Happily, the experiment has turned out an unqualified success. Though he started slowly, LeFlore, 22, brought his batting average to near .250, fielded surprisingly well and led the Tigers in—what else?—stolen bases.
Tiger manager Ralph Houk says: "Everything is there for Ron to be an outstanding ballplayer: natural ability, great speed, poise and very good baseball instincts, something you can't teach a player."
The son of a Detroit assembly-line worker, LeFlore was on the streets early. At 11, he says, he stole about $1,000 from a supermarket, using gum on the end of a stick to fish bills out of the cashier's deposit box. By the time he was 15, he was involved with prostitution, shoplifting and con games.
"My parents would always tell me that the crowd I was with wasn't good for me," LeFlore recalls. "But I was hardheaded like any other kid—I didn't pay attention. And they weren't in a position to give me the things I wanted."
At 16 LeFlore was snorting heroin. To obtain money for drugs he and two friends held up a check-cashing service, LeFlore himself carrying a .22 caliber rifle he had borrowed from a friend. The three were arrested before they even had a chance to count their loot. LeFlore was 17 when he was sent to Southern Michigan State Prison at Jackson.
LeFlore shrewdly learned how to operate inside the prison system, wangling a kitchen job and selling bread dough with yeast in it to inmates who made home brew. Then he discovered sports, and dramatically his rehabilitation began. As a varsity hero in football, basketball and baseball, LeFlore almost seemed to be in prison on an athletic scholarship. While winning 25 trophies and the nickname "Twinkle Toes," he also earned enough credits to get a high school diploma and coached the psychiatric clinic intramural football team.
LeFlore impressed prison officials so much that when a delegation from the Tigers made a goodwill visit in May 1973, the officials persuaded then Tiger manager Billy Martin to give LeFlore a tryout. The Tigers, similarly impressed, signed him to a minor league contract the day he was paroled in July 1973. He had been in prison three years. When he left Jackson, he made a pledge to his fellow inmates: "I told them I was going to make it somehow; I told them, 'I'll never be back here again.' " LeFlore moved up swiftly in the minors—from Clinton, Iowa, to Lakeland, Fla. (where he hit .339 and stole 42 bases) to Evansville, Ind. and then the big jump to Detroit.
Signed at the major-league minimum of $15,000 a year, LeFlore has kept his personal life on the conservative side. "As far as money goes," he says, "I'm just scufflin'. I'm not buying a car or furniture or expensive hi-fi. I'm not going to get anything real pretty now. I'll wait for a year or so till I get a little money saved.
"I guess I'm putting my energies in the right place for a change," says LeFlore. "I used to think that flashy people and big parties and dope were exciting—but not now. I don't want to rip and roar around on the streets anymore."
The Detroit Tigers brought up a most uncommon rookie center fielder from the minors in August. His name was Ron LeFlore, and he was a tough ex-convict who learned his baseball while serving five-to-15 years for participating in an armed robbery.