Players after prison
LeFlore signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers organization as soon as he was released in 1973, debuting in the majors in 1974. He went on to spend six seasons with the Tigers, one with the Montreal Expos, and two with the Chicago White Sox. In 1976, he batted .316, was elected to the All-Star Game, and put together a 30-game hit streak; in 1977, he improved on that batting average and hit .325. And in 1980 he led the National League with 97 stolen bases with the Expos.
He went on to compile a lifetime average of .288 in the big leagues. With statistics like these and a career that spanned nine years, LeFlore certainly stands out as the game’s most prominent example of a former prison baseball star turned professional.
Of course, baseball players can also become prison stars after a professional career. In 1948, after debuting in the major leagues with the St. Louis Browns, Ralph “Blackie” Schwamb was arrested for and convicted of murder in a robbery gone awry. He was sentenced to life in San Quentin prison in 1949, though he was paroled in 1960. Before that, the 22-year-old Schwamb had pitched in 12 games for the Browns, held a 1-1 record and had an ERA of 8.53.
In 1950, however, Schwamb joined the San Quentin All-Stars, a recreational baseball program for the prison’s inmates. He became something of a sensation, and was certainly the most talented player anywhere in the prison’s program. As Eric Stone mentioned in his book on Schwamb, Wrong Side of the Wall: The Life of Blackie Schwamb, the Greatest Prison Baseball Player of All Time, “Blackie was achieving the success he’d always wanted. The problem was that it was far from the limelight.” When Schwamb was released at age 34, he tried to capitalize on that success by attempting a comeback in professional baseball. He pitched for the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League after his parole, though he pitched in only six games and compiled a record of 1-2.
The opportunity to take part in the game of baseball can provide fulfillment and the chance to be part of something bigger than one’s self. While not the norm, those opportunities can transform the lives of inmates after their release and provide hope for a different kind of future.
Katherine Adriaanse was a library research intern in the Class of 2016 Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum