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When Ron LeFlore started his first game in center field for the Detroit Tigers on Aug. 1, 1974, he had been playing baseball for slightly more than three seasons, 1� in the minors and two behind the walls of Michigan's state prison at Jackson, where he was doing five to 15 for armed robbery. An accomplished thief by the time he was 12, LeFlore had no time for sports as a youth. He used his 9.6 speed only when he had to outrun the cops. But since taking up baseball, he has not only stayed on the right side of the law, but he has also hit .296 and stolen 148 bases in the big leagues. In 1976 he had a 30-game hitting streak, longest in the American League since Dom DiMaggio's 34 straight in 1949, and was picked for the All-Star Game. The following is LeFlore's story of how he got into the slammer, and how baseball helped him get out.
It was my idea, so I suppose you could call me the ringleader. I might as well take most of the credit. After all, I got most of the blame.
My best friend, Antoine, a guy named Leroy and I were hanging around O'Quinn's poolroom on Detroit's east side one night in January 1970—the 15th, I think—when I suggested we pull a robbery. Just like that.
The three of us had been together the night before, snorting heroin in a dope house across the street, and Antoine and Leroy had spent all their money. I had maybe $30 in my pocket, and we all wanted to get high again, but I wasn't about to spend all my money on dope for them. A robbery seemed like the logical solution.
Antoine and Leroy were all for the idea. I had my image to protect; if I had backed down, word would have gotten around that I was scared. By then I had become known as the best thief in the neighborhood, and I was proud of that reputation. I wanted to keep it. I was 19 years old, I had spent 19 months in the state reformatory, and I was ready to branch out into bigger and better crimes.
We got Leroy's .22 rifle and were riding around in his '68 Mustang, trying to think of a place to rob, when I remembered a little neighborhood bar called Dee's. It was across the street from Chrysler's Mack Avenue stamping plant. Because it was Thursday, the day the workers got paid, I knew the place would have plenty of money on hand. I assured my friends it would be easy.
When we arrived at Dee's, a couple of people were in the bar having drinks. We waited in an alley until they left, and then the three of us charged in through the back door. Because I was the gutsy one in the group, I carried the rifle. I pointed it at the owner and shouted, "All right, this is a robbery! Don't nobody make any wrong moves, and nobody'll get hurt!"
Antoine and Leroy emptied the cash registers while I watched the owner and his wife. There wasn't any hassling; we weren't there to hurt anybody. I just told them to lie down on the floor. Then I noticed a small safe in the rear of the bar, so I ordered the lady to open it. I grabbed a bag of money. We dumped the cash from the registers into the bag, too, and told the people not to move until we were long gone. The whole thing only took about 10 minutes. It was easy, just as I had promised.
In his hurry to make the turn as we pulled out of the alley into the street, Leroy bumped the Mustang's light switch with his knee. None of us noticed the lights go out. We were on Mack Avenue by then, under the streetlights, and we were only thinking about getting away from the area as fast as we could.
While we were trying to decide where we should go to split up the money, we spotted a police car coming toward us. The cops blinked their headlights, and for the first time I got scared. I was sitting in the front seat with the rifle in my lap, and I said to Leroy, "If they stop us, I'm going to open fire—and you take off!"