I love authoring this blog because during the research I do to write each post, I frequently learn new and very interesting things about the game of baseball and the players who played it. That happened again with today’s post. Ironically, it was just a week ago, while preparing a post for my Pinstripe Birthdays Blog on former Yankee reliever Steve Hamilton, that I came across the above video clip of Tony Horton trying to hit one of Hamilton’s “folly floater” pitches. I actually saw this transpire live on TV when it happened and it has always been one of my favorite baseball moments for two reasons. I loved listening to Phil Rizzuto do Yankee games when I was a kid and his narration of what transpired was classic Scooter. The second reason I enjoyed this moment so much was Horton’s great reaction after Thurman Munson caught his second feeble pop-up. I became a Tony Horton fan that day and have always wondered what on earth happened to the guy. One minute he was on his way to becoming one of the American League’s better first baseman and the next minute he was gone.
Horton had put together a career year for the Cleveland Indians in 1969, belting 27 home runs while driving in 93, and it looked like he was about to blossom into the huge star the Boston Red Sox expected him to be, when they signed Tony out of high school in 1962. At that time, Horton had been one of the most sought after high school athletes in the country and was just about to sign a scholarship to play both basketball and baseball for USC. The Red Sox front office convinced Tony and his Dad to come to Boston for a Fenway Park tryout before committing to the scholarship and when they got there, they found out there was another seventeen-year-old outfielder named “Tony” trying out as well. His last name was Conigliaro and the two Tony’s ended up pitching to each other that day. Evidently Tony H hit Tony C’s first two pitches about 900 cumulative feet and the Red Sox signed him on the spot to a deal worth just shy of $140,000. Boston signed Conigliaro too and when the two were reunited at Boston’s 1963 spring training camp, they became great friends as well.
Since he was a better defensive outfielder than Horton, it was Conigliaro who was rushed to the big league roster, while Horton worked his way quickly through Boston’s farm system. Tony was switched to first base and the Red Sox gave him long stretches on the big league roster in both 1964 and ’65, grooming him to replace Boston’s aging and horrible-fielding first baseman, Dick Stuart. Horton made the switch flawlessly and impressed everyone at the big league level. Then a guy named George Scott showed up. He was a better fielder and a better hitter than Horton and it would be Boomer who would become Boston’s starting first baseman. Still, the Red Sox hoped to play Horton in their outfield but when they found themselves in a pennant race during the 1967 season, they realized they needed more pitching to stay in that race, so they traded Horton and Don Demeter to the Indians for pitcher Gary Bell.
Cleveland immediately made Horton their starting first baseman and during his first three seasons as an Indian, he showed signs he was becoming a great one. But evidently, Horton had some psychological issues. As described in an article by Mark Kantor and Mark Armour that was published as part of SABR’s “The Baseball Biography Project,” Horton was extremely hard on himself. He could not be happy just being good, he needed to be perfect. In that same article, the authors cited Horton’s behavior in the above clip as a possible signal that he had some mental issues.
After his career year in 1969, Tony struggled at the plate the following season and he began hearing boos from the impatient Cleveland fans. Evidently, the pressure of trying to please the fans combined with the impossible pressure of trying to please himself (and his very hard-to-please father) were too much for Horton and he suffered some sort of a breakdown. He has since refused to discuss the circumstances surrounding his abrupt departure from the game but Horton’s 1970 season was his last. He took his last big league at bat when he was just 25-years-old.