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02/04/11 8:29 PM EST

Horton blessed by influences in his life

Tigers slugger grateful for people that helped make him a legend

DETROIT -- Willie Horton had as much physical strength as anybody in baseball in his time, yet without the help of Junior Strong, who knows how long it would've taken him to get involved in organized baseball?

Horton had the strength in character handed down from his parents, yet with Detroit legends Ron Thompson and Damon Keith, he learned how moral conviction can play out on a ballfield.

He had the kind of special talent that plenty of fans loved to watch in Spring Training, yet without Madeline Brooks, he might never have felt at home in Lakeland, Fla.

Those are merely a few of the many figures in Horton's life who shaped him into a legend, both on the field and in the city he loves. And they're a few reasons why Horton says whenever he has the chance that he has been blessed in his life, and in his career as a Tigers great.

"I'm just blessed to be around those people," Horton said. "I think how I carry myself and go about doing things in life, all of them helped that."

Horton's life has been chronicled in biographies, most recently in "The People's Champion." Horton grew up loving baseball from his early age in Virginia, but he didn't get into organized ball until he made the lengthy walk from his hometown of Stonega to a larger nearby town called Appalachia to play on a well-maintained field. It was there that he found Strong, who coached one of the local Little League teams.

The team didn't have an African-American player, but with Horton's talent, it was about to add one. Even at his young age -- he was seven or eight at the time, Horton said -- he was clearly gifted.

"It was the beginning of Willie Horton," Horton said. "He said he thought I was going to play in the big leagues when I was six or seven years old."

Horton's parents, brothers and sisters raised him to see beyond race and color, so it wasn't quite as big of a deal to him. But he eventually encountered the integration issue soon after he moved to Detroit a few years later and began playing ball with a local team.

Thompson became a coaching great for high school football, but he was coaching baseball at that point. And he felt his team was good enough to compete in the local Federation Baseball League. He not only had a great slugger in Horton, but he had a future Major League batting champion in Alex Johnson. But while their team was integrated, the rest of the league was segregated. If they wanted to play in the league, they needed to split up and play on other teams.

"I remember Mr. Thompson going to Federation meetings at the time," Horton said. "He kind of told us what was going on. We said we didn't want to separate. We stayed together and we played recreation softball and baseball that summer."

A year later, they were allowed into Federation ball -- as a team. They were the first to be integrated.

"Maybe there was something good about it," Horton said, "because we learned about the importance of friendship and staying together. We've been blessed. We teased each other. We say we didn't do too bad for the riff-raff kids. We're kind of proud of that."

Horton and Johnson went to the big leagues. Others from that team found success off the field. But they've stayed in touch through the years, many of them having stayed in Detroit.

"We looked at each other as more extended family members," Horton said. "Some of them became doctors. Some of them became lawyers. A lot of them became teachers. We've been fortunate, over 50 years in friendship. To this day, a lot of us guys get together once a month for breakfast or dinner."

Thompson made one of the most important introductions in Horton's career, connecting Horton with a local attorney named Damon Keith. He was meant to be an example for the kids as a successful African-American and a role model, and he eventually became Horton's legal guardian. Horton still grew up living with his actual family, both his parents and his sister, but he came to think of Keith as part of the family.

While Horton went on to baseball greatness, Keith went on to become a federal judge and a mentor to many, such as former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm.

"Judge Keith is like a father to me," Horton said. "My dad and mom put me in his hands when I was 14. He said, 'Here's a man who can show you.' He's been there for me ever since, and I still call him dad. He surrounded me with people in my lifetime. Through Judge Keith, I met some very promising people in my life. I met some presidents and entertainers."

Through Keith, Horton also maintained a close relationship with the city, both during and after his playing days. His role in trying to diffuse the riots in the city in 1967 was made famous. But Horton's influence in race relations wasn't limited to Detroit.

When Horton went to Spring Training, he still had to deal with race relations, especially when it came to segregated housing. He found a crucial figure in Brooks, who helped African-American players find housing with local residents.

"We were very fortunate to have Mother Brooks and the Hamilton family to provide a home in the city for the black players," Horton said. "I called them my parents away from home, especially after my parents were killed in '65. But Mother Brooks got me involved in civil rights.

"I stayed many nights at their house. She kind of brought me into their home. I didn't understand all that my first time away from home. Being around all that, It helped me know what I had to do."

The first time Horton arrived in Lakeland, he said, he had to walk five miles from the bus station to the ballpark, because he couldn't get a taxi. Years later, he was a major figure in the city and its relations. He still considers it a second home.

Horton has been coming to Lakeland for around 50 years. His influence in the city has not been forgotten. He was honored a few years ago with a street named after him. He brought back Jake Wood, the Tigers' first African-American player, to camp last year. This year, he'll be honored to host many of his friends from that old Federation club.

He can think of many, many other influences, from Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell to Northwestern High School coach Sam Bishop. These were just a few.

"We still have a long ways to go," said Horton, now a special assistant to team president Dave Dombrowski, "but I've seen all this happen in my lifetime."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.