Cooperstown confidential: Here comes the Spacemanby Bruce Markusen
June 19, 2009
Nearly 30 former major leaguers will visit Cooperstown this weekend to take part in the first Hall of Fame Classic, an old-timers game that will replace the now defunct Hall of Fame Game. Of all the players who will grace Doubleday Field on Sunday, the most iconoclastic and rebellious—by far—is the man known by the alternate identity of “Spaceman.”
Where does one begin in trying to capture the essence of Bill Lee? Perhaps the best place to start is the 1969 season, when Lee completed his climb through the Red Sox farm system and first descended on Fenway Park. Almost immediately, Lee became a favorite of the Boston beat writers and columnists. After games at Fenway, he regularly held court at the Eliot Lounge, a downtown bar where he charmed and entertained the writers with his philosophies of life, various bits of wisdom, and opinions on everything from politics to rock ’n’ roll. Once the Boston writers began quoting Lee in the papers, he became a kind of cult figure in the Hub. In particular, he appealed to the city’s many college students, who were only a few years younger than he was.
Lee provided some of his most colorful answers to reporters’ questions during the spotlight of the 1975 World Series. During a three-day rain delay that preceded the historic Game Six against the Reds, reporters peppered Lee with questions about his impending start at Fenway Park. One reporter asked him what he would do if won the game. The answer, both outlandish and graphic, could only have come from the mouth of Lee. He explained that he would declare three days of darkness, to allow staff ace Luis Tiant to pitch a decisive seventh game. “That’s what Zeus did when he raped Europa,” Lee explained, referencing Greek mythology. “He asked the sun god, Apollo, to stay away for a few days.” But of course.
Lee might have charmed the media and many of the younger fans, but he irritated Red Sox management to no end. Many of his philosophies embraced a liberal point of view, in contrast to the conservative leanings of the Red Sox hierarchy, which was led by venerable owner Tom Yawkey. In particular, Lee became a thorn in the side of several Red Sox managers, most notably Don Zimmer, who took over in the middle of the 1976 season. Zimmer and Lee clashed almost immediately, with the manager quickly placing the rebellious left hander in his doghouse. For his part, Lee dubbed Zimmer with the unflattering nickname, “designated gerbil.”
In 1977, the animosity between Lee and Zimmer grew steadily. Lee and three of his teammates—journeyman outfielder Bernie Carbo and right-handers Ferguson Jenkins and Bill Willoughby—formed a “society” called “the Loyal Order of the Buffalo Heads.” The group’s main objective was to second-guess Zimmer, for whom they held little regard.
Zimmer seemingly had little control over the Buffalo Heads, but Red Sox management broke up the group in the middle of the 1978 season. On June 15 (then the trading deadline), the Red Sox sent Carbo, Lee’s best friend on the team and one of Boston’s best backup players, to the lowly Indians. Surprisingly, the Red Sox received no players and only cash in return for a top-flight pinch-hitter and platoon player. The transaction infuriated Lee, who felt that management had done serious harm to the talent and chemistry of the ball club.
Furious over Carbo’s banishment, Lee jumped the team—an action rarely taken by players in any era. His walkout, although brief, distanced him further from Zimmer, who began using Lee less and less until he stopped pitching him at all. Zimmer drew criticism for that, especially as the Red Sox frittered away a 14-game lead over the archrival Yankees. After the Red Sox lost the American League East, Lee’s days in Boston came to an end. The Red Sox traded him to Montreal, securing only a light-hitting utility infielder named Stan Papi in return.
Lee became no less controversial north of the border. Early in 1979, he revealed to a writer that he regularly spread marijuana on his pancakes. The connection to drugs drew the ire of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who investigated before opting not to suspend or fine Lee.
Unfortunately, Lee’s rebelliousness sometimes masked one of his other qualities. “Bill Lee was very intelligent. Most people didn’t realize that,” says former major-league pitcher Ray Burris, one of Lee’s teammates with the Expos. “Bill Lee did a lot of reading. He knew a lot about the land. He knew a lot about the environment. And he spent a lot of time finding out facts about his areas of interest.”
In a few instances, Lee carried his interests to the point of obsession. “He got taken out of a ball game in Montreal,” recalls Burris. “And he just didn’t have anything to do, so he started running—because he loved to run. He was actually running in downtown Montreal in his uniform. He almost got hit by a cab.”
Although such habits made for amusing pieces of conversation, other characteristics, involving outspoken expressions of opinion and various acts of insubordination, drew the ire of his Expos bosses. Lee began to irritate Montreal management as much as he did the Red Sox hierarchy. He enjoyed a good relationship with manager Dick Williams, but did not see eye to eye with his successor, Jim Fanning. In 1982, Fanning made a surprising move when he released Rodney Scott, the team’s starting second baseman, who had blanket-like range in the field and blurring speed on the basepaths. (Like Lee, the laid-back Scott was a little bit different; he played without wearing a cup.) Several players were shocked when they realized that Fanning had simply released Scott, receiving nothing in return for a Gold Glove caliber defender. When Lee heard about the move, he became incensed. As a finesse pitcher, he appreciated the value of Scott’s defensive play, especially on the artificial turf of Olympic Stadium.
Reacting more severely than any of his teammates, Lee bolted the team, just as he had done with the Red Sox after the sale of Carbo. He spent the first few innings of that evening’s game playing pool at a local bar while listening to the Expos game on the radio. The game soon degenerated into a blowout, with Expos pitchers suffering badly at the hands of the opposition. When Lee realized that his team might run out of able-bodied pitchers, he reported to the ballpark.
The Expos chose not to be as forgiving as the Red Sox. Expos general manager John McHale called Lee into his office to inform him that management was releasing him. Given the constant need for left-handed pitching around the major leagues, Lee felt certain that he would be unemployed for nothing more than a matter of hours. Knowing that The Sporting News had named him the premier left-handed pitcher in the National League in 1979, he angrily informed McHale that another team would snap him up quickly. McHale responded cryptically. “Don’t bet on it.”
McHale proved correct; no one signed Lee. The lack of interest convinced Lee that major league teams had blackballed him, on the advice of McHale and possibly Fanning. Despite having a healthy left arm and a winning resume, he would never again pitch in a major league game.
Undeterred, he remained active in baseball, pitching in semipro leagues from Quebec to Cuba to Russia. He also penned two colorful, well-written books, in which he vividly described his use of a number of mind-altering drugs, including marijuana and heroin. He became one of the stars of Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary, providing wonderfully humorous and strangely insightful commentary throughout the lengthy film presentation. Lee even did the unthinkable, shifting from player to management in the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association. He became the player-manager of the Winter Haven Super Sox, a team that featured a number of his former Red Sox teammates, including former Buffalo Heads Carbo and Jenkins.
Not surprisingly, the new career didn’t pan out for the rebellious, undisciplined Lee; within weeks, the Super Sox became the first team in the new league to fire its manager.
Perhaps the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association—the organizers of the Hall of Fame Classic—can let Lee manage the game on Sunday. For baseball’s ultimate rebel, the chance to call the shots just a few blocks from the Hall of Fame would be a delicious taste of irony.
References and Resources
The Wrong Stuff, by Bill Lee
Have Glove, Will Travel, by Bill Lee and Richard Lally
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.