Day 34 of 2022 baseball books: The hometown, home-run legacies of Cleon Jones and Willie Horton

“Coming Home: My Amazin’ Life with
the New York Mets”

The author:
Cleon Jones
With Gary Kaschak

The publishing info:
Triumph Books
256 pages; $30
To be released Aug. 2, 2022

The links:
The publishers website
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At Skylights Books
At Diesel Books

“Willie Horton: 23: Detroit’s Own Willie the Wonder
The Tigers’ first Black Great”

The author:
Willie Horton
With Kevin Allen

The publishing info:
Triumph Books
256 pages; $30
Released July 12, 2022

The links:
The publishers website
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At Skylight Books
At Diesel Bookstore

The reviews in 90 feet or less

If memory serves – or if we’re just imagining this because if feels accurate – our frequent visits to the elementary school library as well as the city library were often with the initial intent to check out if there were any new additions to the sports book sections in the 1960s and ‘70s. It fueled our need to know. It connected us with an array of baseball biographies that felt as if it was our baseball cards coming to life. It made the games we played on our bad-boy Thermos MLB lunch pail with the magnetic spinner game on the back seem more … relevant?

It also gave us a foundation for what became a baseball book obsession. We wanted to power through as many as possible, absorb their messages (often written back then by ghost writers who were just trying to gloss up a reputation), post another new book report that the teacher would tack onto the cork bulletin board and show the other kids who weren’t all that interested in reading that we were winning at some contest they really didn’t know existed.

(Well, look at that … some things never change).

In 1970, “Ball Four” came out in June — something we only really heard about through adult conversation. We suspected we’d needed our parents’ permission slip (as we did when getting them cigarettes down the liquor store — along with our baseball cards) if we ever came across it.

The 1970 edition of “Who’s Who in Baseball” told us that, for that moment in time, pay attention to the New York Mets’ star Tom Seaver as the main man on the cover — this was our Madden video game reveal — but pay attention to Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Denny McLain and Mike Cuellar. Noted.

Also that year, three new books arrived:
= “Cleon: The Life Story of the One and Only,” by New York Mets outfielder and newly-crowned World Series champion Cleon Jones, with Ed Hershey.
= “The Mets from Mobile: Cleon Jones and Tommy Agee,” by A.S. “Doc” Young, including Agee, and their hometown ties to the Alabama birthplace of Henry Aaron.
= “The Willie Horton Story,” with Hal Butler, on the life of the Detroit Tigers outfielder who was part of the 1968 World Series.

Those are titles that come to mind in particular when we go back and read a post by Jason Turbow, a founding member of one of our favorite sites, Pandemic Baseball Book Club, as well as the author of 2011’s “The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime,” 2018’s ” and 2019’s, “They Bled Blue: Fernandomania, Strike-Season Mayhem, and the Weirdest Championship Baseball Had Ever Seen: The 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers.”

On Dec. 7, 2020, Dick Allen, one of our favorite Dodgers despite his one-and-only impressionable year there in ’71, passed way at 78.

We loved his 1989 autobio “Crash,” as well as the bio by Mitchel Nathanson, “God Almighty Hisself” in 2019, which landed after “Dick Allen, The Life and Times of a Baseball Immortal: An Illustrated Biography,” by William C. Kashatus in ’17.

(In recent searches, we’ve also come across a new title, “Chili Dog MVP: Dick Allen, The ’72 White Sox and a Transforming Chicago,” a Kindle book that came out last March, we hope to get to).

Allen’s death followed the losses of Hall of Famers Joe Morgan, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock — and again solidified our wishes that Allen could have joined them in Cooperstown while he was around to experience it.

Just before then, the baseball world had already recently seen the deaths of Horace Clark, Lou Johnson, Bob Oliver, Bob Watson and Jimmy Wynn.

In a reflective piece for The Baseball Codes titled “Mourning The Departed Era of Black Superstars,” Turbow wrote:

Baseball in the 1960s and ’70s is impossible to consider without those guys, plus Mays and McCovey and Robinson and Aaron and Stargell and Parker and Carew and Vida and Dusty and Reggie (Jackson) and Reggie (Smith). We can ask ourselves where such players might fit within the current structure of baseball, and the answer is more likely than at any time since the mid-1950s that they wouldn’t. Sort of.

The above players would make a major league roster in any era that allowed it. Today, though, given the lack of infrastructure to shepherd minority kids — particularly urban American minority kids — through baseball’s ranks, they might opt to do something else instead.

More difficult for me than the luminaries are players who fell somewhere between bench guy and superstar, men who scrapped their way onto rosters and forged admirable careers. … End-of-bench roles went to white players in overwhelming numbers back then, so the Black men who seized those positions showed particular resolve.”

Kids play at the original Wrigley Field in Los Angeles as it was being dismantled in March 1969.
(Cal Montney / Los Angeles Times Archive / UCLA )

He names Cleon Jones and Willie Horton among them.

Also: Tommy Agee, Jim Bibby, Oscar Gamble, Johnny Jeter, Dave Nelson, Thad Bosley, Dave Cash, Horace Clark, Larry Hisle, Chet Lemon, Tommie Reynolds and Ken Singleton.

Turbow pondered how a lack of Black players is evident again today. But this isn’t about minority representation.

“This is about the loss of Black players (especially, as pertains to recent obituaries, Black stars), and how it reflects a profound loss within the sport. Just one more thing to grieve.”

Since Turbow wrote that, the game has also lost Hank Aaron, Mudcat Grant, Grant Jackson and J.R. Richard in 2021, a year after Oscar Brown, Claudell Washington and Tony Taylor. This year has also had Gene Clines, Tommy Davis and Gerald Williams. It follows the passing in 2019 pre-COVID of notables like Frank Robinson, Don Newcomb, Pumpsie Green, Al Jackson and Lee Stanton.

Cleon Jones and Willie Horton are not only very much alive, but have something more to say about their legacies in a sincere and sweet way that reminds us of their dignity, honor and professionalism, emerging from communities not of upper-middle-class travelings teams, but from the streets and schools of hard knocks.

It’s fitting their latest bios of these two late-‘60s Black All Stars come out from the same publisher (both at the same price, and same number of pages) as both men are about to turn 80 years old and could use an authentic refresh about what they accomplished, as well as what they’d like to clear up.

Jones, who turns 80 on Aug. 4, never hit more than 14 home runs in a season or drove in more than 75. A 26-year-old All-Starr the year the Mets won the World Series in ’69, Jones was more about being a steady presence in left field and, as his SABR bio says, a “consistent, legitimate offensive threat.”

He had a few defining moments in the 1969 World Series, both in Game 5.

The Orioles, down three games to one, had a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the sixth when a pitch to Jones bounced in the dirt. Umpire Lou DiMuro called it a ball just as Jones started walking to first. Manager Gil Hodges slowly came out of the dugout, the ball in hand that had bounced over to him, and showed DiMuro the small smudge of shoe polish on it. Jones was sent to first.

Donn Clendenon followed with a homer that led a comeback.

The last putout was made by Jones, near the warning track, cradling a long fly ball by Davey Johnson. Jones almost knelt as he caught it, then ran over to friend and teammate Tommie Agee as bedlam ensued.

The Cleon Jones Last Out Community Foundation — picking up on that act that he caught the last out of the World Series — is behind his name still relevant in the news these days for how he has helped restore his old neighborhood known as Africatown near Mobile, Ala.

A 2021 piece in the told about how he has been taking part in home-improvement projects since 2015.

Jones’s name also came up during the speech that Irene Hodges gave in Cooperstown last week as she accepted the induction of her father with a new plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

She noted Jones was in attendance, along with Ron Swoboda, Eddie Kranepool and Art Shamsky, representing the the 1969 “Miracle” New York Mets that Hodges managed.

For those who wondered about the relationship between Jones and Hodges, it is worth pausing to circle back to a game on July 30, 1969 that has always stuck out as odd with many Mets fans.

Jones spends some of the 15 pages in Chapter 9 addressing it.

The Mets were a run-of-the-mill .500-range team through the first three months of the season, but by July they were 55-40, and Tom Seaver had just improved his record to 15-5 after a win against Cincinnati.

The Astros came into New York and treated the Mets as miserable as the weather was getting. On that day, Houston won the first game of a doubleheader, 16-3, and was already up 8-0 in the third inning of the second game when the Johnny Edwards went opposite field and plopped a hit down the left field line.

On a bad ankle, Jones sloshed through the grass, got the ball back to the infield, and Edwards ended up with a double. It was his second hit of the inning.

Hodges came out of the Shea Stadium dugout. He wasn’t going to the mound for relief pitcher Nolan Ryan, who just came in for Gary Gentry. Hodges kept walking. He wasn’t going to shortstop to confer with Bud Harelson. Hodges kept walking. He finally met up with Jones in left field.

How the incident was recorded by

They talked. Then both walked back to the dugout. Swoboda replaced Jones.

Was Jones pulled for a lack of hustling? That’s what it looked like. His teammates were baffled. The writers had an angle.

Jones has talked about the incident before, in 2019, on the Mets’ 50th anniversary of their title. He noted it was an important moment in that otherwise unbelievable season. Somehow, it woke a team up that pushed them to win 38 of their last 49 games and finish with 100 victories.

In the book, Jones expands on it:

“I didn’t think for one second Gil was trying to embarrass me, but that’s what (the writers) were asking. I thought he was trying to make a statement, not to me, but to the team. I think I was leading the league in batting at that point, and we were getting our asses kicked, not because Cleon Jones was loafing on one play. … Even their pitcher, Larry Dierker, hit a home run after I was taken out of the game. … I have no negative thoughts about Gil Hodges or what happened. … My wife said repeatedly to me, ‘You should never have been out there in the first place.’ But I’m a ballplayer and a team player, and as long as I was contributing to the team, I was satisfied.”

Case closed?

It should be, because in his closing thoughts, Jones says that as he reflects on everything that happened to him as a player, “and as a man, the person most responsible for keeping me in line and staying by my side is Angela — my beautiful wife of 56 years. Every team and every marriage needs a stabilizer.”

Jones has called Hodges the most favorite manager he’d ever played for – in 12 years with the Mets, and the last with the Chicago White Sox – his managers included Casey Stengel, Wes Westrum and Yogi Berra (who was likely the one he disliked most) and Roy McMillian plus Paul Richards in Chicago.

It wasn’t so unusual that Jones was in Cooperstown to see Hodges honored. It was the honorable thing to do.

As his SABR bio ends:

“No offensive player was more important to the Mets in their first dozen years than Cleon Jones. … It is unlikely anyone will argue Cleon Jones is the best player in New York Mets history. But there is little doubt that he is one of the most important. He was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame in 1991, the sixth player inducted. He took part in the 2008 closing ceremonies at Shea Stadium, the place he brought to bedlam with his bow in left field in 1969.”

And lives today in his “Last Catch Foundation.”

The final words of his book, reflective of a life he’s enjoyed while embracing the name Cleon — Greek for “glory” and “famous,” and from his research, someone named Cleon was a Greek general from an aristocratic family who was “concerned and had empathy for the lower class,” Jones notes.

“I may not have made it to the Hall of Fame, but I’ve done what I could and will continue the fight until the day I come home for good,” he says.

Horton, who turns 80 on Oct. 18, is a Detroit hometown hero. Still.

In his SABR bio, he is noted as one of “the strongest men in the game” with 325 career homers. He’s also part of building relationships between the club and the Black community he grew up in.

Named by Dusty Baker as an honorary coach for the American League All-Star team that gathered at Dodger Stadium recently, the four-time All Star (’65, ’68, ’70 and ’73) started in two of them during his 18-year career from 1963 to 1980.

A year before his retirement at age 37 he his 29 homers, drove in 106 runs and started all 162 games as the DH for the Seattle Mariners’ expansion team, enough to garnish some MVP votes and win AL Comeback Player of the Year. He was now “The Ancient Mariner.”

But in 1986, his first year of Hall of Fame voting eligibility, he only got 0.9 percent of the vote, having a career comparable most to a Joe Adcock, George Foster, Lee May or Greg Luzinski.

In 2004, Kevin Allen, best known in Michigan for his hockey writing career at USA Today, combined with Willie Horton to write, “The People’s Champion: Willie Horton” for Immortal Investments Publishing. Allen is back with Horton on this project.

He was the youngest of 14 to his parents in Virginia, signed with the Tigers in 1961, made his MLB debut in Sept. ’63 and in his second at bat, hit a pinch-hit homer off Robin Roberts.

Much of what Horton has done on the field has been chronicled, including his key play in Game 5 of the 1968 World Series when he threw Lou Brock at at home plate from left field, adding to the fact that in that in that seven-game series he hit .304 with a home run, six runs scored, and a 1.013 OPS. A lot of that is address in Chapter 11 of his book, “We Knew Lou Wouldn’t Slide.”

That’s where Horton writes: “Brock was probably too dominant for his own good in 1968 … During that era, Brock and his teammates — and maybe the entire National League — began to believe he owned the basepaths. … Teams were just conceding runs to his world-class speed … It was easy to understand why Brock began to take his dominance for granted. According to scouting reports, he usually drifted around third base, and Cardinals third base coach Joe Schultz usually didn’t offer him much guidance because Brock didn’t need it. … Likewise, the on-deck hitter usually didn’t move to the plate to signal Brock when to slide on close plays because Lou never had close plays. Before the series started, the Tigers outfielders vowed we would challenge Brock if the situation presented itself.”

And it did:

Horton’s role as a peacemaker during the riots in Detroit just a year earlier are thing still noted in social justice and political history books. In full uniform, standing at 12th Street, trying to persuade his Detroiters to stand down. The Tigers’ first Black star had a voice in Motown because he didn’t want to see his hometown self destruct.

Interestingly, Horton was often seen as an American League icon. He writes in Chapter 21 about how players from the National League like Tommy Davis, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks “used to tease me of the time about playing in the ‘Republican League.’ ‘Keep your head up,’ Davis would tell me. They considered the National League the ‘Democratic League’ because there seemed to be more players of color, particularly stars, in that league. The N.L. was stronger — not perfect — but stronger on integration.”

As author Allen writes in his intro: “Without question, Willie is the most important living athlete to grow up in Detroit and play for a Detroit team. Willie’s story needs to be told.”

No matter what Horton accomplished on the field, his words here resonate strong in a world that seems still to have an undercurrent of racism normalized by various political figures. If the Democratic-Republican divide still feels real, Horton can speak to it.

As his SABR bio ends:

On September 27, 1999, the final game was played at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. As part of the postgame festivities, former Tigers ran onto the field in uniform and took their positions. When Horton ran into left field, he was greeted with a tremendous ovation from fans who appreciated his 15 seasons and 262 home runs wearing the Detroit uniform. Willie Horton, the slugger who starred for the 1968 World Champions, the little kid from the streets of Detroit, the teenager who belted a homer nearly out of the ballpark, the strong man who shattered bats with brute strength, broke down and cried like a baby.

And the field at the old Tiger Stadium that sits not far from the current Comerica Bank Park remains, and is known as Willie Horton Field of Dreams.

Interestingly, Horton writes in Chapter 3: “When I drive around Detroit, I avoid the intersection of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues because I don’t want to see where Tiger Stadium used to be. Even though we have another baseball field there now, it’s not Tiger Stadium. I want to remember the old ballpark the way it was when I was stationed in left field. Mickey Stanley was in center, and Jim Northrup in right. … Tears filled my eyes on September 27, 1999 when the last Detroit game was played at Tiger Stadium. The ballpark was home to me, and I don’t want to think about my home being torn down.”

No one does. Not Horton. Not Jones. Realistically or metaphorically. Home is where the heart is.

How it goes in the scorebook

Let’s read two. Call it a DH.

Because the role of the DH is how both ended their playing careers – Jones, at age 33, with the Chicago White Sox in ’76 (just 12 games), and Horton, at 37, with the Seattle Mariners in ’80. The ’76 season was the only one where they could have been in the same lineup against each other – and it happened to be in Jones’ last two games as a big-leaguer.

On April 30 and May 1 at Comiskey Park, Jones was in left field and hitting third for the White Sox; Horton was the DH hitting third for the Tigers. Horton hit home runs in the eighth inning of each game. The second one capped off an eventual 10-1 win. Jones went 0-for-4 and flied out to right in the ninth, his last at bat.

You can look it up: More to ponder

== A 2017 story on Horton about his role in calming the Detroit riots 50 years earlier.

== An excerpt on Horton’s book in the Detroit Free Press.

== More on Horton and the famous World Series are in “An October to Remember 1968: The Tigers-Cardinals World Series as Told by the Men Who Played in It” by Brendan Donley in 2018, and “Summer of ’68: The Series That Changed Baseball – and America – Forever,” by Tim Wendel in 2013

1 thought on “Day 34 of 2022 baseball books: The hometown, home-run legacies of Cleon Jones and Willie Horton”

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