FROM FENWAY TO OUTER SPACE
The seventh game of the 1975 World Series drew the largest TV audience in sports history. The legendary sixth game had just ended with Carlton Fisk dancing around the bases while the Fenway Park organ played the Hallelujah Chorus. Now came the decisive match. Pitching for Cincinnati...
"Regardless of the outcome of this game," manager Sparky Anderson told the press, "my starting pitcher is going to the Hall of Fame." And pitching for the Red Sox. . . "Regardless of the outcome of this game," Bill Lee said, "I'm going to the Elliott Lounge."
In baseball, Jim Bouton wrote, a colorful player "is one who wears his cap at a jaunty angle." But Bouton's Ball Four came out before baseball met the Spaceman.
Bill Lee has a special place in baseball history. Despite playing during the 1970s, he is a throwback to an era when ragtag men called "Rabbit" and "Dizzy" played, caroused, and competed, all for the love of the game.
"Colorful" barely describes a player who still holds forth on baseball, existentialism, natural foods, drugs, communism, meditation. . . Ask him a question. (just click below.)
And your first impression of Fenway? "You go down on one knee and thank God for making you a ball player. Because it's heaven."
That wall they call the Green Monster? "Do they leave it there during games?"
And mandatory drug testing? "I’ve tried just about all of them, but I wouldn’t want to make it mandatory."
Lee grew up in a baseball family. His father and grandfather played in the minors, and his aunt starred in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II. "She was the best athlete in the family," Lee said. "She taught me how to pitch."
Standing 6'3", with wild hair and a ready smile, Lee has seemed to stride through life. After he starred in the College World Series, the Dodgers told him he'd "never pitch a day in the majors. You don’t have an overhand fastball like Koufax, you don’t have an overhand curveball like Koufax..." To which Lee added, "and I’m not Jewish. So I guess that’s three strikes.”
But Lee joined the Red Sox in 1969. He never threw hard but could baffle batters with sliders, sweeping curves, and an "eephus" pitch that looped to the plate. Strikeouts, he said, were "boring. . . They are fascist weapons." For three seasons, Lee was one of the league's best lefties, winning 17 each year. He also dazzled them in the dugout, holding forth on any subject. "He could spin your head around if you stood there long enough," Boston Globe reporter Dan Shaugnessy recalled. "For a writer, it was a dream."
But the '75 Series was the highlight of his career. The next year, injured in a fight, he won only five. Then Don Zimmer, a humorless old-school player, became Sox manager.
Lee tormented Zimmer, calling him "the gerbil" and earning a place on the bench. Then Lee told the press he'd used marijuana. Fined $250, he was called to the commissioner's office where he said he didn't smoke the stuff, just put it on pancakes. The incident put Lee on the cover of High Times.
Traded to the Montreal Expos, Lee was unrepentant. "Who wants to be with a team that will go down in history alongside the '64 Phillies and the '67 Arabs?" In Montreal, he grew his hair and beard, wore a red beret off the field, and won 16 games in 1979. But when he stormed out protesting the release of a friend, he was let go. Or blackballed?
"I'll go down in history with a lot of people who've been blackballed." But didn't he mind being "out of baseball for good?"
"Oh, I'll never be out of baseball for good. It's my life."
For thirty-five years, Bill Lee has deepened his love affair with baseball. Pitching in Canada, in semi-pro, wherever he can have fun, he has been "the Satchel Paige of our era," said Dick Lally, who co-wrote Lee's memoir, The Wrong Stuff. Paige "is my idol," Lee said. "I won't win as many games as he did but I'll play as many. I couldn't carry Satchel's jock, though. I wouldn't want to, I don't know where it's been."
White-haired, paunchy, still throwing junk, Lee just keeps playing. "Nobody loves the game more than he does," ex-teammate Fred Lynn said. "You have to if you're playing it when you're 58."
And older. After winters playing in Cuba, Lee teamed with former Sox to play on into his sixties. Then in 2012, pitching for the San Rafael Pacifics, he hurled a complete game, winning 9-4. He was 65.
The Spaceman junk-balled his way to 119 major league wins, not enough to make the Hall of Fame. But Lee's semi-pro uniform is in Cooperstown, honoring him as the oldest pitcher to start and win a game.
"It's a great game," he said. "It goes on forever."