On Aug. 1, 1974, the Detroit Tigers called up a minor league outfielder named Ron LeFlore, just a year after his release from the state penitentiary and only a week before Richard Nixon announced his resignation as president of the United States.
A native Detroiter who just a few years earlier had been convicted of armed robbery, LeFlore made his improbable big league debut before a sparse crowd of some 9,000 fans under the lights at Milwaukee’s County Stadium.
Incredibly, during his rookie season, LeFlore was not the only ex-con on the Tigers’ roster.
With an aging Al Kaline in his final major league season as the Tigers’ designated hitter, the Tigers took on rookie Robin Yount and the Milwaukee Brewers in a battle for last place in the American League East. First baseman Norm Cash, who would be released by the Tigers later that month after more than 14 seasons in the Old English D, went two for three with a home run and the Tigers’ only RBI in a 2-0 victory.
The 26-year-old LeFlore, starting in center field for the injured Mickey Stanley, went 0-for-four with three strikeouts. Incredibly, the game lasted just an hour and 47 minutes.
Four years earlier, in the winter of 1970, a 21-year-old LeFlore and two accomplices robbed Dee’s Bar on Mack Avenue across from the old Chrysler Stamping Plant, landing LeFlore in Jackson State Prison with a sentence of five to 15 years.
Growing up near Van Dyke Street and Warren Avenue on the city’s east side, LeFlore hadn’t played any organized baseball in his youth. But with little to do behind bars, he joined the prison baseball team.
When it became apparent that LeFlore was a world-class talent with blazing speed on the basepaths, fellow prisoner James Karalla wrote a letter to Jimmy Butsicaris, co-owner of the Lindell A.C., urging him to get in touch with Tigers manager Billy Martin.
Before long, Martin and Butsicaris made an unlikely scouting trip to the state pen and arranged a one-day furlough for LeFlore to work out for the Tigers at Tiger Stadium. Needless to say, the Tigers were impressed.
Upon LeFlore’s release from Jackson in 1973, the Tigers signed him to a minor league contract. After a year in the Tigers’ farm system, LeFlore was unexpectedly promoted to the big leagues after Tigers center fielder Mickey Stanley was hit by a pitch in Boston and suffered a broken hand.
After two seasons of ups and downs with the Tigers, LeFlore had a breakout season in 1976, staging a 30-game hitting streak and earning a starting spot on the American League All-Star team alongside rookie sensation Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.
Soon there was a book about LeFlore, followed by a made-for-TV movie starring LeVar Burton.
LeFlore played parts of six seasons with the Tigers, before being traded to Montreal after the 1979 season. There he starred for the Expos in 1980, racking up an incredible 97 stolen bases, second in the major leagues only to Oakland’s Rickey Henderson.
After two seasons with the Chicago White Sox, LeFlore’s unlikely major league career came to an end after the 1982 season — but his improbable story still resonates all these years later.
And it could only happen in Detroit.