried my best to try and get his clenched jaw open. I then remember seeing Willie Horton running full speed toward us from over in left field.”
Horton also quickly realized something was wrong.
“When the ball was hit, I ran toward the play like a safety in case the ball got between Northrup and Kaline,” Horton told the Free Press. “When they ran into each other, I saw Northrup get up and go for the ball and I saw Al on the ground. His eyes were turned back, and his jaws were locked. He was in trouble.”
Kaline was knocked unconscious. His jaw was clenched and his tongue had fallen to the back of his mouth, cutting off his airway. Moore tried to pry his mouth open but couldn’t open it far enough to move his tongue.
Luckily, Horton knew what to do in that exact situation.
“When I was a Golden Gloves boxer as a kid, I had been shown what to do in a situation like that,” Horton told Dow. “I acted quickly, compressed his chest, grabbed the back of his jaw and pried open his mouth and we got the tongue out of the way.”
Horton was able to keep his airway open, leaving his hand in Kaline’s mouth until Milwaukee’s team trainer could take over. Horton says he still has a scar on his right hand from the teeth marks.
Doctors said if Horton hadn’t intervened, Kaline could have died.
Kaline left the stadium on a stretcher and was monitored overnight at a hospital. Incredibly, he only missed one game, rejoining the team for the final six games of their road trip.
Later that season, Horton was honored during a pregame ceremony and given a plaque from the Michigan Heart Association, highlighting his quick action. Kaline stood right beside him.
“Al was part of my family, and you do what you have to do to help anyone,” Horton told Dow.