Back before the specialization that has affixed itself to prep sports, athletes used to play every sport: spring, fall, and winter. It wasn’t uncommon for a high school athlete to be a standout in baseball, basketball, and football.
In the 1970s there were few high school athletes in Michigan more talented than Rick Leach, who starred for Flint Southwestern and was an All-Stater in three sports. In his senior year the question wasn’t whether Leach would go on to play sports, but rather which sport he would choose. As it turns out, he didn’t have to select just one at first.
Leach was born in the hospital at the University of Michigan, so it was no surprise when he announced that he would attend U of M after his high school days were over. The left-hander was the star quarterback for Flint Southwestern, earning a special visit from Bo Schembechler, who wooed Leach and promised him a chance to be his starter in The Big House. At Ann Arbor, Leach made an immediate impact, becoming the first true freshman to start for the Wolverines. At just 18 years old, Leach impressed the grizzled Wolverine coach.
“I’ve never seen anyone like this kid,” Bo said. “You have to tell him only one time and he gets it.”
Leach started every game but one in his freshman season, leading the Maize and Blue to an 8-1-2 record, their only loss coming to Ohio State. The following season the Wolverines were ranked #1 in the country all season long, rolling to an 8-0 record behind Leach and a diversified offensive attack that averaged more than 38 points per game. A loss to Purdue spoiled Michigan’s national title chances, but Leach revenged the loss against the Buckeyes, beating Ohio State 22-0. In his next two seasons, Leach’s incredible passing ability helped Schembechler open up his conservative offense, and over the next two years, Leach led Bo’s team to two more Big Ten titles, wins over Ohio State, and berths in the Rose Bowl. His place among all-time greats at U of M was secure.
“He is the greatest football player I have ever been associated with,” Bo said.
But even while Leach starred on the gridiron, set records, and accumulated accolades in pads and a helmet, he was still pursuing other athletic endeavors for the Maize and Blue. Leach played baseball for famed Wolverine coach Moby Benedict, earning All-American honors in baseball as well as football. In his junior season, Leach won the Big Ten batting championship. In 1978, Leach and teammate Steve Howe helped the Wolverines to the College World Series, where they finished fifth. It was Michigan’s first appearance in the World Series in 16 years. Leach was a hard-hitting outfielder and first baseman. In his freshman season, Leach even played basketball on the JV team for the Wolverines. He was a stud athlete, the question now was which sport he’d choose to make his profession.
In MLB’s June draft in 1979, Leach was picked by the Detroit Tigers in the first round as the #13 overall selection. Later, the Denver Broncos chose Leach in the NFL Draft in the fifth round. For Leach, however, baseball was an easy choice. He’d grown up as a fan of the Tigers, idolizing Al Kaline. He wanted to start in right field for the Tigers.
Leach played just 187 games in the minor leagues and was hitting .409 at Evansville when he was called up to the big leagues in late April of 1981. As a Tiger, Leach was given the familiar #7 – the same number he’d worn in Ann Arbor. In Detroit, he again played under a legend – manager Sparky Anderson. He collected his first hit off Oakland’s Matt Keough on May 7, and on August 18, he belted his first homer, hitting it off Minnesota’s Roger Erickson at Tiger Stadium. While he was never the Tigers right fielder (Kirk Gibson, his college rival from MSU, had won that spot), Leach served as a first baseman, designated hitter, and pinch-hitter. Leach was also good with the glove, and Sparky often put him into the game as a defensive replacement.
Leach spent three seasons with the Tigers but was released in spring training in 1984, missing out on the magical championship run that season. He was scooped up by the Toronto Blue Jays, where he played five seasons as part of a platoon arrangement at first base and DH. In his best season in 1986, Leach hit .309 in 110 games for the Jays. He wound his career down with single seasons for the Giants and Rangers, having spent 10 years in the major leagues. The tail end of his career was marred when he tested positive for marijuana while with the Giants, earning a 60-day suspension from MLB.
The former Heisman Trophy finalist never regretted his decision to play baseball. In 2008 he was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, and he also was rated as one of the 50 greatest athletes from Michigan in a Sports Illustrated poll in 1999.