Tiger Saves Tiger: The Day Willie Horton Saved Al Kaline’s Life
It was probably the most terrifying, memorable, scary moment in the history of Detroit Tiger baseball...and as fate would have it, it was one of the extremely few games that was not televised. Otherwise, there would be video proof of the incident.
But here's the story.
The Tigers were in Milwaukee playing against the Brewers on Memorial Day, May 30, 1970.
Les Cain was pitching for the Tigers when Roberto Pena came to bat. The bases were loaded and the pressure was on – not just for Cain but for the entire Detroit Tiger defensive unit. Willie Horton was in left field, Jim Northrup in centerfield, and Al Kaline in right field.
Pena smacked a long fly ball into deep right field, between Northrup and Kaline. Both Tigers were calling the ball but evidently, with the fans making so much noise, they didn't hear their calls and collided into each other, with Northrup accidently smashing Kaline on the jaw with his left arm. Both Tigers fell onto the ground. Northrup quickly got up but Kaline wasn't getting up. Even though it was reported that Kaline had caught the ball, the collision knocked it out of his glove. Northrup dazedly wondered where the ball went and didn't notice the trouble Kaline was in.
Kaline was choking and turning blue. Former Tiger catcher Jackie Moore, who was now coaching the Brewers, was the first one to reach Kaline and tried to open his tightly-clenched jaw. Meantime, Willie Horton was running at top speed over to the scene. In 2020, Horton recalled in the Detroit Free Press, “I saw Al on the ground. His eyes were turned back, and his jaws were locked. He was in trouble.....I acted quickly, compressed his chest, grabbed the back of his jaw and pried open his mouth and we got his tongue out of the way. My hand kept his mouth open until the trainer got there. I still have the scar on my right hand from his teeth marks”.
Hometown fans listening to the game on the radio had no idea what was going on, and the spectators in the stands didn't really know, either. As for Roberto Pena, who was responsible for that fly ball, he rounded all the bases with ease, and it became the first infield Grand Slam Homerun in baseball history.
Kaline was taken to the hospital where he was observed overnight, and returned to the team the next day. He told his teammates he couldn't remember what happened.
Before a game at Tiger Stadium on August 22, 1970, Willie was given an award by the Michigan Heart Association that read: “For seeing what needed to be done and doing it, thereby quite probably saving the life of his teammate Al Kaline. Unconscious after a collision in the outfield, Kaline’s jaws were locked and he was turning blue. Horton forced open his jaws, allowing air to reach his lungs. Speed in applying this first step in Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation is all important.”
The two Tigers remained the best of friends with total admiration for each other.
Al passed away in 2020.
In 2000, the Tigers erected a statute to Willie Horton at Comerica Park and his number (23) was retired. Willie became the fourth Michigan person in history to be given his own day - “Willie Horton Day” - which took place on October 18, 2012. As of 2022, Willie is alive and well and living in Bloomfield Hills.
FYI: The Society for American Baseball Research has some terrific in-depth info and stats on Willie Horton that you can check out here.