Within the last few weeks, I happened to be surfing the vast wasteland of cable channels and came upon an episode of the Big Bang Theory, which featured Levar Burton as a guest star. I don’t normally watch the show, and only stayed with it for a moment or two, but I almost immediately thought of the first time I saw Levar Burton in an acting role. It was 35 years ago, 1978 to be exact, when Burton played the title role in the made-for-TV movie, One In a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story.
It’s hard to believe that it was the same Burton that starred in that baseball film. He was much skinnier then, a young actor in his twenties, and frankly, seemed like a completely different person. I guess that’s a normal development, given that 34 years have passed by. Hollywood ages, just like the rest of us.
One In a Million was one of the first baseball films I ever saw. I watched it when it made its original primetime appearance on network television. Keep in mind that this was long before the glorious era of the 1980s and the early nineties, when several of the most iconic baseball films of all time were made. This was before The Natural, before the wonder of Field of Dreams, before the sensation of Bull Durham, and before A League of Their Own.
Baseball films were considered box office poison in the late 1970s, something to be avoided by the major studios. When baseball films were made, they tended to be low-budget, or they became made-for-TV productions, like One in a Million and Louis Gossett’s Don’t Look Back: The Story of Leroy “Satchel” Paige. They generally weren’t great films, certainly nothing like A League of Their Own, which beautifully melds comedic and dramatic moments in a balanced tapestry of excellent filmmaking. But they weren’t bad either. During the winter, when there were no games to be played, a decent baseball movie was better than no baseball movie at all.
I would surmise that a good number of our readers have never seen One In a Million, or simply don’t remember much about it. So let’s provide some details. The movie synopsis is quite simple: it‘s “the true story of Ron LeFlore, a troubled Detroit youth who rose from Michigan prisons to star in major league baseball.” LeFlore overcame drug problems and a stint in prison for armed robbery to make the unlikely climb to Tiger Stadium. On the surface, it’s a great premise for a movie. I mean, who doesn’t love a story of redemption set against the backdrop of the great game of baseball?
Burton stars as LeFlore, who was still playing for the Tigers at the time of the film’s release. Veteran actors Madge Sinclair and Paul Benjamin portray his parents, Georgia and John LeFLore. A young Larry Scott (perhaps best known for his work in Revenge of the Nerds) plays Gerald LeFlore, Ron’s younger brother. But the most interesting casting involves the presence of several former Tigers. Other than ex-Tigers skipper Ralph Houk, who is portrayed by character actor John McKee, five other Tigers players and managers all portray themselves. Four retired Tigers (Bill Freehan, Norm Cash, Al Kaline, and Jim Northrup) make brief appearances in the movie. Given that they had only recently retired, they all look young enough to give the movie a certain credibility.
Even more notably, ex-Tiger manager Billy Martin appears as himself, some four years after the Tigers fired him. Martin’s appearance highlights his supportive relationship with LeFlore. Martin is surprisingly at ease as an actor; he is quite good in making his motion picture debut. More specifically, he shows the kind of charm that he was capable of, only to have those moments obscured by his temper tantrums, his mean-spiritedness, and his alcohol-infused vendettas.
The relationship between Martin and LeFlore, though underdeveloped, is my favorite part of this film. Martin, who was a troubled underdog as a ballplayer, fully believes in LeFlore and wants him to succeed. Sadly, Martin has sometimes been characterized as a racist, but that’s an opinion that I have long challenged. Some of the strongest relationships that Martin fostered during his career involved black and Latino players, most notably Rickey Henderson, Lenny Randle, Cesar Tovar, and, of course, LeFlore. I doubt that any of these men would call Martin a racist. They all loved Martin, and seemed to play their best for him. Martin was many things — including a raging alcoholic, a womanizer, and a volatile personality who put too many players into his proverbial doghouse — I don’t think that the term racist applies accurately to him.
While Martin’s role is a key part of the story, Burton is clearly the star. Though he was very young at the time, he was hardly an unknown in 1978. He had just finished his award-winning performance as “Kunta Kinte” in the groundbreaking miniseries, Roots, which appeared on television in 1977. Having shown himself to be an accomplished actor in his film debut, Burton had already developed a large following of fans. Few doubted that after handling a complicated role within the difficult subject of slavery, he would have any difficulty in portraying a young African-American ballplayer of the contemporary area.
Not surprisingly, Burton is very good in providing a sympathetic portrayal of LeFlore as a young man who wants to make real and substantial change in his life. His performance makes LeFlore likeable, clearly one of the goals of director William A. Graham. The athletic Burton also appears to run very fast, making him believable as a LeFlore-like base stealer. At the plate, his swing is surprisingly smooth. I would suggest that he is convincing as LeFlore the batter, a difficult accomplishment for any actor trying to emulate a professional major league hitter.
If there are flaws in Burton’s performance, they involve his physical appearance and some of his other baseball-playing ability. Burton looks pencil-thin in this film, far skinnier than I ever remember LeFlore being, even at the beginning of his career. Burton’s defensive skills are also lacking; he throws the ball awkwardly, to the point where perhaps the film’s director should have employed a double when showing LeFlore trying to make plays in the outfield.
If for no other reason, One in a Million is worthwhile for Tigers fans just for the opportunity to see heroes like Cash, Kaline, and Freehan in a rare on-screen appearance. There are also some great shots of Tiger Stadium that succeed in capturing just how it looked in the mid-1970s. But there is more to the movie than the imagery of the old ballpark and fun cameos by Cash and Kaline. While the movie does lean toward sappiness, it presents a good and worthwhile story, is well-acted across the board, and offers an intriguing look at 1970s baseball. One in a Million might not actually be one in a million, but it’s an underrated film, one that ranks as a major upgrade over today’s reality television, and deserves a good look during a long winter that otherwise lacks the National Pastime.