Awesome Men Throughout History: Bill “Spaceman” Lee
I’ve been getting pretty deep into baseball this year, due to the shocking ascendance of the Baltimore Orioles into a wildcard spot (which we probably won’t retain past the All-Star break, but nevermind). Because of this, I’ve decided that we need another baseball player in the ranks of Awesome Men Throughout History, and there isn’t a better choice than Bill “Spaceman” Lee, who pitched for the Red Sox and the Expos during his time in the major leagues, and was still playing semi-professionally as of 2010.
Lee is a notable figure in baseball history for a couple of reasons. First, baseball was quite literally in his blood; his grandfather and aunt both played at a semi-professional level. Lee played in college at the University of Southern California, and was picked up by the Red Sox in 1968, the same year he graduated. Lee was, and I guess still is, a southpaw who never could get a decent fastball going, so he developed his off-speed game, specifically a variation on the eephus pitch (a trick pitch whose low velocity and high arc can catch hitters off guard) that he called the Spaceball.
Lee is perhaps more notable for being baseball’s version of Donald Sutherland in Kelly’s Heroes. One of the sport’s few countercultural figures during that era, Lee was outspoken about controversial topics like busing, animal welfare, the environment, and especially marijuana legalization. He was once fined $250 for sprinkling weed on his pancakes, and once responded to a question about mandatory drug testing by saying that “I believed in drug testing a long time ago. All through the sixties I tested everything.” Next to Yogi Berra, Lee was the best source of hilarious quotes for the sports press.
Sometimes his one-liners had a touch of profundity to them. Lee was an avid reader of both literature and Asian philosophy (hence his Red Sox teammates nicknaming him “Spaceman”), which led to his discussion of what he called the cosmic snowball theory, wherein “a few million years from now … 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.” That kind of thinking was rare among the chaw-spitting jocks who filled bullpens during the 70s.
And Lee was even more outspoken with baseball management, getting turfed from the Sox thanks to openly questioning manager Don Zimmer’s treatment of the pitching staff, and then leaving the Expos after they fired Rodney Scott. Lee also threatened to bite an umpire’s ear off after disagreeing with a call, so he wasn’t above lashing out at field officials, either.
Really, Lee was just frustrated by what he saw as a corporate mindset poisoning the sport, and wrote in his autobiography about wanting to “go back to natural grass, pitchers who hit, Sunday doubleheaders, day games, and the nickel beer.” But while his inability to work alongside more conservative managers probably shortened his career, it didn’t kill his love for the game. Lee still plays whenever he can, wherever he can, and is a regular on Mitch Melnick’s sports radio show in Montreal, where I can only assume he’s as goofy-yet-astute as ever.
Speaking of, here’s a fun interview that High Times did with Lee back in 1980, which is what I’ll end on since I couldn’t find a video that did Bill Lee enough justice. He’s very candid about a lot of things, including drugs, his time playing for Boston, and – perhaps most importantly – his opinion of people who’ve nailed Linda Ronstadt.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.