Breakout: From Prison to the Big Leagues
Book Review by Matthew Sheridan
Breakout: From Prison to the Big Leagues is Ron LeFlore’s dramatic autobiography and description of his rebirth. “Only in America,” the old song says, and so it was with Ron LeFlore. Better known for his dazzling play with the Detroit Tigers, LeFlore is less known for the path he took to make it to the big show. While his book is his personal success story, it also tells a second story – i.e., it stands as a prime example of what is supposed to happen when someone emerges from behind bars.
Detroit’s east side in the 1960s and 1970s provides the setting. LeFlore described himself as a “typical kid in many ways.” He stole cherries from trees in people’s front yards, snatched bed sheets from clotheslines, and threw rocks at police cars. The results for Ron, though, were anything but typical. More to the point, and in keeping with his upbringing and environment, they were sadly predictable. The east side was the part of town known for its prostitutes and addicts; drug dealers owned the streets, and LeFlore was drawn to the life. It was practically a fait accompli that in time he became part of it all.
The east side of Detroit was the dark side for everyone else he knew, everyone who played a significant role in his young life. It came as no surprise to him or to anyone else when an armed robbery eventually placed him in the State Prison of Southern Michigan.
His prison experience is similar to what others have written – long hours of isolation, day-in and day-out routine, constant fear, and life draining confinement. He confesses that he never knew if he would be “killed, or raped, or what.” To survive he turned to sports.
Sports alone, however, did not keep him away from trouble. The rules of prison are tough, pointed, and unyielding. It was only a matter of time before he started breaking prison rules, just as he was accustomed to defying society’s rules on the street. Treating authority with disdain lands him in isolation, not once or twice, but three different times.
Still, even convicts seek meaning to complement their existence, and for Ron LeFlore, that meaning came in the form of his athletic ability. His talent captured the attention and interest of prison officials, so they recruited him to play sports. LeFlore accepted his role, if only to show the parole board that he could cooperate and go along with the program.
Ron LeFlore had no formal training or tutelage, just raw athletic ability. His physical talents enabled him to excel in competitive sports where others could not, and nowhere was this fact more apparent than in the sport of baseball. He had a natural affinity for hitting the ball where the fielders weren’t, for catching fly balls that players of lesser ability would allow to drop in front if them, and for running the base paths with reckless abandon, beating the throw and avoiding the tag more often than not.
In playing Alexander Cartwright’s game, LeFlore discovered that, for him, playing baseball was not only a calling, it was fun. He was singularly good at it, and he played the game as earnestly as it should be played. In baseball, he found the satisfaction and purpose that eluded him in life. Where he failed to master the rules of the street and of prison, he became a master of glove and bat, and of negotiating base paths to successfully steal bases, to stretch singles into doubles, and doubles into triples.
He did not know it at the time, but his on-field exploits ultimately caught the trained eye of a major league scout. By the time his parole date arrived, he had received a contract to play professional baseball, a contract which he parlayed into a solid career as a starting outfielder for the Detroit Tigers.
Ron LeFlore’s autobiography is well worth the read. Whether for its vivid portrayal of prison life or for its nostalgic recall of summer’s game, it draws the reader irrevocably into it. Ron LeFlore the person, the rehabilitated ex-con, the professional ball player, inspires us for his ability to overcome insurmountable odds.
We know all too well about the failures that reside within America’s prisons. Breakout gives us a story of redemption.
Ron LeFlore reminds us that we can look for the good inside someone; and, if we look closely enough, we can find that person’s unique talent, a truly undifferentiated measure of worth. In the person of Ron LeFlore we find how summer’s game affords him a way out of prison and the substance of redemption. Baseball restores him and enables him to rejoin society.