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I'll tell ya about Ron LeFlore

When you grow up during a specific time, you experience all of the events of the era with everyone else living in that space at that particular moment. Those moments become part of your past and you share them as you move through the years with those who were on the earth when those great and not-so-great events took place.

But as those years continue to pass, it's easy to forget that not everyone has experienced those same things. As I've grown older, more and more people have come along -- much younger people -- who experience their own moments that are not my moments.

All of these people have shown up who remember the "good times" as The Power Rangers and 1987 Topps or Pearl Jam and Harry Potter. Not one of them, not a single one, remembers the stuff that everybody used to know, like the Bicentennial and WKRP and Battle Of The Network Stars and CHiPs and ...

Holy crap, there are actually people who don't know former baseball player Ron LeFlore served time in prison?!?!?!?!?!?!?

That was my reaction to a recent post on The Chronicles of Fuji in which he mentioned LeFlore's famous back story. And it was news to a few people! (Obviously those of us who know "Zoom" first as a children's show on the public television channel haven't been doing our job).

It was not news to me. In fact, it was one of those key moments in my childhood that I won't forget.

Ron LeFlore's baseball card -- his rookie card, in fact -- came out of one of the first three packs I  bought, kicking off my collecting career.

I liked it immediately. I thought the dark purple border was intense, and it made the card much cooler than others in the packs. Right away I was interested in the young, black, mustachioed ballplayers, and that theme would continue that summer with my interest in 1975 cards of Garry Maddox, Tito Fuentes, Dave Cash, Bake McBride, etc.

I knew nothing about LeFlore's criminal past when I pulled that card 45 years ago and not even a year after LeFlore was paroled from the Jackson State Prison after serving time for holding up a bar with a rifle.

His transformation from heroin-shooting, drug-peddling youngster to super-fast Detroit Tiger all-star was recounted in the made-for-TV movie, "One in a Million: the Ron LeFlore Story," shown on CBS and watched on my TV in September of 1978.

Levar Burton, a huge deal back then for starring as Kunta Kinte in the massive mini-series "Roots" the year before, portrayed LeFlore. Billy Martin, the manager who was alerted to LeFlore's talents by a bar owner who was friends with a mobster in jail with LeFlore, portrayed himself in the movie, as did former Tigers Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, Norm Cash and Jim Northrup. You can watch the movie on youtube (and I probably should again because I don't remember anything from it).

All of this was significant news at the time, many a newspaper article was written about LeFlore. The Tigers were hot stuff after the '76 season of LeFlore, Fidrych and Rusty Staub, and LeFlore would go on to set stolen base records and even compile a 31-game hitting streak.

But LeFlore's ability declined rapidly in the early '80s. He was traded to the Expos for the 1981 season. LeFlore wore out his welcome with the Tigers because he was hanging out with crime figures. Then, after one year with the Expos and stealing 90-plus bases, he signed with the White Sox where his extra-curricular activities grew even worse.

By 1983, he was out of the majors. His last cards are in sets from that year.

And here is an interesting factoid from the baseball card perspective.

LeFlore, during his playing career, claimed that he was four years younger than he actually was. He made the majors as a 26-year-old but claimed he was just 22. Wikipedia says LeFlore revealed the truth about his birth date after he retired.

But I know that isn't correct. And I know that because of baseball cards.

Ron LeFlore was born on June 16, 1948. His correct birth date didn't appear on the back of his baseball cards until 1977, three cards into his career.

Note the date on the back of his first three cards, 1975, 1976 and 1977:

You see the change from 1952 to 1948 on his 1977 Topps back. There's a reason for that, which I'll mention in a minute.

But first, let's see the back of LeFlore's 1981 Donruss card:

The birth date reads June 16, 1952. The wrong date.

Let's see what the 1981 Fleer card says:

June 16, 1952 as well.

And the 1981 Topps card?:

Sticking confidently to that 1948.

So, in 1981, a 1948 birth date would make LeFlore 32 or 33. A 1952 birth date would make LeFlore 28 or 29.

LeFlore was almost 35 at the end of his career instead of 30. Continued drug use during his career (he was busted for possession in the 1982 offseason) contributed to his decline but it wasn't as drastic as some thought. The guy was 35 and that's when the skills decline for many a player.

By the way, check out the cartoon on the right. This is the only reference on LeFlore's baseball cards that comes close to discussing his time in prison, at least for the big three, Topps, Donruss and Fleer.

But there is one card that does mention his life of crime:


If you go through the write-up, you will find out that LeFlore didn't play baseball until HIS CONFINEMENT AT JACKSON STATE. Also, WHILE HE'S NOT PROUD OF HIS PRISON TERM ...

This is why it's important for there to be oddballs you can get out of cereal boxes. Who is going to provide detailed information otherwise?

However, Kellogg's isn't totally in the clear. Take a look at LeFlore's birth date.

It's that same bogus 1952 date.

So, what do we know, thanks to baseball cards?

1. Topps was obviously tipped off to LeFlore's true birth date a couple years into his career.

2. LeFlore's revelation of his true birth date was not a revelation if he actually did reveal it at the end of his career.

3. If people were finding out about LeFlore's real birth date after his retirement, well, that's the sad life of a non-collector right there.

Detroit sportswriters dug up LeFlore's true birth date about three years after he signed with the Tigers. So the knowledge of his actual age was out there early in his career, and Topps definitely picked up on that new information. It makes you wonder where Donruss, Fleer and Kellogg's got their info. (And wikipedia, for that matter).

So, 45 years after I first pulled this very card out of a wax pack of cards, nearly 42 years after I watched "The Ron LeFlore Story" on TV, 37 years after LeFlore ended his career after he did not make the team out of White Sox spring training, there is still stuff to find out about him.

LeFlore's life beyond baseball wasn't any less chaotic than when he played. He competed in the short-lived Senior League at the end of the '80s. He also attempted to become a professional umpire but didn't succeed. He worked as a baggage handler. He was arrested on child support charges. He's had health issues (he has a prosthetic leg).

And, to those of you who didn't have any idea what or who I was talking about when I started this post, I encourage you to keep babbling about whatever it was going on in your era that you thought or think EVERYONE knows.

Because someday, there will be people who won't know your references to Mike Greenwell and John Olerud. They won't know that Jose Canseco and Madonna once dated. Heck, they won't even know who Canseco and Madonna are. They won't know that the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were a toy before they were a movie. They won't know what you are talking about when you say "Biggie and Tupac". And they won't have the foggiest clue why you care about 1987 Topps or insert cards from the '90s.

It's coming. But just keep chatting about what you love.

Because they need to know this stuff. They need to know that Ron LeFlore became a Major League all-star without ever playing the game until he went to prison.

A few months ago I interviewed former Tigers catcher John Wockenfuss and part of my interview was tossing names of past teammates at him to get his memory going. I threw the name "Ron LeFlore" at him and the first thing he said was:


The look of surprise must have shown on my face because he softened a bit and said, "Nice guy but ... he was in prison. That's how he started, they got him from out of prison. He was fast and it's amazing that he made it there (in the majors). He got pretty tough and he did well."

Then he waved his hands in a darting motion and said, "He was always here, there and everywhere."

And I understood. Because I knew The Ron LeFlore Story. I hope at least one other person now knows it, too.


Jeff said…
"Billy Martin, the manager who was alerted to LeFlore's talents by a bar owner who was friends with a mobster in jail with LeFlore" is the most Billy Martin thing ever....
Fascinating! Interesting about the different dates and good information presented, as per usual, in a compelling way. Thanks! (Even though I am a robot, I'm going to click that I am not a robot so this comment posts. So I'm not the only one lying here.)
steelehere said…
The mid-to late 1970's Detroit Tigers (before the core players that would be in the 1984 World Series winning team) had so many interesting personalities on their team. As a kid, 1977 Topps definitely made you notice them with three players having All-Star banners; Ron LeFlore, Rusty Staub and Mark Fidrych as well as two players having Topps All-Star Rookie Trophies; Jason Thompson and the aforementioned Mark Fidrych. If you add in the very collectible Steve Kemp/Tony Armas four-player rookie card and 1977 Topps Detroit Tiger Cards were right up there with the 1977 Topps Cincinnati Reds when it came to the number of players with extra bells and whistles in the set.

Unfortunately for baseball fans, it's too bad they didn't make the playoffs those years.
Fuji said…
I watched the movie a day or two after I wrote the post and thought it was cool. It made me continue my research on LeFlore, but I never came across anything about his fake birthdate. I also think it's cool that Kellogg's mentioned his time in prison. I'm sure if I was a kid and I pulled that card out of a box of Corn Flakes, I would have been real intrigued by that summary. Great post. It's amazing the things we can learn from reading card blogs.
P-town Tom said…
Born in '77, the whole LeFlore story has made me feel like an uniformed dolt. I thank you and Fuji for educating me.
I watched the movie last weekend and I was left with the impression LeFlore had turned his life around for the better. Your post, as always, was quite illuminating!
Lastly, I read Greenwell's Wikipedia entry and didn't find anything too incredulous, outside of planting a gator in Ellis Burks' locker during spring training. So, I'll bite: What's the deal with Mike Greenwell?
Chris said…
The arrest for lack of child support came after the final game at Tiger Stadium when he was seen on tv as part of the closing ceremonies. His ex called the police and told them of his whereabouts and he was arrested.
night owl said…
@P-town Tom:

Nothing notable about Greenwell except he's one of those young stars of the late '80s that those who were born in late '70s/early '80s talk about all the time.
DMA said…
My first memory of Ron LeFlore is the 1981 Topps Record Breaker card, for steals by two teammates. I've always liked that card for being a non-solo record breaker.
bryan was here said…
I remember reading the book, Breakout: From Prison to the Big Leagues, that led to the movie. Very insightful and unvarnished history. He describes the incident that landed him in prison, as well as life on the inside. I got it from my middle school library in the mid '80s.
friend11 said…
Go Lonnie Anderson
Grant said…
That's your best post in a long time, man! I mean that as a compliment of course. Well done.

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