James Lee Fairbank was born to Francis and Frances Mary Flower Fairbank (or possibly Mary Frances) on March 17, 1881 in Deansboro, New York. Although his given name was James, he was always went by Lee. Compared to many players of the era, Lee Fairbank had a brief professional career of nine years and he played just seven major league games. He did, however, have a couple of notable highlights and some excellent minor league seasons.
Fairbank grew up in Utica, New York, and began playing amateur ball in the Utica area, including a stint on the New York Mills team in 1901. As the name implies, the village of New York Mills contained many textile mills and Fairbank worked at one of them. At the annual picnic of loom fixers in 1901, he displayed his athletic ability by finishing first in the running race, first in the sack race, and first in the standing jump. For his efforts, he won a bottle of whiskey, a shirt, and a box of cigars. Six months earlier, Fairbank had taken part in a version of baseball that was popular at the time: indoor baseball. During the winter, teams would play inside using a ball like a softball. Utica had a four-team league that played in the National Guard Armory. One of the teams was the "Thistles" and Fairbank played on that team with a fellow future major leaguer, Jim Dygert.
In 1902, Fairbank played in northern New York State for the Carthage Independents, and for the Post Office club in Utica’s Sunset League. His play in that league led him to be signed by Utica’s professional New York State League team for the end of the season. He began the 1902 season with Utica, posting a 1-1 record before moving on to spend the rest of the season with St. Albans, Vermont.
Fairbank burst upon the baseball scene in his first full pro season with Utica in 1903. He posted a 19-12 record that brought Utica offers from several American League teams. Fairbank made his major league debut with the Philadelphia Athletics that September 18 against St. Louis in less-than-favorable circumstances. Connie Mack brought in Fairbank in the second inning with his club down 7-0. Lee pitched the rest of the game, allowing nine hits, six walks, two wild pitches, and two runs. He didn’t get any hits, but he did score one of Philadelphia’s two runs. Six days later, Fairbank took the mound for the Athletics against Chicago in the second game of a doubleheader. Philadelphia held a 7-5 lead when the game was called after five innings due to darkness, and Lee Fairbank had his first, and only, major league victory. He allowed three earned runs on eight hits and two walks and four strikeouts. At the plate he had one hit and scored a run.
Four months later, Fairbank was at home in Utica when he received Philadelphia’s contract offer. He didn’t feel it was enough money and he held out for more. Eventually, he came to terms with the club and was sent to Providence for most of 1904. He did play four games in the majors that season, but it would be his last time in the big leagues. It appears he preferred to play close to home as he spent the next three seasons with Utica and Albany. Playing with Utica, he posted a 20-11 record in 1905 and won 17 games the next year — numbers that should have resulted in promotion to a higher league if he was interested. After the 1907 season with Utica and Albany, he had a chance to move up, but he didn’t.
In a letter Fairbank wrote to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953, he mentioned that he did not report to Columbus (Ohio) in 1908. According to newspaper reports, he felt that since he didn’t sign a contract with Albany in 1907, Albany didn’t have the right to sell him to Columbus. Columbus was offering him a salary of less than the $230 a month Binghamton (New York), was offering, so he saw no reason to be forced to play there. He spent most of the summer of 1908 working for Remington Arms in Ilion, just minutes from Utica, and playing for the company’s baseball team. The following season he was under suspension by Columbus because he wouldn’t report to the team. In September, Utica bought his contract from Columbus. While not playing for pro teams in 1909 and 1910, he played for the Remington Arms team. In the fall of 1910 he was sold to Wheeling, but never reported for the 1911 season and retired as a ballplayer.
In his two brief stints in the majors, Fairbank appeared in seven games, posting a 1-2 record with a 5.49 ERA. His minor league career was much more successful as he won about 100 games in nine seasons. No doubt the highlight of his career was the game he mentioned pitching for Albany against Utica. He pitched a no-hitter for 12 2/3 innings, and ended up winning a 16-inning two-hitter. (Both hits were infield singles by Utica’s fastest player, Bill Carroll.) Fairbank was extremely popular in Utica, as he spent all or part of six seasons playing there, winning more than 70 games.
After his playing days, Fairbank owned and operated a cigar and confectionary store for four years and then was employed by Remington Arms and Savage Arms during World War I, He also spent 33 years in the insurance business before retiring in 1946. His hobbies included hunting and fishing. Like many former players who were respected in their home towns, he occasionally umpired games in Utica.
In 1945, Fairbank was among a group of former players who were honored at an "old-timers" night at McConnell Field in Utica before a Utica Blue Sox Eastern League game. Fairbank passed away on December 27, 1955, at the age of 74. He was married twice, first to Henrietta L. Rickard in 1902, then four years after she passed away in 1938, he married her sister Mamie. He had three sons.
Daily Press, Utica, New York.
Herald-Dispatch. Utica, New York.
Observer-Dispatch, Utica, New York.
Sunday Tribune, Utica, New York.
Fairbank, Lee. Two letters written to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. 1953.