Horton recalls throw that changed course of '68 Series
MAY 24, 2013 12:44p ET
When the pivotal play of that Series was over and fans at Tiger Stadium roared, Horton jogged in and hugged shortstop Mickey Stanley on the infield.
Horton shouted over the din, “Thanks, Squirrely, for all the hard work!”
Stanley, Detroit's Gold Glove center fielder who had moved to shortstop for the Series, had tutored Horton for several years on the nuances of playing the outfield. This was their payoff moment.
“Mickey was the best,” Horton said recently, “and I had my own nickname for him, Squirrely.”
Detroit trailed St. Louis in the series 3-1 and was losing 3-2 in the fifth inning of Game 5, an elimination game. Had Brock scored and the Cardinals continued padding their lead, the Tigers might never have come back to win the game and the Series.
And the 45th anniversary celebration of the 1968 Tigers that will take place before Saturday’s game with the Minnesota Twins would not be happening.
But Horton, who was not known for his defense, rose to the occasion to stem the tide of a team looking to repeat as Series champions.
Brock hit a one-out double off Mickey Lolich and tried to score on a single to left by Julian Javier. The fleet future Hall of Famer elected not to slide, and Horton came up throwing, firing a one-hopper that was right on target. Catcher Bill Freehan caught it chest high and spun to tag Brock.
Brock collided shoulder to shoulder with Freehan, the former University of Michigan tight end. Brock tried to touch the plate with his left foot, but photos show that his cleat didn't break the line of the front of the plate.
Umpire Doug Harvey called him out, and the Series had found its turning point. Detroit came back to win the game, 5-3, and the Series in seven games.
The play happened in an instant but was the result of several years of hard work on mechanics and getting into position for Horton, who was a catcher at Detroit Northwestern High when the Tigers signed him in 1961.
“Mickey Stanley made me who I was in left field,” said Horton, 70, now a special assistant to Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski. “The first thing he told me was, ‘Learn your own pitchers.’
"Knowing how they pitch and where they are throwing enables you to anticipate and get the jump on the ball. Mickey said you positioned yourself with an ability to move like a see-saw 10 feet either way from the best spot, depending on the pitch and the hitter.
“I also read our scouting report that said Brock had picked up some ‘bad habits’ and was drifting as he rounded third base. So, I made up my mind to throw hard to the plate if I got the chance and positioned myself like Mickey taught me. That’s what made that throw work.”
Horton certainly had the arm. The New York Yankees had attempted to sign him out of high school and envisioned him as the next Yogi Berra or Elston Howard.
Horton just had to learn how to put himself in a position to make big plays and throw like an outfielder. And with the help of Stanley, he became adept there. Horton threw out six runners in 1968 and 10 in 1970.
Stanley was moved to shortstop for the Series to make room for Hall of Famer Al Kaline in right field. Jim Northrup was repositioned to center.
That put light-hitting shortstop Ray Oyler, a slick fielder, on the bench until Tigers manager Mayo Smith maneuvered to have his best defense on the field to protect late-inning leads.
As Horton fired his strike toward Freehan in Game 5, he locked in on cut-off man and third baseman Don “Coyote” Wert, nicknamed for the yelping sounds he made during infield chatter.
“I knew (Javier) would hit Mickey in a certain area and he did,” Horton said. “I charged the ball, focused on ‘Coyote,’ and cut loose.
"Freehan didn’t yell ‘Cut!’ or nothing, and just caught the throw and made the tag. And I thought of all that went into making that play when I got to ‘Squirrely.’”
The next season, after a game with the Boston Red Sox, Horton ran into Hall of Fame left fielder Carl Yastrzemski at the Lindell A.C., then a popular downtown Detroit watering hole for athletes.
“Yaz was a good friend,” Horton said. “I sat down next to him at the Lindell and said, ‘I don’t take a back seat to you no more, Yaz.’”
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