Ethics Hero: Bill Lee, “The Spaceman,” An Integrity Exemplar…And I Really Need One About Now

bill-lee

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.

He wasn’t.

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 23 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…

lee-ballot

…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.

______________________

Sources: MLB 1, 2; Seven Days

 

 

14 Comments

Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Character, Childhood and children, Ethics Heroes, Health and Medicine, Philanthropy, Non-Profits and Charity, Professions

14 responses to “Ethics Hero: Bill Lee, “The Spaceman,” An Integrity Exemplar…And I Really Need One About Now

  1. charlesgreen

    Fantastic – I remember Spaceman Bill well, I was living in Boston at the time. I had no idea how well he has lived his life since then. Fabulous to hear.

  2. Rick M.

    My favorite Lee story was the time the team came home from an extended road trip that usually meant excessive amount of alcohol, a bit of dope and a scandalous amount of sex. The players are on the bus to be greeted by wives and girlfriends and Lee says “Listen up….try to look and act horny.”

    I think the home run Tony Perez hit in the ’75 Series still has not landed.

    Saw him a few years ago paying in the CanAm League.

    • I was at the game, and when he threw the “Leephus” pitch to Perez, it became the only pitch I have ever seen where I had time to say, “OH NO!” while it was still coming. Perez started to swing (he had missed one of the high lobs earlier in the game), then stopped, and pulled back his bat to wait. (Lee still defends throwing it.)

  3. Thank you, Spaceman. Thank you, Jack, for reminding us that Spaceman exists.

  4. pennagain

    You get two movies (well, not for the price of one, though they should have put the two together) — same director, ten years apart.

    The new one Spaceman with Josh Duhamel (2016) is preceded by the documentary Spaceman, A Baseball Odyssey (2006) and both are available on Amazon — the latter can be streamed.

  5. luckyesteeyoreman

    Just when I thought I couldn’t love baseball – or Bill Lee – more…this.

  6. Other Bill

    “a hippie streak not previously [nor since] seen in the sport”

    • dragin_dragon

      Got it, OB. Nowadays it’s all about the m0ney, which the Spaceman just never cared about.

      • Other Bill

        dd, I suspect he is smart enough to have held onto the money he made playing and manage it well enough to be able to indulge his passion. Good for him. Would that all pro athletes were able to do the same.

        I just can’t think of any pro baseball player since Spacemen Lee who’s come anywhere close to being as out there as he was when he was playing. Fergie Jenkins? A coke head but not really whacky.

        Regards.

        Jack, has there been anybody since even close to Lee. You’d know.

        • Rick M.

          Lee collects 185 K a year in pension.

          Another post Lee Red Sox name of note: Oil Can Boyd.

        • Not really, for a sustained period. Mark Fidrych, but he was in a class by himself. I think Bill Lee is sui generis, and in a good way.

          • Other Bill

            Yes, baseball players are very conservative. Seems to be part of the culture. Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. Had forgotten about him. Not a hippie, just really, really out there, but not in a harmful way. Last I saw, and this was years ago, he was on his farm, farming, somewhere in MA. I think Lee was the only hippie baseball player.

            • Mark died some time ago when the tractor he bought with his Rookie of the Year prize fell on him. I saw the last game he ever pitched in, in Spring Training, with the Red Sox before he was cut.

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