The following is excerpted from Top of the Order: 25 Writers Pick Their Favorite Baseball Player of All Time, edited by Sean Manning and featuring essays by Matt Taibbi, Stefan Fatsis, and others. Here's Scott Raab, writing about former Indian Tony Horton.
I started with an outdated home address 3,000 miles away, traced him to a job he left long ago, made a few more calls, and there the trail ended. It wasn't necessarily to write about him, why I tried to get in touch, but because I owe Tony Horton something important.
If you're not middle-aged, not from around Cleveland, and you've heard of Horton, it's likely thanks to YouTube, where you can watch a black-and-white clip from the second game of an Indians-Yankees double-dip played back on June 24, 1970. It's preserved because a journeyman Yanks reliever, Steve Hamilton, threw a pitch he called the Folly Floater—an eephus ball he would toss twenty-five feet or so up into the air. In the top of the ninth, with the Indians up 7–2, Hamilton offers two consecutive floaters to Horton.
You can see his body torque as he takes two mighty uppercut hacks. He fouls the first one into the seats behind home plate. He pops up the second one, too, also foul; this time, though, Yankees catcher Thurman Munson has room to make the grab.
The Yankee Stadium crowd roars, and Phil Rizzuto, calling the game, does his "Holy cow!" thing. Horton, meanwhile, crawls on his hands and knees back into the Indians' dugout. He looks for all the world like a kid having fun playing ball, not a guy on some precipice of horror and oblivion.
Truth is, he was a fine ballplayer, with far more stick than glove. "This kid is a natural," Ted Williams said in 1963, after seeing Horton hit at Red Sox camp. "You don't fool with a swing like that." He made it to The Show at nineteen with Boston, got stuck behind George "Boomer" Scott, a far better first baseman, and was dealt to Cleveland for Gary "Ding Dong" Bell in early June 1967. In an era dominated by pitchers, he was the best hitter in a piss-poor Indians lineup. In 1969—the year baseball lowered the mound to aid hitters—he belted twenty-seven home runs. The team finished 62–99.
That off-season, Horton wanted a bigger bump than the front office was willing to give him. His agent was his father. At a time when newspapers essentially owned sportswriters, he was roundly portrayed as a greedy, young, me-first punk for holding out during the first three weeks of spring training in Tucson. Then he came to terms: the team's.
By the end of May, the Tribe was 16–27, Tony Horton was batting .238, and I was royally pissed off—at the Indians in general, and at Horton in particular. Fucking furious I was.
I know now—thanks to the miracle of baseball-reference.com—that he was hitting a productive .238. I know now—thanks to Bill James and a hundred others—that he was something of a jewel: a very good hitter at a very young age. And I know now—thanks to many dollars of therapy and great good fortune—that in 1970 I was a dickweed, an eighteen-year-old no-account shitheel.
All I knew then—all I really wanted to know—was who wanted to go to the game with me and could I borrow the car and a few bucks from my mother. I didn't have dates—I didn't know any girls. I didn't have a job. Didn't have a clue. I had spent most of the best days of my life to that point at Municipal Stadium, a place I always loved, watching some of the least interesting, most inept ball clubs ever assembled, sitting in two-dollar seats among a throng—an exceedingly tiny throng—of humanity so vile it would've gagged Emma Lazarus. I was there not only because I loved baseball and hot dogs; I was there also—and I'm certain that I speak for most of us in Section 34, lower deck, hard by the left-field foul pole and, not incidentally, the visiting team's bullpen—simply because, win or lose, hot or cold, it was a far better place than home to kill a few hours.
Tony Horton made it to the majors at the age of nineteen; I had other gifts. I was loud. Jesus, was I loud. With 5,000 or so fans in a ballpark that held 80,000, I'd holler "HOT DOGS!" when my belly growled, and vendors would race from five or six sections away to serve me. I hadn't learned to drink yet, but I had learned to curse, and sitting near the opponents' bullpen gave me ample opportunity to practice. I never have forgotten my very first one-on-one chat with a big-leaguer, a backup catcher for the Angels named Tom Egan.
I'd been riding one of his teammates pretty hard, an old shortstop named Ray Oyler. Strictly a banjo hitter, Oyler was ready for the pasture; he was down in the pen just to help warm up relievers. I don't think he even stole a glance at me as I reminded him several times what a piece-of-shit hitter he had always been, but between innings Egan came up to the low wall at the foul pole, staring at me all the way.
"How old are you, bush?" he asked.
I told him.
"How much money you make?"
I told him.
"I got more money for signing than you'll ever make in your life," he barked. "So shut the fuck up."
But not for long. I was too far away from first base to ride Tony Horton, so I had to pick my spots. On Camera Day—do teams still dare to hold an event where fans can get close enough to take pictures?—I threw pennies at him from the back of a crowd of folks snapping photos.
"Here you go, asshole," I shouted. "Here's the rest of your fucking money."
If our eyes ever met, I don't remember it.
* * *
The evening before the 1970 season's Banner Day—do teams still let fans hold a pregame parade in the ballyard holding aloft their homemade tributes to their heroes?—I spent an hour or two in the garage preparing for the event with my friend Ken, my little brother Bob, and a large sheet of plywood.
First we painted "HORTON STINKS" in big black block letters. (I recall no debate among us about the wording, probably because "sucks" was not in common usage yet.) Then we took an old bedsheet and painted "GO TONY" on it.
It was a simple plan, well executed. Before going downtown to the Stadium, we tied the bedsheet over the plywood and kept it there while we stood in line outside the park with our fellow Banner Day celebrants waiting for the gates to open. Not till we were through the tunnel, past the bleachers, and walking onto the outfield warning track did we whip off the sheet.
I want to pause here to say this: I have absolutely nothing to say in my defense. Not a word. Tony Horton could have gone on to forge a Hall of Fame career; the Indians could've built a baseball dynasty; the city itself might somehow have become something other than a national joke—none of it would have made any difference. I know this because I left Cleveland for good in 1984 yet am still incapable of watching the Indians—and the Browns and the Cavaliers—play a meaningful game without reverting to precisely the same awful behavior.
I suspect, now that I dwell in North Jersey among the loutish rabble of Yankees fans, that I'm not alone in this. Which doesn't make what I did right. I was the real asshole.
As I remember—I've consulted both Ken and Bob—our work won wide approval from the Tribe fans already seated. Certainly no Indians official or proxy interfered with our long circuit; as I remember, we got plenty of laughs and applause from every section, and a few smiles from the players in the visiting dugout. I don't remember the response from the Tribe's. It may be that I was too cowed to look; I'd never been on a major-league field—haven't since—and my heart was racing. But this much I know: Tony Horton didn't play that day.
As I remember, Banner Day was Saturday, August 29, 1970. The day before, after having been yanked from the lineup in the fifth inning of Game One of a twi-night twin bill, Horton had driven back to the motel where he lived and, sitting in his car in the parking lot, slit his wrists. On Banner Day he was in the hospital. He lived; his career died. He never played baseball again.
I hadn't given Banner Day 1970 more than a passing thought for decades, until a couple of years ago, when Ken sent me a link to Terry Pluto's estimable book, The Curse of Rocky Colavito. There, on page 127, was a short description of our "HORTON STINKS" escapade.
The Tony Horton Pluto portrays was just a kid so bent on being perfect that he couldn't handle failure, not exactly a plus for a guy in the big leagues. "He never smiled," a teammate told Pluto, "even after he hit a home run . . . I had heard about guys taking batting practice until their hands bled, but I never saw it until Tony."
Pluto—who grew up in Cleveland and has covered sports for the Akron Beacon-Journal and the Cleveland Plain Dealer for decades—summed it up by saying, "To me, the most tragic Indian was Tony Horton."
Maybe so—that's what I thought when I read Pluto's book—but the competition is pretty stiff. I pay to sponsor the Larry Doby page on baseball-reference.com, as well as Sam McDowell's and Ray Chapman's. You can read the twisted history of Cleveland Indians baseball in those three names alone: the only major-leaguer killed by a beanball; the filthy southpaw who guzzled away a potential Hall of Fame career; and the noble sap doomed to eternity in Jackie Robinson's shadow.
I could sponsor Herb Score's page, too, and Steve Olin's, and Ray Fosse's, and a dozen or two other tragedies, but I'm trying to put a little money away for my kid's college tuition. What I'm saying is that being a lifelong Indians fan transcends any of the whining from Wrigley Field or, once upon a time, Red Sox Nation. Pussies. For most of my life, the Indians had neither stars nor hope—only agony. With apologies to Bernard Malamud, to be a Cleveland fan is to suffer, and to suffer is to be a Cleveland fan.
So it seemed to me a reach to deem any single Tribal tale of woe the most tragic. But it wasn't until I began looking for Horton that I learned he had tried to kill himself—his attempted suicide going unreported until the New York Daily News wrote about him in 1997, after the Mets' Pete Harnisch left the team because of depression.
That writer, Bill Madden, visited Tony Horton's Los Angeles home—the ten-year-old address I started my own search with—and was met at the door by Horton's father.
"He won't want to talk to you," he said.
Then Tony Horton appeared.
"I'm not interested," he told Madden just before he closed the door. "You mean a sports story? I'm definitely not interested."
* * *
I'm not enough of a drama queen to tell you that Tony Horton and my memories of the 1970 season haunt me, or that I sought to salve my guilt or redeem my sin by finding him. Which isn't to say that I don't regret my assholery—I do indeed—but that as my personal pantheon of cruel and shabby behavior goes, this ain't exactly the star attraction.
One of the worst parts of being a devoted fan of any crappy team, in any sport, is the sense that you're truly only rooting for the laundry, that the players in the uniform bearing the name of your town don't care half as much as you do. Nor should they. They may be men playing a boy's game, but they're also men at work at a job defined by its naked difficulty. Their every act is literally numbered, and those numbers—and, in a fan's eyes, the players themselves—are public property. Ultimately, though, they owe us nothing beyond their best effort.
And us? I don't know that fans owe players much of anything. Then again, I'm from Cleveland: I've been suffering all my life. I always figured that since I bought my tickets with my mother's hard-earned money, I was entitled to do pretty much whatever I wanted at the games. And though I realize now how wrong I was, that's merely an intellectual construct that still gets swept away by the flood of feeling that defines my fandom. If you put me, Jose Mesa, and John Elway in a room with a loaded gun, I'm the only one who's walking out alive.
But I do know what I owe Tony Horton, who always gave the Indians his best and paid way too high a price:
I'm sorry, pal.
This article is excerpted from Top of the Order: 25 Writers Pick Their Favorite Baseball Player of All Time, edited by Sean Manning. Available from Da Capo Press (www.dacapopress.com) Copyright © 2010. Scott Raab is a graduate of Cleveland State University and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He has been a Writer at Large for Esquire magazine since 1997. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and son.