SABR

Bill Lee

This article was written by Jim Prime.

Bill Lee was one of those rare ballplayers whose off-field persona overshadowed his significant on-field performance. In baseball parlance, Lee is known as a “flake,” a term that includes anyone who doesn't give pat answers to pat questions or dares to admit to reading a book without pictures. He was an original in a sport that often frowns on any show of originality. In fairness, Lee would have been an eccentric in almost any field he chose to pursue, but in baseball he was considered positively certifiable. His often outrageous statements and bizarre actions marked him as an oddity and ensured Lee a lasting reputation in the buttoned-down baseball world. They also earned him the nickname “Spaceman,” a title he never fully embraced, arguing that his first priority was always Mother Earth. Nevertheless, Lee’s record speaks for itself and places him in the company of some of the best pitchers in Red Sox history.  

Boston being a city where blue collar and scholar coexist, a city of stark contrasts, it is not surprising that Lee would be embraced by some and derided by others. When he called the city racist for the opposition to forced busing of black students to white schools, he alienated a conservative element in the city. But he won hard-core baseball fans over with his solid work ethic while on the mound.

William Francis Lee, III was born in Burbank, California, on December 28, 1946, the son of William Francis Lee, Jr. and Paula Theresa (Hunt) Lee. His baseball lineage is impeccable. His father had played sandlot ball and later fast-pitch softball. His grandfather, William F. Lee, Sr., was a highly touted infielder in the 1900s in Los Angeles. His aunt, Annabelle Lee (“the best athlete in our family,” according to Bill himself), was a star in the Women’s Semi-Pro Hardball League in Chicago. She too was a southpaw, and played with the Minneapolis Millerettes, the Grand Rapids Chicks, and the Fort Wayne Daisies in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). In 1944 she pitched a perfect game for the Daisies against the Kenosha Comets.

Bill Lee’s own baseball apprenticeship took place at the University of Southern California, where he came under the tutelage of highly respected coach Rod Dedeaux. He helped the Trojans capture the 1968 College World Series. Lee graduated from USC with a BA in geography, a degree both appropriate and useful in that he became a roving ambassador for baseball throughout the world. 

Immediately after graduation, Lee was selected by the Red Sox in the 22nd round of the free-agent draft (June 7, 1968). He was assigned to Waterloo (1-1, 1.33 ERA) of the Midwest league and then to Winston-Salem (3-3, 1.72 ERA) of the Carolina league.

Lee began the 1969 season with Pittsfield, and started ten games, racking up a 6-2 mark, with a 2.06 ERA. By late June, he was brought up to the big-league club.

Lee’s debut came in a relief appearance on June 25, 1969, in the second game of a Fenway Park doubleheader against Cleveland. The Indians led 6-3 after three full innings. Lee pitched the fourth through the seventh innings, giving up just one run on two hits before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh. After 19 relief stints, Lee earned a start late in the season, on September 30. The Washington Senators beat him up and he suffered his third loss of the year, finishing the campaign 1-3, with a 4.50 ERA. The one win had come on September 20, when Lee threw 6⅔ innings of scoreless relief.

Early on, Lee started feeding zingers to the press. When he first came to Boston in 1969 and was given a tour of Fenway Park, he stared wide-eyed at the Green Monster and inquired, “Do they leave it there during the games?” Sports journalists throughout New England may have given silent thanks. The team could use a little color, and before too long Lee became the darling of the dailies. Over the years, reporters came to know that regardless of the on-field prospects of the Red Sox, this refreshing newcomer could provide them with lots of colorful copy. Lee rarely disappointed. He always seemed good for an original quote, not just a canned cliché. 

In 1970 Bill opened the season with the big-league ballclub and started five games, appeared in six others, and through the end of May ran up a record of 2-2, with a 4.62 ERA. His best game was a 2-1 win over Oakland on April 28 at Fenway Park. Then he had to switch uniforms. Bill served in the US Army Reserve, and was stationed at the Boston Army Base in South Boston. Though he dismissed the nature of the work (“The job was to get the doughnuts and free seats for the officers”), it is worth noting that the man so often portrayed as a rebel appeared not to have any apparent conflict with duly constituted authority. He rose to the rank of Spec. 5.

His duty done, Lee played his first full season of major-league ball in 1971. All but three of his 47 appearances came in a relief role. He gave up 102 hits in 102 innings, posting an excellent 2.74 ERA with a 9-2 won-lost record. In 1972 Lee did not start a game, again appearing 47 times and helping keep the Sox in the hunt right up to the final day when the team fell just a half-game short of capturing the pennant. Lee’s record was 7-4, with a 3.20 ERA. He hit his only American League home run on September 11 off Ray Lamb in Cleveland Stadium.

The 1973 campaign was Bill Lee’s breakout season. After four quality long-relief stints in April (totaling 18⅔ innings), and after several Red Sox starters struggled, Lee got his first start on May 1, and never left the rotation. He started 33 games, and won 17 while losing 11. Only Luis Tiant won more (El Tiante was 20-13) but Lee led the team’s starters in ERA with a stellar 2.75. Lee was honored by being named to the American League All-Star squad, but did not appear in the game itself.

The year was notable in another way, too. In 1973 Carlton Fisk became the team’s player representative, with Lee as the alternate. This was remarkable for such young players, but both men arrived on the scene immediately willing to speak out for themselves and their teammates. This marked the start of a strong relationship between Fisk and Lee. The young take-charge catcher would often come out to the mound and get in Lee’s face to get him to focus, or throw the right pitch. It was a very successful partnership for several years.

Lee won 17 games again in 1974 (17-15, with a 3.51 ERA), still the number-2 man on the mound, behind 22-game-winner Tiant. Both pitchers threw one-run games – but lost – in a frustrating Labor Day doubleheader at Memorial Stadium, Baltimore. Orioles pitchers Ross Grimsley and Mike Cuellar both tossed 1-0 shutouts. The Red Sox finished the season seven games out of first place, behind the pennant-winning Orioles.

Then came 1975. For the third year in a row, Lee won 17 games. His record was 17-9 (3.95 ERA), providing the team with an effective front three: Rick Wise won 19 and Tiant won 18. Lee remained a workhorse, tying for the team lead, throwing 260 innings (albeit down some 20 innings from ’73 and ’74) and was a major part of the pennant-winning Red Sox team.

Lee did not appear in the League Championship Series, which the Red Sox swept in three games behind starts by Tiant, Reggie Cleveland, and Wise. Bill started Game Two of the 1975 World Series, and held Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine to just five hits and two runs over eight-plus innings. He departed the game after Johnny Bench led off the ninth with a double. Dick Drago, on in relief, gave up two hits, giving the Reds a 3-2 lead. Red Sox batters went down 1-2-3 in the ninth, and Lee’s great performance was wasted.

The day after Bernie Carbo and Carlton Fisk hit Game Six homers to keep the Series alive, Lee started Game Seven of the World Series. He pitched 6⅓ innings, shutting out the Reds through five until he gave up a prodigious two-run homer to Tony Perez on an ill-advised blooper pitch that Lee forever claimed “is still rising.” He recalled the sequence of events that led up to the pitch and the resultant homer: “We were leading 3-0 in Game Seven of the World Series. The Reds had a runner at first in the sixth inning. For some reason, [coach Don] Zimmer waves Denny Doyle a few feet away from second base, making a double play impossible. Sure enough, Johnny Bench hits the ball to Burleson at short and Doyle is out of position to make the pivot. The ball goes by Yastrzemski and Bench is safe at second. I lost it and threw the blooper. Two-run homer. Someone should have come out and calmed me down. No one did. The next inning I get a blister and walk the leadoff man and he scores the tying run. The rest is history, but it should never have reached that point.” Lee left with a 3-2 lead, but the Red Sox went on to lose the game and the World Series. 

The next season, 1976, was a disaster for Lee and the Red Sox. On May 20 Lee was trailing 1-0 to the Yankees at Yankee Stadium when Lou Piniella and Graig Nettles struck for back-to-back singles. Otto Velez then singled to right, where Dwight Evans fielded the ball and eyed Piniella trying to score. Lou was thrown out by a country mile. A melee ensued at the plate, and Lee was blindsided by Nettles and fell awkwardly on his shoulder. He left the game crippled, unable to appear in another game until July 15. The Red Sox won the May 20 game but at great cost to their playoff hopes. “We won the battle, but lost the war of 1976,” said Lee. He never lost his bitterness about Nettles’ perceived cheap shot. Recently, when he met the former Yankee at a baseball function, he said, the former All-Star third baseman didn’t even bother to get out of his chair. “He hasn’t aged at all well,” commented Lee. “He looked like a duvet cover.”  

Lee was pitching poorly at the time of the fight. He was 0-3 with a 7.31 ERA, and never really fully got back on track. He finished 5-7, with a disappointing 5.63 ERA.

The following year, 1977, Bill was used sparingly, getting only 16 starts. He posted another winning record, but it was just 9-5 (4.43 ERA) in 128 innings of work, a far cry from the totals of 1973 through 1975, when he pitched more than twice as many innings each year.

In 1978 things seemed to have turned around. Lee won his first four games, and was 10-3 in early July. There were underlying tensions, though, that racked the Red Sox. His relationship with management can only be described as tumultuous. A founding member of a Red Sox faction known as the Buffalo Heads, the purpose of which seemed to be making manager Don Zimmer’s life miserable, Lee famously referred to Zimmer as “the gerbil” and openly questioned many of the strategic moves made by the beleaguered manager. “Zimmer wouldn’t know a good pitcher if he came up and bit him in the ass,” suggested Lee.

Lee enjoyed tweaking the powers that be and crafting controversial quotes. He once bragged about sprinkling marijuana on his organic buckwheat pancakes so that when he jogged to the ballpark he would be “impervious to bus fumes.” He explained to the club doctor that a foreign object sighted on an X-ray of his foot was “an old Dewars cap” that he had accidentally ingested. He angered the California Angels by suggesting that they could conduct their batting practice in the lobby of the fanciest hotel in town “and never chip a chandelier.”

Lee was intensely loyal to his teammates and naīvely expected the same from management. When friend Bernie Carbo was traded on June 15, 1978, Lee was so angry that he stomped out of the Red Sox clubhouse the following day, shouting, “Today just cost us the pennant.” (The team had a six-game lead at the time, and Carbo had only 47 at-bats.) Lee angrily announced that he was retiring from baseball. He was in a rough patch at the time, taking two losses while having 16 runs scored against him in the prior three games (only six of them earned). A day later, Lee returned (sporting a T-shirt that read “Friendship first, competition second.”) That surely didn’t create a positive impression with Don Zimmer. When fined a day’s pay of roughly $500 for the Carbo walkout, he asked if they could make it $1,500. “I’d like to have the whole weekend,” he explained. Walking away from a first-place team, even for just a day, was a strong statement.

From July 15 through August 19, though, Lee seemed to fall apart, losing seven straight decisions. On closer inspection, one sees that in five of the seven losses, he gave up no more than three earned runs. The July 30 game was the most dispiriting defeat, a 2-1 complete-game loss to the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park. Zimmer’s refusal to start Lee against the Yankees in September was a huge subplot in the collapse of the Red Sox. Lee appeared in two of the “Boston Massacre” games, but both times it was in relief. In the September 8 game, he threw seven innings in relief, allowing the Yankees just one earned run in a game New York won 13-2. On September 10, his last appearance of the season, Lee closed out the game with 2⅓ innings of scoreless relief; the Yankees won nonetheless, 7-4.

Lee was in the doghouse the rest of the season. One more win at any point along the way and the Red Sox never would have had to play New York in the infamous single-game playoff.

Before the year was out, Lee was sent packing. On December 7 he was traded to the Montreal Expos for Stan Papi. Papi was a journeyman utility infielder with 88 games under his belt and 199 major-league at-bats over three seasons. He had accumulated 46 hits (.231) and only one of them was for as many as three bases. It was an indignity that forever rankled the proud competitor. When the trade was announced, Lee covered his disappointment with bravado, saying of the 1978 team, “Who wants to be with a team that will go down in history alongside the ’64 Phillies and the ’67 Arabs?”

Pitching for Montreal, reunited with Dick Williams (the no-nonsense manager under whom he had first played for Boston a decade earlier), Lee regained his form and won 16 games against 10 losses. He was the ace of the staff, starting 33 games and throwing 222 innings, and posting an ERA of 3.04. Montreal finished the season just two games behind the NL East-leading Phillies.

The next three years – the last of Bill’s 14 years in the majors – were subpar ones. In 1980 and 1981 combined, Lee won 9 and lost 12, both years missing considerable time in midseason. In 1980 he hurt his hip when he fell out of a building onto an iron fence. (Lee’s version of the story was that he was out jogging, happened by a friend’s apartment, and decided to surprise her by climbing up her building and tapping on her window.) In 1981, of course, he lost a great deal of playing time to the players strike. Bill pitched very briefly in both the Division Series and the League Championship Series, getting a total of three outs without surrendering a run.

Lee left the majors for good in 1982 following the May 7 game, after one of a series of arguments with Montreal management. When friend Rodney Scott was released by the Expos on May 8, Bill Lee took another hike, walking out on the team. He never came back; he was released by the Expos the next day. (Scott signed on with the Yankees for a couple of months, but didn’t last through August.)

Bill has claimed that he has been blackballed from Major League Baseball ever since. The years after his departure from the majors have been nomadic, ranging from independent baseball to senior-league games both north and south of the border. Since leaving the major leagues, he won praise as an effective, if somewhat unorthodox, ambassador for the game in such places as Cuba, China, the former Soviet Union, and small-town Canada. 

Lee co-authored a pair of autobiographical books with Dick Lally (The Wrong Stuff and Have Glove, Will Travel), and offered an alternative look at a mythical Red Sox history with Jim Prime in The Little Red (Sox) Book. He also teamed up with Prime to write Baseball Eccentrics. He is one of the few ballplayers to have earned feature articles in both Sports Illustrated and High Times magazines. He was the subject of a 2006 documentary by Brett Rapkin and Josh Dixon entitled Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey, which details Lee’s adventures while playing baseball in Cuba.

When Lee left Boston after 10 seasons, he had accumulated 94 wins, the third most by a Red Sox left-hander, behind only Mel Parnell and Lefty Grove. He ranked 13th overall in Red Sox pitching history. Lee’s 94 Red Sox wins came against 68 losses, and the three consecutive 17-win seasons came in a ballpark often considered a graveyard for left-handed pitchers. Lee relied on curves, sliders, finesse, and guile to be effective – rather than an overpowering fastball. He called the fastball a “bully” pitch and preferred to out-think his opponents. Red Sox teammate Dennis Eckersley once claimed that he threw “steak” while Lee threw “salad.”  Lee’s overall major-league win-loss record was 119-90, with a 3.62 ERA.

Lee derived considerable pleasure from the Red Sox victory in the 2004 World Series, and even more residual pleasure from the ALCS comeback over the team he hated most, the New York Yankees, the team he once termed “brownshirts” and “Nazis” and “thugs.” Lee watched the games with his wife from a bar in Hawaii. Also present were a collection of Yankees fans that he said shriveled up with each successive New York loss, “like testicles in a cold Nova Scotia spring.” He couldn’t resist adding the spurious news that George Steinbrenner planned to move the Yankees to the Philippines where they would play under the new name “The Manila Folders.” 

Like Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel before him, many of Lee’s comments have made their way into the baseball vernacular and ensured his reputation for eccentricity. The Spaceman never really retired from the game. In his 60s he still played on a semi-regular basis, and occasionally at a high level of competition. In August of 2012, at the age of 65, he signed a one-day contract with the San Rafael Pacifics of the North American League. He threw a complete game to defeat the Maui Na Nakoa Ikaika, 9-4. That appearance by Lee established a new record for the oldest pitcher to win a professional baseball game. The old record had been set in 2010 – by Bill Lee – when he pitched 5⅔ innings for the Brockton Rox of the Can-Am League and picked up the “W.”

In 2014 Lee and his wife, Diana, lived in Craftsbury, Vermont. The Spaceman has two sons (Michael and Andy) and two daughters (Caitlin and Anna) from previous marriages. Aside from his continuing baseball saga, Lee owned The Old Bat Company, which specializes in maple, ash, and yellow birch bats “from old-growth forest.”  

Actor Woody Harrelson owns the movie rights to the Bill Lee story and it will be interesting to see who is cast in the title role. He’ll have to be equal parts showman and athlete. 

Last revised: August 15, 2014


Sources

In the writing of this biography, the author drew on personal interviews and conversations with Bill Lee, attaining additional insights as well as important background information about his personal life history. In addition, the following books were consulted:

Lee, Bill, and Richard Lally, Have Glove Will Travel (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2007).

Lee, Bill, and Richard Lally, The Wrong Stuff (New York: Viking Press, 1984).

Lee, Bill, and Jim Prime, Baseball Eccentrics (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2007).

Lee, Bill, and Jim Prime, The Little Red (Sox) Book (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2003).

Prime, Jim, and Bill Nowlin, Tales from the Red Sox Dugout (Sagamore, Illinois: Sports Publishing Inc., 2000).

Thorn, John, and Pete Palmer, eds., Total Baseball (Sport Media Publishing Inc., 2004).

Tiant, Luis, and Joe Fitzgerald, El Tiante (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1976).

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