Ron LeFlore: Local jailbird made good, made some bad Tigers teams tolerable

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Billy Martin's frustration with the Tigers' pitiful minor league system led to a fateful trip to Jackson State Prison.

It was the summer of 1973 and Billy Martin was getting desperate.

The desperation followed frustration. Billy never did have much patience, after all.

Martin, the combative manager with the short shelf life, bounced into Detroit in 1971, charged with taking over a veteran-laden club that had quit terribly under Mayo Smith.

Tigers GM Jim Campbell showed some desperation, as well, in hiring Martin to begin with.

But Campbell knew that his team needed a kick in the pants, and at the time, there was no better butt kicker than Martin, whose Minnesota Twins won the AL West in 1969 before Billy got the first of his many managerial ziggies, after just one year in the Twin Cities.

The Martin risk worked, for a time, in Detroit, too. But that was always Billy's way---he would work, for a time.

Then, eventually, he would have to be fired.

But the Tigers did win the AL East in 1972, Billy's veterans scratching and clawing to within one game of the World Series. They lost in the ALCS to Oakland in the maximum five games.

But by '73, Martin was getting mystified.

Billy openly wondered why it seemed like the Baltimore Orioles had all the good, young, home-grown talent.

That did not set well with Campbell.

But Billy's question was a good one.

While the Orioles, among other teams, were pumping solid big league players through their respective farm systems like a water supply, the Tigers struggled to give Martin anyone of any real value from the minors. The core of the 1968 world champion team was the last group of homegrown players that was worth a damn---and those players were cultivated in the early-1960s.

So Campbell had to keep applying band-aids with trades for veterans whose best days were behind them.

Meanwhile, the Tigers were "producing" such brutal "prospects" as Marvin Lane, Ike Blessitt, Ike Brown, Tim Hosley, Gary Ignasiak and Phil Meeler.

I could go on, but the names just get worse.

So Billy Martin, in a fit of desperation, went to prison---as a visitor, for a change.

Billy had gotten a tip that there was an inmate who seemed to possess a natural ability and affinity for baseball.

So Billy, who had a smidgen of gambler in him as well, went to Jackson State prison to check it out.

The inmate swung a heavy right-handed bat and smacked baseballs all over the prison yard. The word was the dude could run, too---just not fast enough to outpace the cops.

Martin was impressed enough with the inmate that he arranged for the prison to grant a one-day furlough for a tryout, with the promise that there would be a job waiting for him, thus satisfying the legal system's parole conditions.

So with the magic of pulled strings, Ron LeFlore found himself at Tiger Stadium, taking batting practice and shagging fly balls.

The Tigers signed LeFlore, whose transgression was being a wheel man in an armed robbery in Detroit, and assigned him to Clinton, Iowa---a low-level minor league affiliate.

While LeFlore simmered away in Clinton, learning how to play the outfield and the nuances of hitting a baseball, Billy Martin was getting fired in Detroit, right on schedule.

Martin had ordered a couple of his pitchers to throw spitballs, in protest of what he knew Gaylord Perry of the Indians was doing. The league suspended Billy, but before the suspension was lifted, Campbell fired him.

In 1974, the Tigers had a new manager, Ralph Houk. And Ralph's team was awful.

The core of the 1968 World Series champion and the 1972 AL East winning team was old and deteriorating. And the Tigers' scouts weren't finding any reputable replacements.

Just as Billy Martin had warned.

In the mid-summer of '74, the Tigers called Ron LeFlore to the big club from Triple-A Evansville.

LeFlore was just as advertised---at least when it came to running.

In a season that was otherwise drab (the 1974 Tigers won 72 games), LeFlore provided a jolt of excitement, mainly with his legs. The dude could run, as was reported.

Hitting was another matter. He struck out a lot. But he was a work in progress. He wasn't facing fellow prisoners on the mound, after all.

By 1975, LeFlore was the Tigers' starting center fielder for a team that would go 57-102. His hitting was getting better---he would bat .258 in '75---but now it was his fielding that needed to be worked on.

LeFlore was no Gold Glover. The expansive center field at Tiger Stadium had a way of driving that point home fairly often.

But LeFlore wasn't signed from the prison yard because he could catch and throw.

Martin had a great line about that, by the way.

When some Tigers officials expressed concern over signing a prisoner, Martin referred them to Gates Brown, who had done time as a youth as well.

"Where do you think you found Gates Brown? In kindergarten?" Martin told the doubters.

In 1976, LeFlore turned from a prisoner who could play baseball into a baseball player who had once been in prison.

He charged out of the gate with a 30-game hitting streak, which catapulted him into the national conversation. He was hitting in the high-.300s and fans began punching his chad on the All-Star ballots around ballparks across the country.

In July, LeFlore was one of three Tigers who started in the All-Star game. Mark Fidrych and Rusty Staub were the others.

LeFlore still couldn't field, but his hitting and running electrified the fans. Along with Fidrych's magical season, LeFlore managed to get fans excited about a team that would win just 74 games.

LeFlore finished 1976 with a .316 batting average and 58 stolen bases.

In 1977, LeFlore was even better: 212 hits, 100 runs scored, .325 BA, and 16 homers as he added some sneaky power into the mix. The Tigers again won 74 games.

In 1978, LeFlore scored 126 runs, batted .297 and swiped 68 bags.

In 1979, the numbers were again solid: .300 BA, 110 runs scored, and 78 stolen bases.

He still couldn't field.

But in June '79, Sparky Anderson became the Tigers skipper and LeFlore, who was never one to always obey team rules under Houk, grated on Sparky.

In the off-season, Sparky was so eager to be rid of LeFlore that Campbell got rooked in a trade, swapping the speedy outfielder to Montreal for a lefty starter named Dan Schatzeder. It was a steal---no pun intended---for the Expos, or so it seemed.

With Montreal in 1980, LeFlore stole 97 bases but his average dipped to .257, by far his lowest since 1975. He got on the Expos' nerves, too.

LeFlore was traded to the White Sox after just one year in Montreal, and his last game in the big leagues came in 1982. He might have been 34 years old, or maybe 35---or older. Ron's age was as difficult to nail down as he was on the base paths.

There was great irony in LeFlore's post-playing career. He tried to become an umpire. It didn't pan out.

In 1999, when the Tigers honored a bunch of former players after the final game ever played at Tiger Stadium, LeFlore provided one more sense of drama.

As he jogged off the field following the ceremony, LeFlore was immediately placed in handcuffs. He was arrested as a deadbeat dad, his child's mother having spotted him on television and promptly calling the cops.

Ron LeFlore was one of the Tigers' most exciting players, and one of the most enigmatic. He could hit, he could run, and he crossed home plate often. He was the local jailbird made good.

He became a Tiger thanks to the desperate machinations of a jittery, impatient manager.

Yet LeFlore has the distinction of becoming the first player to be a stolen base king in both leagues---a master thief.

Somehow, that is so appropriate.

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