One of my favorite things about baseball is the array of characters that have played the game over time. In a sport where refined technique is as valued as raw athleticism, there is much more opportunity for people outside of the typical “jock” to excel. Anyone with an oversized pituitary gland can dunk a basketball or run and make a leaping catch, but it takes more than just physical skills to understand the mechanics of effectively swinging a bat at something moving so fast you can hardly see it. And while all sports require some amount of strategy, baseball is much more of a thinking man’s game due to its endless situational possibilities and therefore many more intellectual athletes seem to be drawn to it as opposed to other sports. Finally, baseball is inherently much more of an individual game than any other team sport. When a batter strikes out he cannot blame his teammates and when a team completes a perfect game it is only the pitcher who gets recorded credit for the statistic. These nuances, along with the overly-conservative rigidity of MLB, make baseball the perfect sport for unique personas to stand out, and no character has ever shined brighter than baseball’s one and only Spaceman, Bill Lee.
William Francis Lee III, born December 28, 1946, was literally bred to play baseball. His grandfather played in the Pacific Coast League, both his parents played ball, and his aunt threw the first perfect game in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (the same league portrayed in the movie A League of Their Own). Aided by his “secret power”, left-handedness, and the ability to outthink hitters using a variety of pitches, Lee quickly developed into an outstanding pitcher. He went on to pitch for the University of Southern California, where he won a national title in 1968 and was named to the All-Tournament Team and was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 22nd round of the 1968 Amateur Draft.
Lee became a favorite in Boston for the way he threw, but was soon beloved by fans across the country for his eccentric personality and counterculture lifestyle. He was fearless, and sometimes reckless, in his public commentary, and quickly became a media darling as reporters clambered over one another in the clubhouse to get their microphones in position for his latest sound bites. Rather than using the same tired sports clichés, Bill Lee quoted astrophysicists and Chinese philosophers to describe things. He espoused the benefits of yoga, meditation and health food before it became trendy, and never shied away from discussing his use of psychotropic substances. Bill Lee is the only major professional athlete I know to have graced the cover of High Times magazine while playing, and he once claimed that sprinkling marijuana on his pancakes made him “impervious to the bus fumes” on his morning jogs to Fenway Park. Of course, Lee was despised as a dirty, drugged up hippy by many of baseball’s staunch traditionalists for these very same reasons.
The Spaceman was never scared to speak his mind, much to the chagrin of manager Don Zimmer (who Lee named the “designated gerbil”) and the Red Sox front office, both of whom he frequently criticized for decisions he did not agree with. His relationship with team management was tumultuous at best, and after the 1978 season the Red Sox finally cut ties with Lee, essentially giving him to the Montreal Expos in exchange for utility-nobody Stan Papi and freedom from his criticisms. Lee threw three seasons in Montreal, then early in the 1982 season was released and blackballed from the league for staging a one game walkout in protest to their release of his teammate and close personal friend Rodney Scott.
Although his MLB career ended that year, Bill Lee never stopped playing baseball, because playing baseball is what Bill Lee loves to do. He played semi-pro ball in Manitoba, Canada for a short time, then in Russia and basically any other place that offered him a spot on the field. Today he plays in a 60-and-over league and makes an annual barnstorming trip to play in Cuba, a place where he says “they play baseball for all the right reasons…because they like it.” One of these trips was documented for the 2006 film Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey, an excellent source for anyone wanting to learn more about the career and life of the legendary Lee or just be entertained by his unorthodox attitudes about baseball and the world we live in.
Bill Lee never played for money or fame; he played, and continues playing to this day, because to him the greatest place in the world is out on a baseball field. As wonderfully entertaining as he is for so many other reasons, this is what fans need to remember about the Spaceman: there has never been anyone more dedicated to the game of baseball. In today’s jaded age of labor disputes, lackadaisical prima-donna players and twelve dollar stadium beers, it’s refreshing to look back at someone who was truly out there for no other reason than pure love of the game.
You may have noticed this article is devoid of statistics, and that is intentional. Yes he is the third-winningest Red Sox leftie ever with a career 3.62 ERA and yes he won 17 games three consecutive seasons, but to the Spaceman it was never about personal statistics or accomplishments; it was about going out with your team and trying to win a game. He was fiercely loyal to his teammates and expected, albeit naively, that his teams’ management be loyal as well. For this, and his outspoken attitude towards authority, he paid a large price. But his competitive drive and passion for the game are incomparable; he always plays every game like his life depends on it. And to him it does, because Bill Lee’s life is baseball.
The following provide quotes from Bill Lee himself, as well as a couple of interviews, including one he did with High Times in 2007.