Ninth in an occasional series. Collect ’em all! I’m working through a stack of Tigers baseball cards from the late 1960s and early 1970s, with occasional newer cards.
Yes, that’s right. Before he was a coach for the Tigers from 2006 to 2017, before he managed the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1997 to 2000, even before he managed the Chicago White Sox from 1992 to 1995, Gene Lamont was a backup catcher for the Tigers. Interesting how many backup catchers eventually become managers. They have a special connection to the pitch-by-pitch flow of a game because of their playing position, but since they don’t play as often they also spend a lot of time on the bench still thinking like a catcher. Of course, that’s no guarantee of success as a manager: Geno was just a tad under .500 in his eight major league seasons (553-562), though he did win the AL Manager of the Year award in 1993 with the White Sox when they won the AL West before losing in the ALCS to the eventual World Series champion Blue Jays.
Lamont played parts of five seasons with the Tigers (1970-72 and 1974-75), playing in 87 games and hitting .233 (37 for 159) with four home runs and 14 RBI. He also stole one base. 1974 was his best year, as he appeared in 60 games, starting 29 of them, as the Tigers moved Bill Freehan to first base most of the time and platooned Lamont, Jerry Moses, and John Wockenfuss behind the plate.
He was drafted in the first round by the Tigers in 1965 and hit a home run in his first major league at-bat on September 1, 1970, against Cal Koonce of the Red Sox.
Gene, who was born on Christmas Day, just turned 74 and is currently a special assistant to Dayton Moore, the general manager of the Kansas City Royals.
Rick Leach was a standout football and baseball player at the University of Michigan from 1975 to 1979. A four-year starting quarterback for the Wolverines under Bo Schembechler, he beat Ohio State three of the four times he played them, which is really the only yardstick of success that matters at Michigan. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting after his senior season in 1978 (behind Billy Sims and Chuck Fusina), and was one of the rare athletes named All-American in both football and baseball.
He chose baseball over football when the Tigers drafted him in the first round, 13th overall, in 1979 (He’d also been pursued by the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL and was drafted in the fifth round by the Denver Broncos). By 1984 – the year of this card – he’d spent parts of three seasons with the big club, compiling a .236 average in 543 at-bats, mostly as a reserve first baseman and outfielder. He’s another guy who has a 1984 Topps card showing him with the eventual champion Tigers, however, he was released by the club in March, 1984, during spring training. He was picked up by Toronto and played in their system through 1988. In 1986, Leach appeared in 110 games for the Blue Jays and hit .309. He finished his career with the Rangers in 1989 and the Giants in 1990. After failing a drug test in August, 1990, Leach was released by San Francisco.
Leach says he never regretted choosing baseball over football. He was named to the Wolverines’ Hall of Fame in 2010.
Ron LeFlore was born in Detroit in 1948 (though through most of his baseball career he claimed he was born in 1952 – in fact both of these cards have that birth year on the back). He grew up in and out of trouble with the law and addicted to heroin, and eventually ended up at Jackson State Penitentary after being sentenced to 10-15 years for an armed robbery in 1970.
In prison, LeFlore was introduced to baseball, and quickly showed promise well beyond what might be expected of a relative novice, especially one who was learning the game behind the walls of a maximum security prison. One of his fellow inmates reached out to Jimmy Butsicaris, owner of the Lindell AC bar where many Detroit sports personalities mixed with fans and local tavern patrons. Butsicaris in turn convinced Tigers’ manager Billy Martin to take a look at LeFlore, and a one-day pass was arranged for him so he could do a tryout at Tiger Stadium. Martin was impressed, and the Tigers gave LeFlore a contract that included a $5,000 bonus and $500 per month for the rest of the year, which allowed him to meet the employment terms of his parole. He was sent to Clinton, Iowa, where his first manager was Jim Leyland. Two years later, he made the Tigers out of spring training.
LeFlore was best known for his base stealing ability, leading the American League with 68 in 1978 with Detroit, and then the National League with 97 in 1980 with Montreal. He had a lifetime .288 average with 59 home runs, 57 triples, and 172 doubles out of his total of 1,283 major league hits. He finished with 455 lifetime stolen bases, tied for 52nd place on the all time list with Ed Delahanty. Fielding was his weak spot, though, and he was among the league leaders in outfield errors nearly every season.
He was an American League All-Star in 1976, when he and fellow newcomer Mark “The Bird” Fidrych captivated fans of the Tigers as well as the rest of major league baseball with their speed, ability, quirkiness, and compelling stories.
He was traded to the Expos after the 1979 season for pitcher Dan Schatzeder. After one season in Montreal he signed as a free agent with the White Sox, where his skills seemed to quickly diminish. He admitted that he was actually four years older than he’d originally claimed, which might explain some of the decline, since he was 34 years old in his last season, 1981, not 30.
When LeFlore first made it to the major leagues, Jim Hawkins, the baseball beat writer for the Detroit Free Press, co-wrote his story of redemption in Breakout: From Prison to the Big Leagues. The autobiography was made into a television movie for CBS in 1978 as One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story. The film starred LeVar Burton as LeFlore, Madge Sinclair as his mother, and Billy Martin as himself. Other former Tigers also appeared as themselves, including Norm Cash, Bill Freehan, Jim Northrup, and Al Kaline.
He managed and coached with several minor league and independent league teams over the years. In 2011, LeFlore, who had smoked cigarettes since he was a young boy, had his right leg amputated at the knee due to arterial vascular disease. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.