If you weren’t a baseball fan in Boston during the Sixties and Seventies you may never have heard of Bill Lee, but if you were, he was an unforgettable and unique source of pleasure. Lee joined the Red Sox in 1969 as a junk-balling left-hander with a hippie streak not previously seen in the sport. He was prone to say things like, “I think about the cosmic snowball theory. A few million years from now the sun will burn out and lose its gravitational pull. 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.” The college students around Boston loved him, the old school baseball management types not so much. But he was good, and in major league baseball, good will always trump weird.
Lee was an excellent a reliever for four years before becoming a Sox starter in 1973, then won 17 games that season and the next two as well. The success was secondary for his often-stoned fans than his non-conformist attitude and determination to be himself at all costs. He was well-read, well-educated, opinionated and funny, and at various points in his Red Sox career, wore a gas mask, a coonskin cap and a propeller-topped beanie onto the field. Once, when the umpires refused to halt play in a downpour, Lee came out of the dugout wearing rain gear and carried an umbrella to the mound. This and other exploits caused him to be nicknamed “The Spaceman.”
Twice, once with the Red Sox and later with the Montreal Expos, Lee went on strike, refusing to play to protest the elimination of one of his friends from his team’s roster. The last time he did it, it ended his career.
Lee made up his own rules and principles, so he’s a different kind of Ethics Hero. Above all else, however, the Spaceman has integrity down to a life-style. When he was at his zenith with the Red Sox, he often said that baseball was a still just a game to him, that it was what he loved to do, and that he didn’t care about the money. He would play baseball for whatever was available, he said, or just for the love of it. My father, who didn’t get Bill Lee, thought he was grandstanding.
After the Expos released The Spaceman in May of 1982, he played for a series of semi-professional teams, including the single-season Senior League in Florida, along with other retired major leaguers. Bill Lee played in Venezuela, and starting in 1984 he played first base and pitched for the Moncton Mets, for $500 per week. In 1987, after Bill announced his candidacy for President of the United States on the Rhinoceros Party ticket (among the planks in its platform was to repeal the laws of gravity), he began traveling the world, appearing as a celebrity pitcher in exhibition games, like when, in 2008, Bill pitched for the Alaska Goldpanners during the annual “Midnight Sun” ball game played during the long, long night of the Summer Solstice.
In September of 2010, Lee pitched 5 2⁄3 innings for the Brockton Rox (a team that was then a member of the Canadian-American Association of Professional Baseball), getting the win and becoming the oldest pitcher to appear in or to win a professional baseball game. Lee claims to be the oldest professional baseball player of all time, and is probably correct.
The next year, Lee participated in the 100 Innings of Baseball Game hosted by the Boston Amateur Baseball Network to raise money for Lou Gehrig’s Disease. On August 23, 2012, he pitched a nine-inning complete game for the San Rafael Pacifics in San Rafael, California. Using a homemade bat, he drove in the first run of the game. Last season, Lee pitched for the Burlington Cardinals in the Vermont Senior Baseball League, an amateur club he says is the “best team I’ve ever played on.”
Lee made more than 180 charitable fundraising and goodwill appearances in the 2016 alone. He made the sports pages again this fall when he participated in the Travis Roy Foundation’s wiffleball tournament to raise money for spinal cord injury research. The organization has a complex in Vermont consisting of scaled down replicas of Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and the “Field of Dreams” field, with thirty-two teams with players of all ages competing.
As usual, Lee was the only player in the tournament with major league credentials, and he pitched to batters as young as six. He’s been a feature of the tournament since it began in 2001, when Lee met Travis Roy, a freshman hockey player at Boston University who fractured his vertebrae in his very first collegiate game. Roy, rendered a paraplegic, wrote a book that inspired many to donate funds for medical research in his name. The Travis Roy Foundation has raised more than $4 million for spinal cord injury research and equipment so far.
Lee is obviously still having fun. “You’re raising money and you’re playing the greatest game ever made,” Lee told reporters during the tournament. “Whether its baseball or wiffleball or softball, it’s the most amazing game.”
The Spaceman is still weird, thank goodness. In the election just completed, he ran for governor of Vermont…
…and lost (he did not demand a recount), but livened up the campaign with classic Bill Lee quotes like this one, to the Burlington Free Press:
“Everybody knows I don’t believe in strikeouts. They’re fascist. I believe in ground balls, they’re more democratic. Everybody gets to play.”
You know, one of the most depressing experiences I have had too often in life is to reconnect with a friend or classmate from college or law school who I remembered as a passionate, energetic, idealistic activist who was going to make the world a better place, only to find a conventional, desk bound, bitter money-hunting cynic working for a multi-national corporation, a soulless bureaucracy or a cut-throat industry, counting the days to retirement. Bill Lee is my antidote to those disillusioning experiences, a man who has remained true to his values and principles, often at great personal sacrifice, and still appears to be the same human being, exactly, today that he was 40 years ago. Best of all, he wasn’t spinning or posturing when he said he loved baseball, and would play the game forever.
That’s integrity. That’s the Spaceman.
He gives me hope.
Oh: a movie came out this year about Bill. I haven’t seen it, but I will. Here’s the trailer.