Since the 1931 season, the Detroit Tigers uniforms have featured numbers assigned to each player. Our “By The Numbers” series takes a look at the best, or sometimes just the most interesting, player to wear each number. We have reached number 8 in our series, if you would like to catch up on the first seven, click the “By The Numbers” tag at the top of this page.
As always, when I begin one of these profiles, I go back through the years using Baseball-Almanac and find the players to consider. Off the top of my head, I usually have a good idea about who I will choose, but when it came to no. 8 I had no clue.
Upon scouring the names, I narrowed the list to a few; Ray Boone (3B, 1953-58) was a two time all-star in Detroit and was the first of three generations of Boones to play in the big leagues. Gerald Laird (C, 2009) lead the league in catching base stealers and brought stability to the pitching staff. Deivi Cruz (SS, 1997-2001) actually garnered MVP consideration in 1997 when he finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting.
Ultimately, the choice was easy. Ron LeFlore has had a life so interesting there has been a movie made about it. I suppose it’s best to start from the beginning.
No. 8 Ron LeFlore was born in 1948 in Detroit, Michigan, though he first told the Tigers he was born in 1952. His parents held steady jobs, and provided a good home for LeFlore and his three siblings. While his parents were able to provide for their family, LeFlore veered away from the straight and narrow. As a boy, not yet a teenager, LeFlore was running with an older crowd and he wanted the flashy clothes and women that came with the criminal lifestyle. “My first street experience came at the local A&P food store,” LeFlore told Ebony Magazine in 1975. “I got away with $1500.”
According to a 1974 People Magazine feature on LeFlore, by age 15, he was heavily involved in prostitution and shoplifting. “My parents would always tell me that the crowd I was with wasn’t good for me,” LeFlore recalled. “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.”
LeFlore was selling drugs and using them himself by 1970 when one day, he and some friends were getting high and decided to hold up a check cashing service. Armed with a .22 caliber rifle, LeFlore and his two buddies took nearly $35,000 in that hold-up. They were arrested almost immediately. In the spring of 1970, LeFlore was convicted of the armed robbery and was sentenced to five to 15 years in Jackson State Prison.
After a rough start to his prison term that saw him serve two stints in solitary confinement, LeFlore began playing baseball on the prison grounds. A fellow inmate, Jim Karella, took notice of the speedy LeFlore and told a friend on the outside. That friend also happened to be close friendswith then-Tigers manager Billy Martin. Martin made a trip to the prison to see LeFlore play in May of 1973. Two months later, LeFlore was granted his parole after serving three years. The Tigers signed him that very same day.
Upon his release, LeFlore vowed to his fellow inmates that he was going to make it. And make it he did. 13 months after being released from prison, the convicted felon was stealing again. This time, however, he was stealing bases for the Detroit Tigers, and putting his past behind him. “I guess I’m putting my energies in the right place for a change,” he told People. “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.”
When Tigers center fielder Mickey Stanley broke his hand in 1974, LeFlore got the call to come up to the big leagues. He impressed quickly and played well in 59 games for the Tigers as a 26 year old rookie (though at the time, the Tigers thought he was 22), stealing 23 bases. By 1975, he had taken over as the everyday center fielder. He swiped 28 bags for the Tigers that season, in fact, LeFlore stole at least 20 bases every season of his nine year career.
The magic summer of 1976 saw Mark Fidrych take over the baseball world, but LeFlore was right there with him. After two seasons hitting near .260, LeFlore found his stroke. He was selected to start the All-Star game that summer, his only such honor, and hit .316 for the season, coupled with an impressive .376 OBP.
In 1977, LeFlore added some thump to his game, pounding out 16 home runs while stealing 39 bases. He hit a career best .325 and became the first Tiger in 22 years to top the 200 hit plateau. LeFlore scored 100 runs for the first of three straight years that season.
LeFlore was set to enter free agency following the 1980 season, and had asked for the hefty sum of $4 million over the course of seven years form the Tigers. Although he had lead the AL in runs and stolen bases in 1978, and had similar success in 1979, the Tigers did not want to pay their star center fielder. Rather than seeing him walk away and get nothing in return, Detroit traded LeFlore to the Montreal Expos for left handed pitcher Dan Schatzeder.
LeFlore played one season for Montreal and lead the NL with 97 stolen bases in 1980, becoming the first player ever to win the stolen base crown in both leagues. Following that season, LeFlore signed a deal with the Chicago White Sox, but was relegated to a part-time role. Just before the 1983 season, he was released by the White Sox and retired from baseball.
Although he had many shortcomings, LeFlore proved to be an exciting player during his time in the big leagues. He struck out a lot by the standards then, although no more than most players do today. He had trouble judging flyballs and was never a good outfielder, though he did get better as his career progressed.
Remember, until serving prison time, LeFlore had almost zero experience playing any kind of organized baseball. He played a half a season in the minor leagues, and was still just learning the game when he became a regular player in Detroit. He was always a prolific base stealer, but never managed an extremely high success rate. His 455 steals rank 42nd all-time, but his 142 times caught ranks as the 28th most.
Although he had so little experience, LeFlore turned himself into one of the better hitters in baseball for a few years in a row. Four times he had hitting streaks besting 15 games, he had two streaks of better than 30 games.
The Tigers signed a convicted felon and admitted drug pusher on the day of his parole. Can you even imagine the negative press that would surround such a signing today? It would never happen. Consider also that one of his teammates in Detroit was Gates Brown who himself had served time for burglary prior to his career in baseball. The Cincinnati Bengals had nothing on those ’74 Tigers.