Bill “Spaceman” Lee, SP, #37 (1969-1978)
94 W - 68 L, 321 G, 167 GS, 578 K, 3.64 ERA, All-Star (1973)
“You should enter a ballpark the way you enter a church.” - Bill Lee
Author, Movie Star, Personality, Eccentric, Futurist, Intellectual, Political Activist, and (oh yeah) Professional Baseball Player. When you look back over the life and times of William Francis Lee III, it’s easy to remember him more for his peripherals than his performance on the baseball field. But should you think that Bill “Spaceman” Lee was more personality than ball player, then you are sorely mistaken. For all his off-field activity, his performance on the field is just as memorable as every off color comment, socio-political rant, or autobiography. In fact, Bill Lee is one of the best left handed pitchers every to put on a Boston Red Sox uniform.
Bill Lee was born with baseball in his blood in Burbank, CA on December 28th, 1946. Both his father and grandfather played the game with a passion, but it was his aunt Annabelle Lee, whom Bill Lee would call the “best athlete in the family.” Also left handed, Annabelle Lee was a star in the Women’s Semi-Pro Hardball League in Chicago.
Bill Lee stayed in his home state to play college ball at the University of Southern California where his Trojans won the College World Series in 1968. Lee graduated after that season and was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 22nd round of the 1968 Amateur Baseball Draft.
Upon finding out that his son had been drafted, William Lee Jr. gave Bill the following advise,
“Son, you’re joining the Boston Red Sox, a fine organization. Now if you can pitch like we both know you can and you can keep your mouth shut, you’ll end up being with them for a very long time.”
After spending only one year in the Red Sox minor league system, blowing through the Midwest League, Carolina League, and AA Pittsfield of the Eastern League where he went 6-2 with a 2.06 ERA to start the 1969 season, it was apparent that Bill had at least taken the first half of his father’s advice.
On June 24th, 1969, Bill Lee was called up to the big leagues when Jim Longborg was hurt. According to Lee, the last thing that he was told after getting the call was not too pack to heavy a bag and not to expect to be up for too long. “Nine years and 102 days later, I was gone,” Lee would quip in his autobiography The Wrong Stuff.
Lee didn’t get off to the best start in Boston. His first appearance in the Major Leagues would come on June 25th in relief against the Cleveland Indians at Fenway Park. He would go four innings giving up just one run and two hits while striking out five and walking three. Lee would end up the staying with the club the whole season in a relief role, going 1-3 with a 4.50 ERA with one start at the end of the season. Lee called his performance in his first season “really horseshit.” Known primarily for his control and his breaking pitches, Lee found himself throwing alot of fastballs and not really getting into the groove with his breaking pitches with the adrenaline that would come working in short relief.
Lee would start the 1970 season with the Red Sox pitching in eleven games with five starts going 2-2 with a 4.62 ERA before he was called into the Army where he served as a reservist. Lee would call military life “interesting, a mixture of perfect logic with a huge helping of the absurd.” Despite his eccentricity, Lee served his time in the Army without note and would return to the Red Sox in time to start the 1971 season.
Lee would begin to settle in as a reliever in Boston over the next two seasons pitching in 47 games each year going 9-2 with a 2.74 ERA in ‘71 and 7-4 with a 3.20 ERA in ‘72. Come 1973, Lee would break into the starting rotation where he excelled for three straight 17 win seasons. An All-Star in his first season as a starter in 1973, Lee would finish the season third in the AL in ERA (2.75).
In 1975 along with Louis Tiant and Rick Wise, Lee anchored the American League pennant winning Red Sox rotation. With the Red Sox up one game to none against the vaunted National League Champion Cincinnati Reds, Lee made his first postseason start going eight strong innings giving up only two runs on five hits before leaving with a 2-1 lead on the verge of putting the Red Sox two wins away from a World Series Championship. The Reds would go on to score two runs in the top of the ninth off Dick Drago to win the game and Lee’s performance would go wasted. The series would continue with the Reds up 3-2 when Bernie Carbo and Carlton Fisk’s dramatics in game six would tie the series and force a seventh game. Lee would be called on to pitch game seven of the 1975 World Series at Fenway Park. Lee would pitch 6 1/3 shut out innings with the Red Sox leading 3-0 before giving up a two run home run to Tony Perez off an ill-conceived “Leephus” pitch. Lee would leave game seven up 3-2 only to watch the bullpen lose the second game that he had started that series.
Following three 17 win seasons, 1976 began a downturn in Lee’s career, but not before one last bit of fireworks. Lee was involved in many moments in Red Sox history, but arguably the most famous one came in 1976 when he was forced to leave a game after hurting his shoulder in a bench clearing brawl with the New York Yankees. Lee would go 24-22 over his last three seasons with the Red Sox posting ERAs of 5.63, 4.43, and 3.46 before being traded to the Montreal Expos before the 1979 season for utility infielder Stan Papi. Lee who had previously railed against the organization for trading away teammates like Bernie Carbo shot his way out of town, hiding his disappointment, saying, “”Who wants to be with a team that will go down in history alongside the ‘64 Phillies and the ‘67 Arabs?”
Lee would finish his Red Sox career with the third most wins for a left handed Red Sox pitcher behind only Mel Parnell and Lefty Grove winning 94 games over his ten year Red Sox career.
Lee would pitch well in his first season in Montreal going 16-10 with a 3.04 ERA in 1979. He would leave baseball altogether in protest over the release of a teammate in 1982. Lee claims that he has been blackballed from baseball since his walkout.
Even if baseball had blackballed him, Lee’s association with the game remains strong. Owner of The Old Bat Company in Vermont, Lee has penned multiple autobiograpical books and starred in a documentary film, “Spaceman in Cuba.” The documentary called a Baseball Odyssey follows Bill Lee as he roams the world in search of opportunities to play the game that he loves focusing on his time in Cuba in 2003.
Even today at over 60 years old, Lee estimates he still throws 200 innings a year playing the game he loves in over-40 leagues in New England.
“I think about the cosmic snowball theory. A few million years from now the sun will burn out and lose its gravitational pull. The earth will turn into a giant snowball and be hurled through space. When that happens it won’t matter if I get this guy out. - Bill Lee