August 18, 2019 — Retired Major League Baseball player Ron LeFlore credits his rags-to-riches journey from the inside of a prison cell all the way to pro sports stardom in just three years to a single deceased Detroit mobster. In an interview with the Metro Times, the 71-year old LeFlore, who is back in the Motor City this weekend to celebrate the 40th anniversary of a television movie based on his life, names former Tocco-Zerilli crime family enforcer Jimmy (Cokie) Karalla as the sole reason he got a chance to sign a big league contract straight out of Jackson Prison.
“If it wasn’t for Jimmy Karalla, I wouldn’t have had a pro baseball career,” LeFlore told Metro Times reporter Jimmy Doom.
Karalla died of natural causes in 2010 at 75. He met LeFlore behind bars. LeFlore was serving a 5-to-15 year sentence for armed robbery and impressed the well-connected wiseguy with his prowess on the prison-yard baseball diamond.
As LeFlore approached eligibility for parole, Karrala contacted bar owner Jimmy Butsicaris at the Lindell A.C., a watering hole he owned in downtown Detroit popular among athletes and considered the first sports bar in America. He knew Detroit Tigers manager Billy Martin drank at the Lindell A.C. after games and implored the Butsicaris to bring Martin to Jackson to meet LeFlore and watch him in a tryout on the baseball field. Martin came to Jackson Prison in May 1973, but unfortunately for LeFlore, the baseball field wasn’t in proper condition so the tryout was postponed a month until he was paroled. LeFlore got out of prison on a Friday in June 1973, wowed in a workout 24 hours later and was signed to a pro contract by Martin and the Tigers that Monday.
Called up to the major leagues in August 1974, LeFlore won the starting centerfielders job the next spring and by the summer of 1976 was a fan favorite and an MLB All-Star.
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