Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 14 – The Detroit Tigers
There are many paths to the Major Leagues.
Some teenagers are drafted right out of high school, spend a few years in the minors, and eagerly ascend to the parent ball-club.
Others make an almost seamless transition from college baseball to the Majors, spending little if any time in the minor leagues.
Still other players from foreign lands, such as Ichiro, jump right into Major League roles with varying degrees of success.
There is one unique avenue to the Major Leagues, however, that very few players have ever traversed: Federal Penitentiary to the Major Leagues. In fact, it is certainly the most unlikely path to Major League stardom.
There was one player, however, who broke into the Major Leagues in 1974 after having followed that exact path.
His name was Ron LeFlore.
Ron LeFlore was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1948. Then, as now, Detroit was a rough town. His father was an unemployed alcoholic. His mother was a hardworking nurse. It didn’t take long for young Ron LeFlore to find trouble. By the time he was a teenager, he’d acquired a criminal record. Within a few years, LeFlore found himself in a Federal Penitentiary, a 5 to15-year sentence for Armed Robbery hanging over his head.
Then something remarkable happened. Billy Martin, then manager of the Tigers, decided to pay a visit to an incarcerated friend of his, Jimmy Karalla. (I find this humorous, but unsurprising.) During this visit, Martin just happened to notice LeFlore’s speed and strength during prison workouts. Right then and there, he convinced the prison administrators to allow LeFlore a pass for Day Parole so that LeFlore could attend a tryout with the Tigers. LeFlore so impressed Tigers management that they signed him to a contract which allowed LeFlore to meet his conditions for parole.
Ironically, Martin was fired soon afterward for ordering his pitchers to throw at opposing team’s hitters.
Finally, already 26-years old, LeFlore first donned a Tigers uniform 1974. A part-time player in ’74, LeFlore was still learning the game, periodically displaying his natural athletic abilities.
In his first full season in 1975, LeFlore hit just .258, but the Tigers stuck with him. His 28 stolen bases (despite 20 caught stealings) promised more to come.
In 1976, LeFlore improved dramatically. He hit .316, scored 93 runs, and stole 58 bases. He even got to play in his one and only All-Star game.
The ’76 squad, which also included Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, had to be one of the most unlikely groups of players ever assembled.
But 1977 signaled Ron LeFlore’s full arrival as a Major League talent to be reckoned with. At age 29, he batted .325 lashing 212 hits, including a career high 16 home runs, plus 30 doubles, ten triples, and an even 100 runs scored.
His aggressive style of play in the field and on the base-paths drew a few awkward comparisons in the Press to a previous controversial Detroit star named Ty Cobb. Although the comparison was, in some respects, highly exaggerated, LeFlore, like Cobb, was much more respected than he was liked.
But despite LeFlore’s accomplishments in 1977, I have chosen 1978 as Ron LeFlore’s Best Forgotten Baseball Season.
Although his batting average actually dropped to .297 in ’78, he drew a career high 65 walks, and he led the American League in runs scored with 126, and in stolen bases with 68. He just missed 200 hits for a second consecutive year (198) and he drove in a career high 62 runs. His 105 runs produced was good for second place in the A.L. He also led the A.L. in singles with 153.
LeFlore worked hard to become a very good defensive outfielder as well. In 1978, LeFlore led all A.L. center-fielders in put-outs with 438. The previous season, he led A.L. center-fielders in assists with 12.
Also in 1978, “One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story” starring LeVar Burton as LeFlore, aired on CBS to positive reviews.
LeFlore spent just one more season in Detroit before moving on to Montreal for the 1980 season. But he continued to improve his stolen base totals for four successive seasons, swiping 78 for Detroit in his final season with that club, and then grabbing an N.L. high 97 in his one season with the Expos.
LeFlore played in the Major League for just nine seasons, retiring after the 1982 season with the White Sox at the age of 34.
In just six full seasons and three partial seasons, LeFlore successfully stole 455 bases (among the top 50 all-time), scored 731 runs, posted a .288 career batting average, and lashed 1283 hits.
Clearly, LeFlore found redemption on a Major League playing field.
After his retirement, LeFlore worked briefly as a baggage handler for United Airlines. Then he spent several years coaching and managing in various minor league organizations in both the U.S. and Canada.
There are currently over two million Americans serving prison time in the United States, by far the most in the entire Western World. How much wasted talent and human potential languishes hopelessly behind bars, hoping, perhaps even praying, to find some redemption of their own?
And, as Billy Martin did in 1973, who will take a chance on some young man, granting him perhaps one last chance to embrace his inherent human dignity and self-respect?