The convicted murderer Willie Horton comes up in my writing quite often, because of his use by Lee Atwater in George HW Bush’s presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Dukakis was going to lose that campaign regardless, but the Horton ad is a classic example of racist demagoguery. But the last time I looked up “Willie Horton” on Google, I noticed, “See results about: Willie Horton (Baseball player).” And I thought: that’s gotta suck for him. But that was as far as I took it. But over the weekend, our own James Fillmore wrote an article over at Twinkie Town, The Other Willie Horton.
Willie Horton was a left fielder for the Detroit Tigers for most of the 1960s and 1970s. He hit 325 home runs and 1,163 RBIs in his 18 season career. That makes him tied for 109th most career home runs and 174th for RBIs. The guy had an amazing career — the high point of which was winning the World Series in 1968. But Fillmore started his article the year before, during the 1967 Detroit riot. Horton got into the thick of the violence, shortly after a game. Still dressed in his uniform, he pleaded with the mob for calm. It was a heroic, if doomed, effort.
The article tell’s Horton’s (literal) rags to riches story. And spends a fair amount of time talking about his public service work since his initial effort in 1967. It also has some curious facts, like his keeping his batting helmet when he switched teams, and painting it with the new team colors and logo. Nothing is mentioned of it, but I assume this is due to the usual athlete’s superstition about making changes, because you never know. It’s one of the most charming things about sports figures. I understand the impulse very well.
I don’t really know what great stats are, but clearly Horton was one of the greats. He wasn’t someone who slipped into the majors for a season or two and was never seen again. He’d certainly have to be considered one of the top 2,000 people to ever play. To provide some context, there are over a thousand active MLB players at any given time. So Horton is great. He’s not Willie Mays, certainly, but he isn’t that much worse. Yet when you enter his name into Google, you don’t even see a reference to him on the first scream on most computers. Instead, you see the Bush campaign’s despicable act of demagoguery.
I understand: Google search results are not accolades. In the grand scheme of things, the Willie Horton campaign ad is more important than the life and baseball career of Willie Wattison Horton. But it seems a shame. People like to talk about incentives. But in our society, there isn’t much difference between accolades and notoriety — whether it be profiteering hedge fund managers, murderers, or demagogues. Or great baseball players and social activists.
For the record, the murderer’s name is actually William Horton. The demagogues who used part of his life changed his name to “Willie” to add to the stereotype — to make him more “black.”