By Glen Sparks
A con named Jimmy Karella wrote to Billy Martin about Ron LeFlore.
Billy was managing the Detroit Tigers at the time. Karella supposedly had been one of Martin’s old drinking buddies, one of many.
LeFlore, Karella relayed, was spraying line drives all over the Jackson, Mich., State Penitentiary baseball field. And, the guy could outrun just about everybody. There was just one problem. Ronald LeFlore, born June 16, 1948, owed the state a few more years on an armed robbery conviction.
Martin, determined as always, made a few phone calls. He arranged a tryout for LeFlore at Tiger Stadium in the summer of 1973.
The longshot prospect had been a former heroin user and small-time drug dealer. Now, he spent his days and nights inside a maximum-security penitentiary. How many more chances did he have?
Karella got the scouting report right. LeFlore belted shots all over Tiger Stadium. He busted it down the first-base line. Detroit signed him to a deal. LeFlore met the conditions for parole: He had a job.
Detroit called up LeFlore mid-way into the 1974 season. As a rookie, he hit .260 in 59 games and stole 23 bases. (Martin, predictably, didn’t get to see any of this from the Detroit dugout. The Tigers fired him late in the ’73 campaign after Billy told reporters that he liked his pitchers to throw spitballs. Ralph Houk replaced Martin.)
By 1975, LeFlore had won the full-time centerfield job. The next year, he stole 58 bases and earned a spot on the American League All-Star team. LeFlore also scored 100 runs; he collected a career-high 212 hits and blasted 16 homers. In 1978, he led the A.L. in runs scored (126) and stolen bases (68).
One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story, a made-for-TV movie, premiered on CBS on Sept. 26, 1978. LeVar Burton, of Roots fame, played LeFlore. Billy Martin, not surprisingly, played himself.
The former con, the teenage drug abuser from the tough streets of Detroit, had turned around his life. Baseball fans liked to talk about Ron LeFlore. They looked at him as a last-chance guy who made good, playing America’s game.
But, the truth got all muddled up. LeFlore still fought to stay out of trouble. The Tigers traded him following the 1979 season. LeFlore had just scored 110 runs and stolen 78 bases, and Detroit shipped him to the Montreal Expos for journeyman pitcher Dan Schatzader. Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson didn’t like LeFlore’s attitude or his friends. The drug use whispers began.
LeFlore spent one season in Montreal. He swiped a career-high 97 bags in just 139 games. Unfortunately, the drug talk—cocaine and heroin—got louder. Montreal opted not to re-sign the speedy outfielder.
The Chicago White Sox gave LeFlore another chance. They signed him to a two-year free agent deal. LeFlore fell fast. He played two injury-riddled seasons and hit only four home runs (He did steal 64 bases). His off-field life turned into a mess. Police arrested him at one point on drug charges and illegal gun possession.
Chicago released him in the spring of 1983; no one picked him up. LeFlore hit .288 in nine seasons (.342 on-base percentage) and swiped 455 bags. He ripped 59 homers and drove in 353. LeFlore topped the 90-run mark and the 50-stolen base mark four times each.
LeFlore later admitted that he was four years older than previously reported. So, he was 34 when he retired, not 30. That probably helps explain the quick drop in his baseball numbers.
Then, things got worse. LeFlore couldn’t find a job. He worked for a while as a baggage handler for Eastern Airlines and then went to the famous Joe Brinkman umpire school. LeFlore did so poorly he didn’t even merit a minor-league job.
More embarrassment followed. Police arrested him in Detroit on Sept. 27, 1999, for unpaid child support, following a ceremony marking the final game played at Tiger Stadium. On May 5, 2007, police arrested LeFlore again for non-payment, this time while he was signing autographs at a show.
Five years ago, LeFlore lost his right leg to arterial vascular disease, caused by a lifetime of cigarette smoking. Now, he gets along carefully in a prosthetic leg and lives in the Tampa, Fla., area.
LeFlore, 68, says he still loves the game of baseball. He can offer some valuable lessons, he says. Ron LeFlore is asking for just one more chance.