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Tony Horton

Tony Horton

Position(s):
1B, LF, OF
Born:
December 6, 1944
Bats:
Right
Throws:
Right
Height:
6' 3"
Weight:
210 lbs
Major League Debut:
7-31-1964 with BOS
On June 24, 1970, Tony Horton crawled to the dugout after an embarrassing moment on the field.

Two months later, he crawled out of baseball forever--not yet 26 years old.

Horton was a power-hitting first baseman for the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians, though he had his best seasons with the Tribe after being dealt by Boston to Cleveland in June, 1967.

They laughed at Horton in Yankee Stadium when he was made a fool of by lefty Steve Hamilton on that Sunday afternoon in June, 1970. It wasn't long before the baseball world felt sorry for him, the joke not being funny anymore.

Horton was coming off a stellar 1969, a year in which he had his "breakout" season, as they say. Playing in a career-high 159 games, the right-handed swinging Horton slammed 27 homers, compiled 93 RBI, and hit a solid .278.

On the field, he seemed to have gotten his act together after several years trying to crack the everyday lineup. Off the field, it was a very different story.

It all came to a head in 1970.

Horton got off to a decent start, but began to struggle around Memorial Day. The fans in Cleveland started to use Horton as their favorite target for vitriol at the ballpark. He became irritable, at one point pouting because he wasn't batting cleanup, where he felt he belonged, and where he spent most of the '69 season.

Of all the batters that Hamilton could have humiliated, it was too bad that it had to be Horton, as it turned out. In the first game of a doubleheader on June 24, the southpaw Hamilton faced Horton in the top of the ninth, the Indians cruising along with a 7-1 lead.

Hamilton used to sometimes throw something called a "Folly Floater", which was a variation on the old "Eephus pitch" thrown by Rip Sewell in the 1930s and '40s. Basically, the pitch was a high, arcing lob, not unlike a slow-pitch softball pitch.

Hamilton, for whatever reason, threw one to Horton, who led off the Indians' ninth. Horton fouled it off as the Yankee Stadium crowd, as well as the players in both dugouts, howled. Whether because he was angry or embarrassed, or both, Horton asked Hamilton to throw another one.

The stringbean lefty complied, and again Horton fouled it off. Only this time, Yankees catcher Thurman Munson had a bead on the ball, and caught it just before running into the screen behind home plate. The whole stadium was in stitches at this point.

That's when Horton, seemingly playing along and being a good sport, tossed his helmet aside, held his hands out in a "What are ya gonna do?" fashion, and, just before reaching the dugout, sunk to his knees and crawled the last few feet to the bench.

It all seemed like it was in good fun. But the boobirds didn't let up on Horton in Cleveland.

The cycle was vicious; the more Horton struggled, the more he was booed. And the more he was booed, the more he struggled. One night, after a victory, Horton had to be called in from his first base position. He didn't even know the game was over with.

Finally, on August 28, having hit just one home run in his previous 17 games and with the fans' abuse relentless, Horton removed himself from the second game of a doubleheader against the Angels at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. In an incident that wasn't reported initially, Horton then tried to take his own life later that night, slitting his wrists.

He would never play another game. Horton eventually checked into a hospital, suffering from what was officially diagnosed as clinical depression. He would recover from his illness, but his baseball career was done.

Alvin Dark, who managed the Indians at the time, later wrote a book entitled When in Doubt, Fire the Manager. In it, he referenced the strange case of Tony Horton.

Horton's case, Dark wrote, was "the most sorrowful incident I was ever involved in, in my baseball career."

Horton completely divorced himself from baseball and sports in general, finding work in telecommunications. He has constantly refused interview requests to discuss his downfall.

"Tony was a stud," former Indians teammate Graig Nettles once said. "But one day, he just went crazy."

Biography:

He was a California golden boy, a strapping 6-3, 210-pound three-sport Los Angeles high school star who spurned basketball scholarships from UCLA and USC to sign for a $125,000 bonus with the Boston Red Sox. His size, strength and powerful potential was immediately apparent. In 1963, his first training camp with the Red Sox, Ted Williams observed him hitting in the cage and exclaimed, "This kid is a natural. You don't fool with a swing like that."

And nobody did. For one thing, Horton was something of a loner, his self-absorption prompting others to leave him to his own inner thoughts. "I don't think I ever knew a more intense player than Tony Horton," said then-Indians GM Gabe Paul, whose baseball career spanned more than 50 years.

"I was his first roommate with the Indians and I had to get away from him," recalled former Indians catcher Duke Sims, now a marketing executive in Las Vegas. "He was just so intense, he couldn't ever relax. The fans in Cleveland, all 5,000 of them in those days, really got to him, too. Most of all, though, his father had an extreme influence on him. He had to talk to him every day."

After a rapid ascension through the Red Sox system, Horton played parts of three seasons in Boston (1964-66), only to be traded to the Indians midway through the 1967 season for pitcher Gary Bell. According to those close to Horton then, the trade came as a shock to him and was the first suggestion of failure.

Yet as an Indian, he began to thrive, actualizing his great potential. After hitting .278 with 27 homers and 93 RBI in 1969, he held out for a salary of $65,000, or about $19,000 more than what was being offered by Cleveland manager Alvin Dark, who had usurped Paul's GM duties.

That winter, when the Indians refused to even talk about his salary demands, Horton began to brood. Recalled Russell Schneider, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer at the time, it was Dark who fueled Horton's inner frustrations by strongly suggesting that Ken (Hawk) Harrelson was a more-than-viable first base alternative.

"Dark kept telling Tony that if he didn't sign for what the Indians were offering, they'd just move Harrelson to first," Schneider said. "Finally, Tony gave in and signed for the $46,000 the Indians had offered him. Then, the day after he signed, Harrelson slid into third base in a spring training game and broke his ankle. I don't think Tony ever got over what he perceived to be the gods being against him. In his mind, if he had held out one more day, the Indians wouldn't have had any more leverage."

"I never heard that theory," Dark said when contacted at his home in South Carolina. "I just know we didn't have the money. Then, after Tony did sign, the fans really got on him. From day one that season, he was booed more than the ave rage guy.

"I had no idea they would be so constant in their upset with Tony. He gave everything he had and just couldn't understand why they were booing him. As many times as I was fired, I'd have to say there was nothing more painful for me in baseball as my experience with Tony Horton where a life was almost ruined."

The pressure of wanting to prove he was worth the money he requested took its toll on Horton, who got off to a terrible start in 1970 after arriving three weeks late for spring training. It wasn't until late July that he started to get his swing back, but by then there were more ominous signs he was far more troubled than people had realized.

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Tagged:
Alvin Dark, Baseball History, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Steve Hamilton, Tony Horton

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