Few people have ever confronted or overcame odds as well as Ron LeFlore. Whether as a kid from the streets of Detroit who grew up in poverty, as an inmate in Jackson State Penitentiary, or as a young player in the major leagues who barely knew how to play the game, LeFlore was consistently showing how remarkably gifted he was.
Unfortunately, it was LeFlore’s flawed character that led to his exile from the game, something he still hasn’t come to grips with.
As chronicled in his autobiography Breakout: From Prison to the Big Leagues, LeFlore grew up almost literally on the streets of Detroit. His mother was a strong influence on young Ronnie, but there were few positive male role models in his life. By the time he was 10 he was already well known by the police and juvenile officers, and in his teenage years LeFlore was involved in drugs, alcohol, and all sorts of trouble.
When he was arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to 5-15 years in prison, it seemed his life would spiral into a wasteland like most other convicted felons. But LeFlore’s raw athletic ability surfaced behind the walls. Playing organized baseball for the first time for a prison team, LeFlore displayed power, speed, and great defense. A fellow inmate named Jimmy Karalla knew Billy Martin and wrote a letter to the Tigers manager praising LeFlore. Martin convinced prison officials to allow LeFlore to be released for a one-day tryout at Tiger Stadium. Changing from inmate clothing to a Tiger uniform, LeFlore worked out in front of Martin and the Tigers. He impressed Martin and members of the team with his power and speed. LeFlore was incredibly fast, showing off his speed on the basepaths and in the outfield.
Shortly after that, the Tigers signed LeFlore to a contract, which allowed the inmate to satisfy his parole obligation of being employed, and he was released in July of 1973. Incredibly, the following season the 26-year old advanced from Single-A to the major leagues in one season, making his debut with Detroit on August 1, 1974. The nervous rookie went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts as the Tigers leadoff man in his first game. The next day, LeFlore got his first big league hit and stole two bases. One day later he was starting in center field at Tiger Stadium in front of family and friends, who must have been amazed to see Ronnie LeFlore in a Tigers’ uniform.
LeFlore hit .258 in 1975, his first full season as a major leaguer when he replaced Mickey Stanley as Detroit’s starting center fielder. Though he was raw, LeFlore compensated by using his incredible athletic ability. Not only was he quick and a great hitter, LeFlore was strong. Later in his career he took part in the Superstars competition, competing against athletes from the NFL, NBA, and track and field in a televised reality show. LeFlore impressed with his bursts of speed in the racing events, but also with his upper-body strength in the lifting competition.
In 1976, LeFlore hit safely in the first 30 games of the season, boosting his average over .400 as late as May. He was now turning heads all over the league.
“He used to be that guy from prison who’s playing baseball,’ said one American League coach, “Now he’s a guy starring in the majors who happened to be in prison.”
Ron was elected to the ’76 All-Star Game, started in left field and led off for the American League in Philadelphia. Just three years earlier he’d watched the All-Star Game from inside a prison cell. Leading off the game, LeFlore singled to left field.
LeFlore hit .316 and swiped 58 bases in ’76. The following season the leadoff hitter batted .325 with 212 hits, 30 doubles, 10 triples, 16 homers, 100 runs scored, and 30 steals, arguably the best year ever by a Detroit leadoff hitter. But LeFlore was just getting started as a base stealer. In ’78 he led the AL with 68 stolen bases, the highest total by a Tiger since Ty Cobb. He led the league with 126 runs scored that season and had 198 hits. That year, CBS aired a made-for-TV movie titled One in a Million starring LeVar Berton as Ron in the story of LeFlore’s life.
In 1979, LeFlore pilfered 78 bases and scored 110 runs while batting an even .300 for the Tigers. He was one of the best leadoff hitters in the game, and the most exciting base runner in baseball. But it proved to be his final season as a Tiger.
During the ’79 season, Detroit hired Sparky Anderson, and shortly into his tenure the veteran skipper realized that Ron LeFlore was not going to fit into his clubhouse. Anderson famously announced shortly after his arrival that it was “my way or the highway.” By this time, LeFlore had started to enjoy his success and he flaunted it off the field. In his mind, Ron was not just big league, he was big time. There was a drug problem, lots of women, and unsavory sycophants and shady characters, some of whom were coming in and out of the Tiger clubhouse. Sparky recognized a troublemaker when he saw one, and LeFlore was shipped to Montreal for a left-handed pitcher. On the surface the deal looked like a lopsided trade in favor of the Expos, but the Tigers knew that Ron’s career was headed in the wrong direction.
In his first season as an Expo, LeFlore struggled to learn the new league, but he still flashed his spikes on the base paths. He led the NL with an incredible 97 stolen bases, one of the highest totals in baseball history. But LeFlore was burning the candle at both ends. He was snorting cocaine and shooting heroine frequently, while living the high life of a baseball superstar. His reckless behavior spilled over onto other impressionable players on the Montreal team, a fact that was quickly realized by the front office. As a result, the Expos allowed LeFlore to leave via free agency after one season. LeFlore signed a deal with the Chicago White Sox, but his time with the team proved to be a huge disappointment professionally. On the personal side, it was in many ways the worst thing that ever happened to LeFlore. In Chicago, LeFlore had access to all of the temptations of a big city, and he took advantage of them all. He hit just .267 with no power for the ChiSox in parts of two seasons. He also suffered injuries for the first time and missed playing time. With a drug problem, a poor attitude, and diminishing skills on the field, LeFlore was released in 1983.
It’s safe to say that since his release by the White Sox 30 years ago, Ron LeFlore has been desperately trying to get his foot back into the door in major league baseball. He’s never succeeded. His reputation as a drug user and bad character has slammed every door in front of him. He played briefly in the Senior Professional Baseball League in the late 1980s, and even tried to become a pro umpire. But nothing worked. In 1999 at the final game at Tiger Stadium he was asked to take part in the ceremony. After coming off the field, LeFlore was arrested by Detroit police on a warrant for back child support. It was an embarrassing incident for the former All-Star.
For a long time, LeFlore tried everything he could to get an interview with a major league organization as a coach, scout, anything. He latched on as a coach in the independent Midwest League, and later served as a manager in the Frontier League. Those stints were short-lived though. A few years ago LeFlore underwent a hip replacement surgery that was funded in part by the Major League Baseball Alumni Association (through a gift from Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner). He currently resides in Florida with his wife, where he still wishes for a return to the game that helped deliver him from prison.
“I still love the game so much,” he told Sports Illustrated a few years ago. “I want to be a part of it. I have a story that people can learn a lot from, and I can teach anyone how to run. I just want a chance.”