Ron LeFlore

April 30, 2007



This morning, while trying and failing to find an eloquent way to finally wrap up “Happy,” which is surely the least focused, most digressive multipart Cardboard Gods series yet, I came upon an amusing site called Baseball Heckle Depot, which generously provides material for broadening one’s repertoire for yelling things at baseball guys, such as “Do you want my autograph?” and “You’ve got less hits than an Amish website!” The “True Stories” link brings you to a page that includes, among many other anecdotes featuring the beered-up and seated hurling invective down upon the standing, the following fan’s-eye view of the All-Star pictured in this 1977 card:

Ron LeFlore was a member of the Detroit Tigers back in the 70’s, and he was discovered by the late Billy Martin while in prison playing semi-pro ball. LeFlore could steal bases with the best of them, and had some pop in his bat, but wasn’t much of a fielder, which was no small source of frustration for Tigers fans. When a fairly routine grounder rolled through Ronnie’s legs in a tight game one night, the guy behind me yelled “Hey LeFlore, why don’t you pretend you’re still in the prison leauges [sic], and bend over!!”

I wonder what my conception of prison was before I read Ron LeFlore’s 1978 autobiography. When I was a kid, I developed my reading skills by reading very little else but baseball books, so whatever knowledge I had of the world beyond baseball and my rural Vermont town came to me through the comic book exploits of Spiderman and The Fantastic Four and television shows such as Happy Days, Lost in Space, Batman, Kung Fu, The Waltons, Wonder Woman, and Welcome Back, Kotter. With that in mind I probably viewed prison in my pre-LeFlore era as a barred room where exotically colorful villains or stoic, wrongfully accused heroes would occasionally be placed until they could escape to wreak more havoc or exonerate themselves, respectively. This conception, along with the fact that the idea of prison did not exist in the great majority of the shows I watched (unless I missed an early Happy Days episode in which Richie’s older brother was sent away to the Big House for life for something unspeakably heinous, which would have explained Stretch’s abrupt, final, never-mentioned absence from the show after Season One), must have made prison vague and safely distant to me. I had plenty of things to worry about as a kid, as all kids do, but prison was not one of them. At least until I read Ron LeFlore’s autobiography, that is.

I really don’t remember much about the book, but I certainly do recall the author describing the inmate practice that served as the punchline of the above heckling anecdote (and of the great majority of all prison-based humor). If I recall correctly, LeFlore himself managed to avoid the culture of ass-rape, but even so his description was enough to alter my idea of what it might be like if I was ever tossed in prison. Worse, LeFlore’s tale came in the context of baseball, which made up more of my world than anything else you could name. It was a baseball story, and since my life was built on baseball stories, it was a story about my life. Hence, prison—and not the kind of prison where Burgess Meredith’s Penguin might waddle around squawking for a few minutes before knocking out the guard with sleeping gas from his umbrella and escaping, but the kind of prison where a baseball player saw ass-rapers running across the yard with shit on their dicks—became a part of my life, or at least a new thing to fear.

So far, knock wood, I’ve managed to avoid prison. I’ve even avoided prison’s more temporary, booze-scented cousin, jail. I have been briefly handcuffed twice, but in the manner of practically every episode of Kung Fu, each of the apprehensions by authorities was wrongful (I only wish I could have had the presence of mind in each case to utter a couple pause-filled, soft-voiced Kwai Chang Caine-isms, something like “The Way . . . forgives . . . the sad cruelties . . . of man” or “The gentle reed . . . bends . . . in even the very strongest . . . wind.”). In one instance, after a Red Kross show in Hoboken, two of my friends had gone through a New Jersey Path Train turnstile together, and cops staking out the station who thought I was one of the fare-beaters also thought I was resisting arrest when I continued to walk down the train platform after they had yelled at me to stop. A few years earlier, while living in a house in the woods with four other students, I’d been yanked out of my bed late one night and cuffed when a very odd girl who lived at the house, and who believed she was alone in the house that night, called 911 to report what she thought was an intruder.

Other than that, I guess my experience that most closely resembled the kind of thing that might lead to incarceration was when I got busted at boarding school for participating in one of the joyous bong sessions described earlier in this four-part exploration. This bust led to my expulsion and to the expulsion of the one other person in the room who, like me, had committed an earlier suspension-worthy transgression at the school. This other person was my friend Happy Al Raymond.

I only saw Happy Al once after the day we were both sent packing. It was the following year, when some of us returned to the school during the homecoming weekend to get plastered together in a room at an Econo Lodge near the school. Al had thickened just a little around the middle by then, the slight alcogut the most easily visible element of his embrace of a new persona, that of the superficially and generically merry frat boy. He had a beer mug in his hand the whole weekend, and his standard reply to everything was a polished bark of laughter and little else.

And that was it. No more Happy Al. Nobody saw him again, nobody heard from him. I embarked on a largely aimless existence built around a vague desire to live a life that included writing, naps, and respite from loneliness. It turns out that while I was groping in my half-assed way toward my lazily conceived idea of happiness, Al was becoming an extremely successful Republican Party campaign operative. I don’t know if this made him happy, but I have always assumed that highly successful people are driven to their success in part by the happiness they find in doing their job.

By 2002, he had apparently become the go-to guy when a certain kind of campaign business needed to be done. His most celebrated or notorious exploit to that point (depending on your political leanings) had been when he’d engineered the mass blanketing of New Jersey households with calls right near kickoff of the Super Bowl. The calls, which were meant by virtue of their timing to be an annoyance to everyone who received them, were negative attacks on one rival candidate sent (it was ingeniously and fraudulently implied) by another rival candidate, smearing both. With this and other campaign triumphs on his resume, Al’s political campaign consulting firm was contacted in 2002 with a job that other similar firms had turned down. They’d all wanted no part of it.

A high-ranking Republican Party member, James Tobin, contacted Al, as related by the back and forth between Al and a questioner in court transcripts from Tobin’s trial:

Q: What does he say?
A: He says—he tells me that he’d like to talk to me about a phone project in New Hampshire and then explains the project to me as to what it would entail.
Q: And what does he tell you?
A: He tells me that it would entail jamming, essentially disrupting, democratic party and affiliated democratic organizations’ efforts to Get-Out-The-Vote on Election Day.
Q: And after he says that, what, if anything, do you say next?
A: My response is that anything can be done.

(Next: The riveting, all-encompassing, elegaic epilogue!)


  1. 1.  I remember reaading the Ron LeFlore autobiography more than once and watching the TV movie with a fresh-out-of-Roots Levar Burton. That story really gripped me as a kid, because I think it really was among the first stories I read where a hero was first a “bad guy.”

  2. 2.  How did you get your hands on a book that mentioned “shit on their dicks” at that age? My parents would let me read anything remotely edgy, I remember getting racy spy novels taken away from me.

  3. 3.  2: I believe the cover of LeFlore’s book showed him in a baseball uniform, hence it would have seemed on first glance to anyone in my house (including me) to be a standard baseball book. Another childhood “sports” book that I may not have been able to read (and probably wouldn’t have wanted to read, though it became a favorite of mine) had it been more accurately titled as, say, Book About Teenage Heroin Addict Who Ends Up Peddling Blowjobs in Port Authority for Money to Buy More Heroin, was Jim Carrol’s The Basketball Diaries.

  4. 4.  2 – My parents took me to Blazing Saddles when I was 7. That seems to amaze some people.

    My brother saw “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” at a similar age, I think.

    But mainly, like Josh said, it just looked like a baseball book.

  5. 5.  I was basically treated like an adult from the time I was five years old. Was taken along to concerts and R-rated movies, never had a curfew, etc.

    This is probably why I turned out so well, or so poorly, depending on your point of view.

  6. 6.  And I have never had handcuffs on, but I was once physically removed from a building by the cops. It was at a Senatorial campaign rally for Phil Gramm. I was holding a derogatory sign which his handlers didn’t want to appear on television. I was asked to leave and refused.

  7. 7.  I remember reading some pretty racy stuff in baseball books at a young age as well. The three that come to mind are “Ball Four,” “A False Spring” and the fictional “Long Gone.” I think I read all three of these around the same time (probably early teens) and they’ve kind of blended together in my mind, but I’m pretty sure at least two of the three have descriptions of young ballplayers visiting whorehouses. My parents would have been horrified.

    And then there was Mark Fidrych’s autobiography of sorts which was in Q&A form and (at least as I remember it) spent an much time talking about drinking beer with his buddies as it did on baseball.

  8. 8.  my childhood was warped, or improved, by unfettered access to the parental library: Ball Four, Basketball Diaries, also North Dallas Forty…..oh, & a nod of respect to ftt: perhaps my single fave Neil Young track, and wonderfully apropos for the Toaster: “in the stands, the home crowd scatters….”

  9. 9.  As a Tiger fan as a child, LeFlore was one of my favs. I don’t remember much about the movie, except that even at 12 years-old, I knew that Burton would never be as good as he was as Kunte Kinte.

    Looking at his IMDB, I noticed that he was also in the previously mentioned “Looking for Mr. Goodbar”, which I don’t remember him in. Actually, the only thing I can remember from the movie was that Richard Gere went psycho and bit off Diane Keaton’s nipple. (or maybe my childhood trauma has left me thinking this had happened.)

    Anyway, I’ve often wondered why more players don’t come from prison yards, instead of former players winding up in prison yards?

    Burton’s best performance since Roots? I would say his seminal work on Reading Rainbow.

    Looking further into Burton’s career, he has also appeared in sports biopics on Grambling’s first white football player (starring the immortal thespian, Bruce Jenner), Jesse Owens, and Ali.

  10. 10.  9 Reading Rainbow? You obviously didn’t see LeVar Burton on Celebrity Jeopardy! He totally kicked butt. I think he also set some sort of all-time record on the Weakest Link. That dude is wicked smart.

    (And I bet you thought I was gonna say Star Trek, didn’t you?)

  11. 11.  Busted. I will admit I floated out the Reading Rainbow point to antagonize Trekkies out of their lair.

    Didn’t know about Burton’s mad skillz on TV quiz shows.

  12. 12.  I always wondered, what the hell was Billy Martin doing, when he discovered LeFlore? Was he locked up himself at that time? Was he visiting friends? No one else but Billy would discover someone at such a place. I love it.

    Best book I recall reading as a kid was Joe Pepitone’s book “Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud.” Damn that was good. Stories of him shagging like 5 women a night, into the wee small hours of the morning. One story had him and Mantle tag-teaming a chick, and then the two players broke into hysterical laughter when the woman took out her false teeth to give them blow jobs. They crippled in laughter. That one stays with you for a lifetime…..

  13. 13.  8: Yeah I remember there being an airplane sex scene in the book version of North Dallas Forty that wasn’t in the movie.

    9: I thought it was Tom Berenger, not Richard Gere, who went nutso in Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

    12: I think Billy Martin heard about LeFlore from a bartender (naturally).

  14. 14.  Kareem’s “Giant Steps” was another jock book with some rather adult content. I remember it caused quite a stir at the time, mostly because he talked about dropping acid. Naturally, I read it, but found the political/religious material a lot more than the sex and drugs. I was probably about 11.

  15. 15.  Ron LeFlore hit a home run in the first game I ever attended.

    That’s all I have to say.

  16. 16.  “Happy Al” was a guest on last Friday’s Real Time with Bill Maher, sans beer mug.

  17. On the topic of inappropriate books for boys under 10, my parents gave me Wilt Chamberlain’s book, “Wilt” (with a subhead of Just Your Average 7-foot, Black Millionaire Superstar who Lives Next Door, or some such thing) for Christmas 1976 or ’77. I was 8 or 9….and in the book, Wilt details his exploits with women, though only in general terms, I think. Anyway, I would always breeze past that stuff to see his outrageous numbers on the court from game to game, or season to season. Also, related to LeFlore’s porous defense, the made-for-TV movie with Levar Burton playing LeFlore has Mickey Stanley teaching Ron the art of building momentum as you catch the ball to be able to fire a dart into the infield and keep the runner from advancing.

  18. Josh, I believe the character of Richie’s older brother on Happy Days was named Chuck. (Mets sweep Yanks!)

  19. You’re right, shealives. I was confusing him with the character Stretch Cunningham from All in the Family. (And on that note: RIP, Jean Stapleton.)

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