A Tiger burning bright

Ron LeFlore was not in Detroit's lineup on Opening Day, but then he swung out on the longest American League hitting streak in 27 years
June 06, 1976

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."

Actually, for all his hits, LeFlore may have as much to do with the Tigers' last-place standing in the East Division as anybody. He has yet to drive in a game-winning run; his undisciplined play contributed to several defeats. In one game LeFlore tried to steal third with two out in the ninth and power-hitting Willie Horton at bat. In an earlier loss to the Yankees he made two errors.

Teammate Rusty Staub says LeFlore must "learn to discipline his thinking and be more attentive to the little things." Reggie Jackson of Baltimore puts it another way: "He plays like a wild man."

Against the Yankees last Friday, however, he was all too docile. There was even irony to the way the streak ended, since New York's Billy Martin was the Detroit manager when LeFlore signed with the Tigers. Before the game Martin wished him well. "If he gets a hit in every game of the series and it doesn't hurt us, I say more power to him."

When LeFlore stepped in to lead off the home half of the first, the Yankee outfielders immediately shifted over toward right. LeFlore is not a left-handed hitter, but he might as well be. Last season he had far more trouble with southpaws than righties, and his best-hit balls this year, including his only home run, have gone to the right side.

LeFlore does not take many pitches, but he took Figueroa's first, on the outside corner of the plate. The second pitch was even tougher, a curveball inside. Jammed, LeFlore lofted an easy fly ball to Oscar Gamble in shallow right.

LeFlore's second appearance, in the third inning, was the only time, he said later, that he actually pressured himself to get a hit. With Jerry Manuel on second, he battled Figueroa to a full count and then again made poor contact with a curve in close. Even so, he might have beaten out his bounder to third base if Graig Nettles had not been moving with the pitch. "I saw the runner start like he was stealing," Nettles said later. "If I hadn't gone over to cover the bag, I probably wouldn't have fielded the ball quickly enough to throw LeFlore out."

Manuel's presence on base was also a factor in the sixth. LeFlore did reach first this time, but on a fielder's choice that might have been a hit if Shortstop Jim Mason had been forced to field the slow chopper and throw to first instead of having an easy force at second on Manuel.

LeFlore's last chance came in the eighth. By now the game was slipping away, with the Yankees ahead 9-5, but none of the 19,909 spectators was leaving Tiger Stadium until LeFlore had taken his final swings. On three other occasions he had salvaged the streak with his last at bat, and the fans were counting on him to do it again. As LeFlore walked out of the dugout to start the inning, the crowd began a rhythmic clapping that became a full-fledged ovation as he stepped into the batter's box.

LeFlore already knew what he wanted to do. If the first baseman was playing back, he was going to try to push a bunt past the pitcher—just as he had against Ken Holtzman of Baltimore the night before. LeFlore swung and missed reliever Martinez' first pitch. He got the opportunity he wanted on the second but fouled it off. With Martinez ahead in the count 0-2, Catcher Thurman Munson went out to the pitcher. "Throw him a good fastball," Munson ordered, "but keep it inside."

As Munson explained later, he was actually trying to do LeFlore a favor. "We'd been giving him nothing but breaking balls, and he's a fastball hitter," Munson said. "I wanted to give him a chance. I figured with his streak and our four-run lead he deserved it. I'm a competitive guy, don't get me wrong, but a 30-game hitting streak is nice, too."

Martinez pitched as he was told—a good fastball inside—but inexplicably, and perhaps inexcusably, LeFlore took it for a called third strike.

It was not a very heroic way to go down, but the fans gave LeFlore loud applause and his teammates offered their condolences in the dugout.

"They got me out, that's all," LeFlore said afterward without a sign of dejection. "They were balls I could hit, but I didn't. But how can I be disappointed? It was a great accomplishment on my part. I just wish it could go on. Maybe I'll start another streak tomorrow."