Jerry Green: The baseball player who tried to stop the Detroit riots





The ballgames are fixtures in the life and the sweat and the pain of the city.

It is that way in towns across America -- from New York through Chicago to Los Angeles. They have their teams, their games, their athletes, their hopes.

But there is no other town quite like Detroit, a lunch-bucket city with the working man's passion for the ballgames. We take pride in that. Always have.

So the Tigers played that Sunday 40 years ago when the fires flared and the columns of smoke rose and became visible over the left-field roof of Tiger Stadium.

They played as neighborhoods of the city burned. They played when what was then known as the riot, and now as a rebellion, spread.

And all these years later, the belief remains it was the ballgames -- and the ballplayers -- that helped to rescue the damaged city. It was the ballgames that cooled the fiery situation.
"On July 23, we split a doubleheader against the New York Yankees, and we didn't realize that while we were competing against Mickey Mantle and the Yankees a riot had started around Tiger Stadium," Willie Horton recalled in his autobiography, "The People's Champion." "We could see smoke billowing about the Tiger Stadium roof, but we just assumed there was a major fire nearby."

Willie was playing left field for the Tigers that Sunday that changed Detroit. After the ballgames, he and the other Tigers were whisked from the ballpark. They were instructed to drive quickly to their homes.

But Horton was the soul of Detroit then -- a beloved representative of the black community. He was a man with a responsibility.

"People have asked me why I decided to drive to the epicenter of the riot, and I really can't explain my actions," Horton said in his autobiography. "Thoughts were just whirling around my mind, and I just wanted to be able to do something to help. This was my community. These were my people. Members of my family were living in the eye of the riot. Honestly I didn't understand why this was happening. Team officials were really pressing us to leave the area quickly I didn't even remove my uniform.
"I jumped in my car, I drove over near 12th Street, near the blocks where I had delivered the Michigan Chronicle newspapers as a child. I had walked these streets a thousand times without a fear in the world. What I witnessed in those streets this night scared me. Houses had flames dancing across their roofs. Cars were overturned. Small groups of youngsters were roaming the streets, looting and vandalizing the local businesses. It looked like a war zone. To me, it looked like the world was coming to an end."

And Willie, the people's champion, spoke to the people from the top of his car.

Some in the crowd urged him to go home, to safety. Horton stayed.

"'Why are you burning up and tearing up the neighborhoods you live in?' I asked'," according to his book. "No one had an answer.

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