Austin Thurman rises above a legacy of inequality to follow in Ron LeFlore’s legendary prison-to-pros footsteps
In 1973, Ron LeFlore was signed to play professional baseball, even while still incarcerated at Detroit’s Jackson State Penitentiary. Now, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of his historic signing, another former convict has a chance to get signed professionally. All San Quentin alum Austin “Baby Bo” Thurman needs is a team willing to embrace his rehabilitative efforts.
The legend of LeFlore started when famed Tiger’s manager Billy Martin visited “the Pen” to see the hotshot inmate perform. Martin immediately recognized the prisoner’s baseball talents, and the rest, as they say, was history.
In the 1970s, America was reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Bobby Kennedy as well as the tumult of the Vietnam War. It was also a time of renewed attention on US prisons, particularly pertaining to race, with the killing of George Jackson at San Quentin and the Attica uprising, both in 1971.
Against this backdrop, Martin signed LeFlore, who went on to a successful major league career — being named an All-Star in 1976 and leading the American League in stolen bases in 1978 and 1980. Even Hollywood loved the prison-to-the-pros story, making a TV movie with LeVar Burton playing LeFlore.
A story with similar potential began on a cold February morning in 2019 on San Quentin’s “Field of Dreams,” where incarcerated ballplayers have competed in America’s pastime for the past 102 years, the oldest prison athletic program in the country.
Warm-ups for the first day of try-outs began as San Quentin A’s spiritual leader, Carrington Russelle, played catch with a man never seen on the field before. The unknown prospect’s name: Austin Thurman.
The morning dew turned to rain, potentially hampering the day’s activities, when something happened that had not been seen in the previous seven months of workouts. Russelle and Thurman were throwing darts to one another from 250 feet away. Team manager Richard Williams, was beaming. If you knew Williams, then you knew his smiles came around about as often as Haley’s Comet.
The impression of Thurman’s 250-foot warm-up throws with Russelle on that wintery first day prompted memories of two other legendary arms witnessed in baseball lore:
The first memory — the legendary Roberto Clemente. Before the Hall-of-Famer’s tragic death in 1972, he threw a ball from the right field wall to home plate on one bounce in a playoff game.
The second recollection — a right fielder from Stanford, playing at USC’s Dedeaux Field. He throws a waist-high strike from the right field wall (320 feet away), in the air, on a rope, silencing the crowd of baseball aficionados. His name was John Elway, who went on to choose another line of work.
Thurman’s tale wasn’t limited to his cannon arm. He instilled fear around the diamond as hits exploded off his bat, drowning out gunshots from the prison guards’ gun range over the wall, routinely soaring past the “DEAD CENTER” sign 400 feet away. Thurman’s wisdom and his ability to ignite thought-provoking discussions on social reform may have even exceeded his athletic prowess.
Thurman was like a comet from heaven — a rare talent poised to challenge the legacy of baseball at San Quentin and possibly beyond. His skills earned him the nickname, “Baby Bo,” after the famed two-sport star Bo Jackson. LeFlore’s story inspires supporters of Thurman to believe history can repeat itself. And, if it does, the incarcerated community will know that second chances are possible, and that dreams sometimes do come true.
Soon after his debut, Thurman spoke of his aspirations. “I dream to play professional baseball,” he said. “Before San Quentin, I couldn’t imagine the opportunity to contribute to an organization that lets me play ball — while doing my part for society off the field.”
His only more pressing dream is to make his family proud.
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Thurman’s mother, Gearl Lynn Thurman, died when he was only three years old. “She passed from cancer and left a letter for me to read when I got older, but I still haven’t read it,” Thurman said. His dreams of the future include reading the letter on a major league diamond.
Thurman’s journey towards the “Bigs” includes him accepting God and committing to recovery while at San Quentin. It took him four years to realize that true maturity, and the fulfillment of his dreams, included taking full accountability for his crime — accessory to attempted murder.
Thurman’s remorse letter to his victim says: “Sir, I am truly sorry for intruding into your life. I won’t create more pain than the tremendous amounts I already caused you and your family. Allow me to assist in your healing process by making amends for every wrong I have done in my life.
“Let me know what I can do. Felons, past and present (coach says at least 12 million) rely on my future success. And becoming a beneficial part of your life, with your forgiveness, will inspire others who have fallen.”
The outfielder’s statement of remorse exhibits maturity beyond his years and demonstrates how rehabilitation can heal if the incarcerated can rise above our mistakes. San Quentin’s rehabilitated athletes understand that doing our part to heal the web of all whom we harmed is our top goal. It is our pathway to help heal our communities and heal ourselves. The Q’s baseball team embodies positive change and working on oneself as part of rehabilitation.
Nationwide, there are only 18 positions available that allow incarcerated athletes to compete with outside baseball teams — and all 18 are here at San Quentin. When you compare this to the nation’s incarcerated population of more than 2,000,000, you begin to realize what a coveted and amazing opportunity it is to be part of The Q’s historic baseball team.
The daily sports regime, structure, and camaraderie provided by the team has reduced recidivism among graduates from the San Quentin Baseball program, producing a lineup of successfully returning citizens.
Thurman’s talents have been witnessed by experts that played in the “Bigs.” Before the pandemic, retired pitchers Ted Lilly of the Oakland A’s and Jeremy Affeldt of three World Championship Giants teams stopped by The Q and pitched to the San Quentin Athletics, including Thurman. Thurman left an impression.
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In July 1973, LeFlore signed with the Detroit Tigers after securing a one-day release for tryouts at Tiger Stadium. The contract allowed LeFlore to meet his parole conditions. He was paid a $5,000 bonus and $500 per month for the remainder of the 1973 season, according to Wikipedia. LeFlore was sentenced to 5 to 15 years in state prison at the tender age of 15 for the armed robbery of a local bar. LeFlore, like many other incarcerated people, was a troubled youth who dropped out of school, began selling drugs, and became an addict. Also, he did not play organized sports before prison. But like Thurman, it took a fellow prisoner, Jimmy Karalla to see LeFlore’s potential for redemption and nurture his talent. LeFlore worked his way through the minor leagues before he reached that coveted pro spot. He was the first player to lead both the American and National leagues in stolen bases after being traded to the Montreal Expos in 1979 from the Tigers. LeFlore did the exceptional coming from the hard streets of Detroit and a stint in prison.
Baseball, like society and the judicial system, has long struggled with racial inequality and discrimination. In fact, baseball’s embrace of social reform could help revitalize the sport’s diversity program, which has deteriorated even more rapidly in recent years than in the 70’s and 80’s.
The focus on Cuban, Dominican, or Latin American players may have caused the demise of the “True American Black Baseball player” for approximately 40 years. What other names come to mind besides Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis, and Dwight “Doc” Gooden as Black players who, as urban youth, grew up watching and imitating their talents? Where are the heroes like Willie Mays, who played stickball with the inner city youth in the neighborhood around New York’s Polo Grounds?
The dismantling of Rube Fosters’ Negro National League (NNL) in the 1920s caused the development of racial equality in baseball to slow to sloth-like pace. Foster knew that integration into the Major Leagues was inevitable. In 1926, he proposed some kind of merger between his NNL and Major League Baseball (MLB), but league commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis told Foster that the time was not right for Blacks to join in the MLB. Foster’s dreams were crushed. The NNL marked one of the last times that African Americans controlled their own major-league sports organizations, according to William Rhoden, author of The Forty Million Dollar Slave.
Rhoden doesn’t believe modern-day multi-millionaire athletes with minority backgrounds are necessarily free because the majority of professional sports teams operate under White ownership.
While it sadly took a Minneapolis police officer murdering a helpless Black man on video in 2020 to reignite demonstrations at the professional athlete level, we pray the athletes’ voices never go quiet again — especially as we try to advance racial equality and reform the prison industrial complex.
LeFlore retired from the MLB in 1983 with the Chicago White Sox. He experienced a few run-ins with the law for failing to pay child support to his adult child and her mother, but he never returned to prison.
Post-Release: Roswell, New Mexico
San Quentin baseball happily lost Thurman in 2020 when he paroled to Texas to be near his father and to begin his new career. He began his baseball rite of passage in the independent leagues, he earned a spot on the Roswell Invaders in New Mexico in the independent Pecos League. In 47 games in 2021, he hit .313 with 6 home runs, 8 doubles, 3 triples and 36 stolen bases.
San Quentin’s outside baseball coach, Steve Reichardt, said of Thurman’s potential, “It’s rare a baseball player goes from high school to the pros, so we expected him to play independent ball. The kid has talent and the personality to make it.”
Currently, Thurman is expecting a child and has opted to get a steady job driving trucks, but his dream of playing ball has not been dashed.
However, both LeFlore and Thurman defied the odds through playing prison baseball; with all their ups and downs, neither have returned to prison, which is a success by any measure.