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 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, a native Detroit eastsider, 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. Karalla was a member of a Detroit mob crew headed by Vito (Billy Jack) Giacalone and doing time for bookmaking and loan sharking. His dad, “Cokey” Karalla was a strong arm in the mob in the 1940s and the 50s.

As LeFlore approached eligibility for parole, Jimmy Karrala contacted bar owner Jimmy Butsicaris at his Lindell A.C., a watering hole in downtown Detroit popular among athletes and sports journalists 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 Butsicaris to bring Martin to Jackson State Prison to meet LeFlore and give him a tryout.

The Giacalone crew ran a sports gambling operation out of the Lindell A.C. When Butsicaris first opened the bar, he had NFL star Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions as a partner, however the NFL made Karras sell his ownership stake due to the Giacalone bookmaking affairs taking place on the property, which was torn down in the late 2000s and was a mile away from Tigers Stadium where both the Tigers and the Lions played in those days.

Acting on Karalla’s tip relayed via Butsicaris, Tigers skipper Billy Martin came to Jackson Prison in May 1973, but unfortunately for LeFlore, the baseball field wasn’t in proper condition for a tryout so the look-see had to be 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 within weeks was signed to a pro contract by Martin and the Tigers.

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. He hit .300 and led the American League in stolen bases in the 1978 season.

CBS aired One in a Million — The Ron LeFlore Story starring LeVar Burton as LeFlore in September 1978. Burton had been nominated for an Emmy for his work in the groundbreaking ABC miniseries Roots. The movie’s script was adapted from LeFlore’s autobiography Breakout co-written with Tigers beat reporter Jim Hawkins. Over the weekend, the Detroit Historical Museum held a screening of One in a Million and had LeFlore on hand for a meet-and-greet and Q&A with the audience after the movie ended.

LeFlore was traded to the Montreal Expos in 1979 amidst a contentious contract negotiation with the Tigers organization and rampant rumors of his association with Detroit’s leading crime African-American crime lord of the era, Francis (Big Frank Nitti) Usher. LeFlore frequented Usher’s Black Orchid go-go bar on Detroit’s westside and was seen socializing with members of Usher’s Murder Row gang. Usher had ties to Karalla and the Giacalone crew.

In his first year with the Expos in 1980, LeFlore led the National League in stolen bases. Playing three more seasons, he hung up his cleats in 1982. His career batting average was a not-too-shabby .288 and he swiped a career 455 bags.

Karalla was busted in a cocaine-trafficking conspiracy in 1985 with other Giacalone crew affiliates and did six more years in the can. LeFlore has had a few run-ins with the law because of failure to pay child support (1999, 2007).

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