In this weekly feature we take a look at moments from Tigers history, and remember the people who helped shape it.
During a 2014 Tigers/Dodgers game, listeners indulging in the Dodger’s broadcast feed might have found themselves stunned, bemused, and fascinated by a revelation Vin Scully made regarding then-Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter. Hunter’s father, it seemed, had been a drug addict during Torii’s youth, and there was a particularly memorable incident in which young Torii borrowed his father’s jacket to go to school, only to have a crack pipe fall out in the classroom.
At the time, for a new generation of Tigers fans, this kind of dark history seemed to be impossibly at odds with the light, All-American ideal that baseball players represent. But for Tigers fans of another generation, those who remembered the teams of the 70s and 80s, there was another name Scully’s story might have called to mind.
From 1974-1979, Ron LeFlore played center field for the Tigers. A Detroit native, he grew up in the poor, crime-dense east side of the city. LeFlore’s father, John, had lost his job working in a car factory, and drank heavily, creating a rift between himself and his family. Georgia, Ron’s mother, was the breadwinner by necessity, working as a nurses’ aid. Ultimately, whether due to his father’s struggles with addiction, the crime in the neighborhood, or the stresses of his life, young LeFlore began to experiment with drugs, and became addicted to heroin.
This addiction began to poison all aspects of LeFlore’s life. He dropped out of school, began to deal drugs, and eventually committed several robberies, including the armed robbery of a Detroit bar called “Dee’s.” When he and his cohorts were caught, 15-year-old LeFlore was sentenced to five to 15 years in prison, to be served at what is now the Michigan State Prison.
As it turned out, prison was its own hidden gift for LeFlore, because it provided him with structure, and introduced him to baseball. It was a fellow inmate who initially recognized LeFlore’s natural abilities, and called on then-Tigers manager Billy Martin to come see the boy play in prison. (How this inmate knew the Tigers manager I’m not sure, but that feels like it could be its own story). Martin was so impressed by what he saw in Ron that he arranged for the boy to be paroled for a single day in order to participate in a tryout for the Tigers brass.
Quick-footed and good with the bat, LeFlore made an impression, and he was awarded a minor league deal that would take effect immediately following his release from prison. He was released in 1973 at the age of 25, with gainful employment already secured, and the dream of major league glory ahead of him.
Within a year he made his debut for the Tigers, on August 1, 1974. The speed he’d demonstrated in his initial showcase proved to be one of his greatest strengths as a player, and he went on to win two stolen base leader titles, swiping an incredible 455 bases in his nine year career. An All-Star in 1976, he began the season with a monster 30-game hitting streak, but just as his career was hitting its pinnacle, things on the home front took a dark turn.
LeFlore’s brother, Gerald, who hadn’t been given the same opportunities, had continued to live in a rougher neighborhood, getting involved with drugs and gang activity. In April of 1976, Gerald LeFlore was killed by a gunshot to the chest, in an incident papers described as “struggling for control of a rifle in an east side residence.” LeFlore learned about his brother’s murder while the Tigers were playing the Rangers at home in Detroit, but Ron’s parents insisted he stay to play the game. He collected three hits, and after the game he attempted to keep a cool demeanor with press, but said, “I tried not to let it influence my play. But when I’d take a swing and miss and step out of the box, it would pop into my mind, ‘Gee, my brother’s dead. It can’t really be true.’”
By the end of that 1976 season, LeFlore was a bona fide Tigers star. In 1977 he was named “Tiger of the Year.” In 1978, his story made him even more famous when the TV movie One in a Million starring LeVar Burton was released, telling the tale of LeFlore’s unlikely path to stardom.
Unfortunately LeFlore wasn’t entirely able to shake the mistakes of his past. By 1979 he was involved in drug use again, and it was said he was bringing unsavory friends around the Tigers clubhouse. This was the last straw for new manager Sparky Anderson. During the 1979 offseason, much to the chagrin of Tigers fans, LeFlore was traded to the Montreal Expos for pitcher Dan Schatzeder. This would prove to be the beginning of the end for LeFlore’s career. He played for another three seasons, but his continued drug abuse and bad attitude did not garner him any friends with either the Expos or Chicago White Sox.
His reputation was so bad, in fact, that by the time the White Sox released him in 1983, following charges of drug and gun possession, no other clubs seemed interested in signing the man who was once an All-Star.
Things didn’t get easier for him after he retired. He worked as an airline baggage handler for a time, but decided to try his hand at umpire school, where he was unable to convert his experience into a gig as even a minor league umpire. While he did spend some time managing independent minor league ball, and was a manager for the Saskatoon Legends during the first and only season of the Canadian Baseball League in 2003, the trials of his life continued. He lost a child who was only 49 days old to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. It seemed tragedy was not through with LeFlore.
In 1999 when he was in Detroit for the final game at Tiger Stadium, he was arrested after he festivities thanks to an open warrant stemming from unpaid child support payments. He agreed to pay what was owed, but would be arrested again in 2007 during an autograph signing for the further failure to pay.
In 2011 he had to have his right leg amputated from the knee down as a result of arterial vascular disease complications, another reminder of his past, since the disease was a result of his teenage smoking habit.
LeFlore is now 69, and lives in St. Petersburg, FL.
The Sad Story of Ron LeFlore (WasWatching.com)
Like the City of Detroit, Ron LeFlore is a Survivor (Detroit Athletic Co)