Detroit Historical Society Highlights, ONE IN A MILLION

Ron LeFlore exhibit, Detroit Historical Museum.

By Jacek Adamski

DETROIT– The guest of honor was fashionably late but the presentation at the Detroit Historical Museum showcasing the ONE IN A MILLION biopic hit a giant home run. It was the first time former Tiger Ron LeFlore saw the film in a theater setting.

It was standing-room-only as the Detroit Historical Museum also presented their special exhibit of the Lindell Athletic Club, one of the first sports bars in the country. An afterglow and reception followed hosted by Wes Pikula, Brand Manager of Buddies Pizza.

Ron LeFlore poster, Detroit Historical Society.

Lindell A. C. display at the Detroit Historical Museum.

It started off with an introduction by Dave Mesrey, who also acknowledged former Tiger Ike Blessitt. He gave a short summary of the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium and what their mission statement is all about.

Executive Director of the Detroit Historical Society, Elana Rugh introduced the movie, ONE IN A MILLION, starring LeVar Burton. In 1977, Burton was coming off the hugely popular mini-series ROOTS. Much of the films charm emanates from the realism that is shown from the 1970’s. From the big cars, inner city grit and realistic baseball scenes, ONE IN A MILLION puts the viewer into a time warp.

Lobby Card from ONE IN A MILLION.   (Courtesy of Gimbel Productions)

Also in the audience was poet-writer-activist John Sinclair. Sinclair (77) spent over two years of a 10 years sentence in Jackson State Prison (Southern Michigan Correctional Facility). His case eventually went to the Supreme Court of the United States. “Ronnie used to bring me my meals in cell block-5 at Jackson,” said Sinclair.

Ron LeFlore and poet-activist John Sinclair.

Leflore (71), who lost a leg to circulation problems, was in great spirits. He graciously answered a myriad of questions posed by former journalist, Terry Foster. Before he became a sportswriter, Foster used to flip burgers at the Lindell A.C.

LeFlore’s story is incredible and most improbable. In the winter of 1970, 21-year-old LeFlore and two accomplices robbed a bar on the east side of Detroit across from the old Chrysler Stamping Plant. The Detroit Police quickly caught up with them, and LeFlore was sentenced to five to 15 years in Jackson State Prison.

LeFlore hadn’t played any organized baseball growing up, but with little to do behind bars, he soon joined the prison baseball team. He did thousands of push-ups in his cell. His first game was May 18, 1971 for the prison team. (They only played home games.) In just three years, he was the starting center fielder for the Detroit Tigers.

Among those in attendance were some of the actors from ONE IN A MILLION including Raymond Rolak, Mark Orr, Henry Maynard and Liz Butsicaris-Jackson. Rolak, Orr, and Maynard, played in the baseball scenes. Rolak who played baseball at Wayne State said, “I got three months of work out of the project including going on location in Toledo, Jolliet, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Mike Bennett and I were featured in a speaking scene at old Comiskey Park. We had a reunion with former Detroit teammates and opponents who were playing for the White Sox including Bill Nahorodny, Jim Essian, and Chris Knapp. Henry Washington of Oakland University was Burton’s stand-in and was with us also. Maynard hit fly balls to Burton to get him ready for scenes.”

ONE IN A MILLION was a made for TV movie on CBS and was also a theatrical release in Europe and Japan retitled A MAN OF PASSION. The project was produced by Roger Gimbel, William S. Gilmore and the music giant EMI.

LeFlore thanked all those who invested in his baseball career including Chuck Lewis of Pingree Park with the Detroit Parks & Recreation Department. LeFlore was not unknown to the coaches at Eastern High School because of his speed but he was kicked out of school after his freshman season at age of 15.

LeFlore reminisced about lighter anecdotes also, like the one about his minor-league bus in Iowa that almost got hit by a train. He also recollected about how he and Tigers teammates Gates Brown and Willie Horton got robbed at gunpoint by two guys outside the team hotel in New York.

LeFlore had special gratitude for Jimmy Karalla, the Butsicaris brothers (Johnny and Jim) and Billy Martin. It all started with a letter from Karalla to Jimmy Butsicaris in 1973. Leflore’s story is truly a one in a million tale now morphing from folklore to legend.

Martin visited Jackson State Prison on May 23, 1973. Along with Butsicaris, Frank Howard and Ernie Harwell, but the scouting trip was rained out. Martin then helped LeFlore get permission for a day-parole and a tryout at Tiger Stadium in June. The rest became Detroit history personified.

Isn’t this room wonderful, look at the Bird’s jersey on the wall, that is a whole lot of history,” said Mel Butsicaris during the event. LeFlore along with Mark Fidrych, were the primary reasons that the Tigers’ attendance rose in 1976 by close to 5,000 per game over the previous year. LeFlore, Fidrych and Rusty Staub made the 1976 American League All-Star team representing the Tigers.

The next baseball event hosted by the Detroit Historical Museum is the NEGRO LEAGUES FILM SERIES: THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY. August 24th and 25th 2019 | 1:00pm to 3:30pm.

Also showcasing at the Museum until September 29th, is the Detroit Stars & The Negro Leagues. It is a presentation and history of the teams and legendary players who played America’s pastime during the era of segregation. This was when African Americans were banned from playing in the major leagues. The exhibit, organized by the museum’s Black Historic Sites Committee (BHSC) in partnership with the Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium and developed by the Detroit Historical Society, marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Detroit Stars and showcases the remarkable saga of their Hall of Fame outfielder Norman “Turkey” Stearns.