Saturday, September 25, 2004

They Called Him Spaceman by Tim Hinely

Over the years major league baseball has seen its share of characters, many who resided on the mound: Luis Tiant with his unusual wind-up and huge cigars he would chomp on after the game, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych talking to baseballs, and of course the late Tug McGraw with his goofy faces and requisite glove slapping against his thigh. But perhaps no one had given baseball fans and reporters alike more chin-scratching or odd looks than Bill “Spaceman” Lee.

Lee, a lefty, was born on December 28, 1946 in Burbank, California and he stayed nearby to attend the University of Southern California (USC—odd since it’s a very conservative school and Lee is anything but conservative). Lee came from a sports playing family as his grandfather played for the Los Angeles team in the early 1900s, his brother was a two-sport player and his aunt, Annabelle, pitched the first perfect game in the history of the Women’s Semi-pro Hardball league.

At USC Lee made a name for himself by shagging flies in the outfield in his jock strap and, more importantly, leaving with a 38-8 record (at the time a USC record for most wins). After bouncing around the minors for a few years he made his major league debut on June 25, 1969.
Lee got his nickname early in his career from Red Sox teammate John Kennedy following a radio interview in which Lee spoke more of the moon and planets than he did of his baseball skills. And also, keep in mind that he played or most of his career with the Boston Red Sox, one of the most conservative and straight-laced teams in all of baseball. To the horror of some Boston baseball fans, he would occasionally trot out onto the field in such disguises as a gas mask, a Daniel Boone cap or a propeller beanie. Yup, he was an odd one all right but Lee didn’t think much of his behavior was odd. He agreed that while it might be a bit strange for baseball that he was “basically normal in real life.” He disagreed with the “Spaceman” tag and instead wanted to be called “Earthman” and wasn’t all that hot on posing for the cover of Sports Illustrated (or his biography) in an astronaut’s outfit.

And, of course, Lee became the oddball of the Boston media by pontificating on such topics as the rape of our planet Earth, zero population growth and the relationship between mysticism and baseball. He also took ginseng, wondered aloud about the Bermuda Triangle and read the much-more-liberal-back-then, Rolling Stone. To the more radical college students of Boston, Lee was a bit of a folk hero but to the many old-time Bostonians he was just plain weird.

Lee did have talent too—he won 17 games three seasons in a row (1973-1975). In the now-legendary ’75 World Series between the Sox and the Cincinnati Reds, Lee lost game 3 in the 9th inning but was then asked him to pitch in game 6. After a few days of rain delay management reconsidered their decision and instead went with Luis Tiant, which lead to Lee starting game 7. Lee carried a lead into the 7th when Reds slugger Tony Perez, who he had previously struck out on Lee’s infamous “eephus” pitch, came to the plate. Lee tried to sneak across another “eephus,” but Perez sent it over the Green Monster. The Sox lost the series and Lee immediately headed for China.

He was always at odds with Red Sox management and especially with Sox manager Don Zimmer. Lee once referred to Zimmer as “the designated Gerbil” and also once called him “a front-running son of a bitch.” Lee had spent nearly 10 years with the Sox when he was shipped off to the Montreal Expos in 1979. For his inauguration into Canadian life he grew a long beard. But one of Lee’s most memorable moments came when the Expos were playing the Red Sox in Boston during spring training. When a reporter finally ask him about drug use Lee replied, “Reefer madness, hemp, doobies?? Oh yeah, I’ve been using that stuff since 1968. I’ve never had any problems with it.” The following day the sports headlines read LEE SMOKES POT. When questioned by a member of the commissioner’s office Lee replied, “I don’t smoke pot, I use it. I have these organic buckwheat pancakes and I sprinkle about a half ounce of marijuana on them and eat ’em.” For this he was fined $250 and donated $251 to an Eskimo charity.

Lee had a few injuries during his career, one of which came during the now-infamous Carlton Fisk/Lou Pinella brawl in 1976 when Lee jumped in and got pounded by both Mickey Rivers and Graig Nettles. Then, while playing for Montreal in 1979 (and having a solid 16-10 season), he got hit by a car while jogging. After a few years of complaining about the injury and complaining even more about being scapegoated and the trading of his pal Rodney Scott, Lee was released by the Expos. In doing so Expos owner John McHale told Lee he would never play in the major leagues again and Lee never did. Lee believes he was blackballed by McHale and said that McHale “put his name in a computer with Shoeless Joe, Al Capone and Jack the Ripper.”

In the years after baseball, Lee ran for President as a member of the Rhinoceros Party. It was once proposed that Hunter S. Thompson be his running mate. He instead chose Dick “The Monster” Radatz and explained the virtues of mandatory drug testing: “I’ve tested them all,” Lee said, “But I don’t think taking them should be mandatory.” Joking aside, Lee felt taking psychedelic drugs was a major turning point for him. He felt that after taking them a person would “never vote Republican again and with the advent of knowledge you reach a whole other level of consciousness and can never go back again.”

Lee definitely danced to his own drummer and was one of the most outrageous players to ever play the game. His behavior, more than likely scared the very conservative leaders of the major leagues and it’s possible he was indeed blackballed. Still, the game needs people like Lee—people who shake up the status quo. But in this day and age when the most radical thing is Johnny Damon growing his long, hideous hair, I’m afraid the days of the Lees, the Tiants and the Tuggers are long gone. Lee was a good guy with a true hope for the planet and the human race and I think he summed it up best when he said that on his gravestone he never wanted it to be said “that I was responsible for the death of the late, great planet Earth.”

(Author’s Note: References for this article include Oddballs by Bruce Shlain, Baseball Babylon by Dan Gutman, Baseball’s Greatest Insults by Kevin Nelson and various websites.)

Tim Hinely loves the Pittsburgh Pirates and lives in Portland, Oregon. He has been publishing his own zine, Dagger, for several years now. Send him $3.50 to see a copy to: PO Box 820102 Portland, OR 97282-1102 or write at:

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