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Last Friday night in Detroit, Tiger Centerfielder Ron LeFlore did not get a base hit. He did not beat out a grounder, crack a single up the middle or smash a double into the alley. There were no chinkers, no bloopers, no slow rollers, no bad hops. Nothing he hit was too hot to handle, too high to reach or too low to stab. Ron LeFlore went 0 for 4, the first time he had gone 0 for anything all year.
Not since George Sisler opened the 1925 season by hitting safely in his first 34 games had there been a start like LeFlore's. The streak had begun 30 games earlier with his first at bat in his first start of the year on April 17. It continued for the next six weeks in seven different ball parks against nine different teams. LeFlore got hits after his brother was shot and killed, after his girl friend gave birth to their baby and after his father was taken to the hospital. He hit and he hit, and he kept on hitting.
Before New York Yankee Pitchers Ed Figueroa and Tippy Martinez combined to stop him, LeFlore's streak had become the 15th longest in baseball history and the American League's best since 1949, when Dom DiMaggio had 34 straight. And even if LeFlore did fall short of Joe DiMaggio's incredible 56-game string of 1941, he built a .392 batting average, the highest in the majors.
The speedy, tautly muscled LeFlore has always been considered a player of great potential, but no one expected such a spectacular feat from him in what is only his second full season with the Tigers. Every time he misjudged a fly ball, overthrew a cutoff man, ran wildly on the bases or swung at a bad pitch, people reminded themselves that he was still learning the game, and that he had been out of Southern Michigan State Prison not quite three years. Ol' SMSP is where LeFlore discovered the game of baseball and where the Tigers discovered him.
LeFlore has such a nice smile and is so cooperative it is hard to believe that he spent most of his life from July 1965 to July 1973 in various penal institutions. But the record shows that he tried to crack a safe and rob a bar, and that in between convictions he violated parole. Today he willingly discusses an abridged version of his misspent youth on Detroit's East Side.
About the only question that bothers LeFlore these days is one about his age. Until recently everyone thought he would turn 24 on June 16. Then a newspaper discovered records indicating that he was four years older—and that the missing four years included criminal activity more extensive than LeFlore had previously described. On that subject he is understandably sensitive. He feels the time has come to concentrate on his baseball record and not his police record.
Until this year LeFlore's baseball record was more promising than impressive. The publicity he got was more for his rehabilitation than for his batting average—a career .259. But to the displeasure of pitchers, LeFlore is learning the strike zone. And when he swings he is keeping his eye on the ball and looking for consistent contact instead of an infrequent home run.
These are basics that every hitter is taught but very few master. They did not come easily for LeFlore, either. After a bad spring, he failed to make the opening-day lineup. In fact, his only appearance in the Tigers' first four regular-season games was as a pinch runner. "That really bothered me," he said last week. "I thought I had corrected a lot of my hitting faults. On opening day I was so upset I didn't do my running. But I finally decided I shouldn't act that way. I decided to wait for my chance."
When that chance came against California, the new, improved LeFlore took his wide-open, bent-over stance at the plate and went to work. Batting lead-off, he opened his first three games with doubles and in the fourth went 3 for 4. Eight times he got two hits, five times he had three hits and once, against Baltimore, he went 4 for 5, driving in three runs and scoring two. Even on days he wasn't hitting well, he kept the string alive. He struck out three times against Minnesota on May 4, but still managed a single in six at bats. His hits weren't cheapies, either; he has had only two infield hits and two bunt singles.
As the streak went on and interest in it grew, LeFlore learned to enjoy the attention he was getting. He said he imagined he was undergoing no more distractions than Babe Ruth endured every day. "I don't want it to end," he said, "but I'm not going to worry if it does. I didn't get uptight when I went four games without a hit last year, and I'm not going to be bothered now. At least while I hit nobody is criticizing the team for losing."