The spaceman and the time warpby Frank Jackson
February 20, 2012
In 1967, before he ever threw a pitch for the Red Sox, and long before he had built a reputation as the thinking man’s Dizzy Dean, Bill Lee was a college ballplayer at the University of Southern California. He had just finished his junior year and in all likelihood, he was in his final summer of amateur status, so he chose to play in the Alaska Baseball League.
He had played in the league the summer before, so he knew what he was getting into: namely, one of the best working vacations available to someone his age. Of course, one didn’t get paid to play ball, but the locals would often find temporary or part-time jobs for the players and even offer them free housing.
At any rate, the opportunity to spend a summer in Alaska while honing one’s baseball skills was an experience in itself, no matter how his career turned out. In those pre-aluminum bat days, there were fewer summer leagues, so the talent level in Alaska was high. “What you were doing was playing with the best talent in America,” noted Lee. “If you succeeded in Alaska, you’d eventually succeed in the American League and National League.”
Obviously, there were exceptions to that, but by and large, doing well in the Alaska Baseball League was a boost to a player’s self-esteem and looked good on his resume.
Lee’s team, the Alaska Goldpanners (based in Fairbanks), had been around since 1960. By 2012, the Goldpanners had played a part in grooming about 200 players for the big leagues. Other teams in the league have prepped roughly another 200 players for major league ball. The Goldpanners’ alumni list includes a host of standouts (e.g., Tom Seaver, Dave Winfield, Bret Boone, Graig Nettles, Jason Giambi, Jim Sundberg, Barry Bonds, Dave Kingman, Michael Young).
(It’s worth pausing to note one name that stands out from the standouts: NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini, who roamed the outfield for the Panners in 1968.)
In 1967, the Panners’ eighth season, Lee’s teammates included Bob Boone, Jim Barr, Bob Gallagher, Jim Nettles and Brent Strom, also a member of the USC pitching staff. The USC connection is key, as Trojans coach Rod Dedeaux regularly recommended players to the Panners. In fact, in 1965 he even brought the Trojans north as competition for the annual Midnight Sun game, creating a novel situation in which Seaver, on the Panners’ roster at the time, pitched against his regular-season teammates.
It is also worth noting that the USC connection may have played a part in Lee’s Spaceman nickname. Long-time San Francisco sports broadcaster Lon Simmons once noted, “Bill Lee. Another USC man. When they come out of USC, they go directly to the moon.”
It’s hard to say whether that remark was directed at Lee personally or was just another potshot fired in the endless NoCal vs. SoCal wars. For what it’s worth, USC has sometimes been referred to as the University of Spoiled Children. I’m not in a position to comment on the accuracy of that characterization, though I can think of more than a few institutions of higher learning that could compete for that title. It could be nothing more than sour grapes from rejected applicants who were spurned by their dream school and had to settle for Cal-State Northridge.
Long before Trojan Tom Seaver made his first appearance in Alaska in 1964, the Midnight Sun game was a fixture in Fairbanks. The Midnight Sun Game (I don’t want to use the acronym MSG because monosodium glutamate has that one sewn up, so I’m going to simply refer to the contest as The Game, with heartfelt apologies to Harvard and Yale football fans) is unique to Alaska . Depending on where you are in the state, the sun may set late, barely, or not at all. Fairbanks, in the center of Alaska, falls under the “barely” category.
The Game dates back to 1906 when Fairbanks, decelerating after the heady days of an early-20th-century gold rush, experienced a disastrous fire. To celebrate the rebuilding of the town, a couple of teams from local saloons staged a contest before a crowd of about 1,500.
Over the years, town teams, industrial teams, college teams, military teams, foreign teams, and other amateur teams were chosen to participate. Since 1960, tradition has dictated that on the night of the summer solstice (give or take a day or two), the Alaska Goldpanners, an amateur team, composed mostly of college players, will host a game at Growden Memorial Park, which also dates back to 1960.
The Game is the biggest event on the Alaska Baseball League schedule. It is truly a night owl’s delight, since it doesn’t start till 10:30 p.m. After the national anthem and first-ball ceremonies involving Panner alumni, the game commences and continues to completion without any artificial illumination—a tad ironic when one considers that Growden Memorial Park was the first ballpark in Alaska with lights.
When the skies are overcast, it may be tempting to turn on the lights, but that will never happen, and the game will not stop. Fairbanks is one of the prime places in North America to witness the northern lights, but this time of year they are no help at all.
At the half-inning break closest to midnight, the fans will stand and sing the Alaska Flag Song, and another Panners alumnus will throw out the second “first” pitch of the night. In Fairbanks, the sun indeed sets, but it barely dips below the horizon, so it gets dusky but never dark. As Don Dennis, the team’s general manager describes it, “It’s a lot like when you were a kid, 15 minutes before your mother called you.”
The game always attracts a large crowd, at least for a metropolitan area of fewer than 100,000. The ballpark’s official seating capacity is only 3,500, so unless the weather takes a turn for the worse, standing-room-only is all but assured. Also, if the game lasts long enough, you might get to watch baseball being played while the sun rises!
With all this background information in mind, let us get into the Way-Bac machine and head for June 21, 1967, when a crowd of roughly 5,200, the largest ever for a Midnight Sun game, was on hand. Floodwaters from the nearby Chena River had seriously damaged the ballpark earlier in the year, so the Midnight Sun game was an ideal time for the fans to celebrate the survival of the structure and Goldpanners baseball.
The Panners were scheduled to take on Kumagi Gumi, a team of amateur all-stars sponsored by a Japanese construction company. As Panners GM Dennis noted, the Asian teams were “serious as death” when they played in Alaska. They were certainly lively enough on this evening, as they defeated the Goldpanners by a 10-3 score.
Yasuo Fujitsu was the starting and winning pitcher,while Lee was the starting and losing pitcher. He gave up a run without a hit in the first inning, but his downfall came in the fifth when he was touched for three runs. Kumagi Gumi then had a 4-3 lead and continued to build on it. Lee and Strom had done themselves no good by yielding 10 walks total (and if you think Boone should share in the blame for calling a bad game, don’t, because he was playing third base in those days). The team defense was atrocious: Seven errors paved the way for an equal number of unearned runs.
The Panners had a 41-11 record that summer, so this was an atypical game. Lee himself enjoyed a good season, going 7-4 with a 2.25 ERA and 83 strikeouts in 84 innings pitched. For a talented team like the Panners to stink up the place on the biggest night of the season must have stuck in Lee’s craw for a long time.
Win or lose, Lee still got to spend another six weeks or so in Alaska. While a spot on any of the teams in the league is a great gig for a college ballplayer, the Goldpanners are distinctive because they are the northernmost team in all of baseball, and Growden is the northernmost ballpark in baseball.
The adjective “northernmost” occurs frequently in Fairbanks, perhaps even more frequently than “southernmost” appears in Key West. In fact, if you’re feeling peckish before or after a Panners game, you can visit the northernmost Denny’s just down the street from the ballpark. While driving around the outskirts of town, one quickly comes to understand the appropriateness of that adjective, as paved roads do not extend much further north than Fairbanks. The city is almost literally the end of the road, unless you’re an ice road trucker.
But that’s immaterial because where we’re going, we don’t need roads!
Climbing into the Way-Bac machine again, let us hit fast forward from 1967. If you don’t know about Lee’s exploits with the Red Sox and the Expos (he didn’t spend much time in the minors, but he was with USC when the Trojans won the College World Series slightly less than a year after his appearance in The Game), look them up later. Those stats are easy to find, and we’re not concerned with them now, anyway.
Slow the Way-Bac machine down when you get to 2008, and hit the stop button when you get to June 21, 2008, a date 41 years to the day after the 1967 Game. As usual, game time is 10:30 p.m., but you might want to arrive a little earlier to soak up some of the pre-game atmosphere of the 103rd playing of The Game. Once again, a large crowd (estimated at 4,900) is on hand, second only to the throng that turned out to watch Lee’s 1967 start. Pre-game entertainment is provided by the Frigid Aires, and two jets stage a flyover just before game time.
This year, the Goldpanners are playing the Southern California Running Birds. The Panners’ starter has trod this mound before, but it is his first start of the season—and it will be his last. No, he’s not dying, but he is getting up there in years. Everyone in the ballpark knows who he, even if they weren’t all here for his last summer solstice appearance.
Yes, it’s father time’s illegitimate son, Bill Lee, age 61, starting against a team with some players young enough to be his grandsons. Not only is he older than the ballpark, he’s in better shape (to be worthy of The Game, The Park really should have a facelift). Lee is wearing uniform No. 337. His major league uniform number was 37, so I’m guessing that the extra digit refers to the fact that he is in his third season with the Panners.
(Can’t help but note that perhaps the best known No. 37 in major league history was Casey Stengel, who also had a penchant for making statements that challenged conventional logic.)
Now, when we last encountered the Spaceman in 1967, he was only 20 years old. Like astronaut Bowman (Keir Dullea) in 2001: a Space Odyssey, he has aged rapidly in his trip through the stargate. With his white hair and salt and pepper goatee, he almost looks like one of the old sourdoughs who poured into Fairbanks more than a century before. Yes, back then, even if he’d never picked up a baseball, he could have been a goldpanner!
Now, it’s not that unusual for a major league veteran to appear as a player in the Alaska Baseball League. For example, coaches Don Leppert, Dwight Bernard and Dick Selma all did so. But what Lee is doing is unprecedented. He is not here to pitch to a batter or two to boost attendance. He is in it to win it, and as a starting pitcher, he must go at least five innings to do so.
It’s the ultimate re-do, a bit reminiscent of The Best of Times, a 1986 movie with Robin Williams and Kurt Russell as a couple of middle-aged guys who actually get a chance to replay a heartbreaking loss in a high school football championship game.
In some locales this time of year, the heat alone would discourage a man Lee’s age from taking the mound in a serious hardball contest, but in Alaska the temperature is on the players’ (and the fans’) side. Ironically, that evening Lee relied on his heater!
“The funny thing is, they couldn’t hit my fastball,” Lee said. “It was weird, you know? They hit my breaking ball. I made some mistakes on my change-up, and they hit that, but any time I stayed hard, they couldn’t hit it, just foul it back, foul it back, foul it back.”
For Lee to pitch into the seventh inning against players who were roughly one-third his age was remarkable—but it was hardly effortless. “I took my shoulder places it hasn’t been in a long time,” he observed.
When he left, he had a 5-4 lead. If the Panners could hold the lead, Lee would get the win. Unlike in 1967, he was not on the hook for a loss.
Rising to the occasion, the Panners put five more runs on the board, and the outcome was all but assured. At game’s end (final score: 10-6), the Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman” (fittingly, released the year of Lee’s previous Midnight Sun appearance) wafted over the PA system while the exuberant Lee celebrated his triumph with a well-deserved cigar.
“Sometimes you gotta wait a long time for it to come back, you know?” said Lee, discreetly avoiding the fact that for most of us, “it” never will come back.
Lee, however, might have had a big genetic advantage, as his father’s side of the family was rife with ballplayers. Notably, his aunt, Annabelle Lee (and how’d you like to be stuck with that moniker when your English teacher starts expounding on Poe’s poem of the same name...albeit spelled Annabel?) pitched seven years in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League and hurled the first perfect game in league history while toiling for the Minneapolis Millerettes. Fittingly, she was in the stands to witness her nephew’s return to Fairbanks. Sadly, she passed away a couple of weeks later.
For the record, Lee’s line for the night was six innings pitched, four earned runs, seven hits, two walks, and three strikeouts. During his first tour of duty with the Panners, it would have been an unexceptional evening. But for a 61-year-old hurler, it was astounding. As I write these words, I too am 61 years old, and just thinking about Lee’s feat makes my rotator cuff start hurting—and I’m not even sure where my rotator cuff is.
Now, Lee’s victory on this midsummer night in the northernmost field of dreams may sound like a novel situation. For any other old-timer but Lee, it likely would be. Since leaving major league ball in 1982, Lee has never really mothballed his left arm. After his “retirement,” he continued to play amateur and semi-pro ball.
The year before his 2008 Alaska adventure, he was a member of Oil Can Boyd’s Traveling All-Stars, a barnstorming team of former major leaguers. Two years after his Midnight Sun appearance, he turned pro again and picked up a victory for the Brockton Rox, thus becoming the oldest pitcher to appear in (and obviously the oldest pitcher to win) a professional baseball game.
As recently as last October, he pitched eight innings (two stints of four innings) in the 100 Innings of Baseball game, an annual charity event in the Boston area. Where he’ll show up in 2012 is anyone’s guess. If he could secure a contract from some team this season, he would be the only professional pitcher in baseball history old enough to collect Social Security.
Fittingly, Lee was elected to the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame the same year he returned to Alaska. Twenty years before, he was named on a mere 0.7 percent of the 1988 National Baseball Hall of Fame ballots. If he keeps on pitching, however, he might be able to improve on that total when the Veterans’ Committee meets.
Rest assured, Lee isn’t going anywhere any time soon. He has already guaranteed us he will be here almost to mid-century. “If I were a Tibetan priest and ate everything perfect, maybe I’d live to be 105. The way I’m going now, I’ll probably only make it to 102. I’ll give away three years to beer.”
Of course, the best way to become one of baseball’s immortals is to follow a two-pronged approach: (1) keep playing ball; and (2) don’t die! Actually, Lee’s 2008 Alaskan triumph is readily available on YouTube, so in that sense he is already immortal.
If Lee takes care of himself, perhaps one magical midsummer night in the future he will return to Fairbanks for a fourth season, maybe not for six innings, but perhaps for just one batter—as a classic situational lefthander. His assessment of the Goldpanners as “the number one amateur baseball organization in history” can’t help but endear him to management and to Fairbanksans.
When discussing the feats of a man known as Spaceman during the summer solstice, it’s hard not to wax cosmic. But even if Lee never returns to Fairbanks, even if he never throws another pitch, the sun will never set on his accomplishment of June 21, 2008.
References and Resources
Alaska Goldpanners 2009 Yearbook
Diamonds in the Rough: Baseball Stories From Alaska, by Lew Freedman. Alaska Book Adventures, Epicenter Press, Kenmore, WA (2000).
The Red Sox Century: Voices and Memories From Fenway Park, by Alan Ross. Cumberland House, Nashville (2004).
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.