This is Chapter Two in a developing series titled “Who Remembers…..” that aims to highlight the careers of colorful and intriguing ball players, who while not having Hall of Fame stats nevertheless made their mark on the game.
Bill Lee pitched for fourteen seasons, mostly with the Boston Red Sox in a career that spanned the entire 1970’s decade. He finished 30 games over.500 winning a rather modest total of 119 games while also putting together a string of three consecutive seventeen win seasons, one of which earned him a selection to the AL All Star Team. All together, a good solid career anyone would be proud to talk about with a grandchild on their lap……
But, there is more to the Bill Lee story than the normal compilation of statistics. Different from the rest, he was able to transcend the game by creating a “Brand” that (as we’ll see) is still alive four decades later…….
Whether by choice or accident we’ll never know but, perhaps because his formative years occurred during the tumultuous Sixties, when “non-conformist” paradoxically meant that you were part of the in crowd, Bill Lee took on a persona of being “out there”. Away from the crowd, unorthodox, dreamy, spiritual……..Mr. Spaceman. He once said, “You should enter a ballpark the same way you enter a church “………or “Show me a team with 25 assholes on it and I’ll show you a pennant winner – the New York Yankees “. Maybe the term politically correct hadn’t been coined back then…….but one thing was sure……..Bill Lee always held your attention back then……and he could always be counted on for a good quote in the morning paper.
Adding to his oddball repertoire, Lee also accented his brand by utilizing a oddball pitch known as the “Eephus”, a pitch that comes in on a high arc towards the batter with a tantalizingly slow speed and never seems to quite get to the plate (especially effective with big power hitters) Lee called it his “Spaceman” or “Leephus”. But, as Lee found out in the 1975 World Series, you can’t get too cute with the pitch. In game 7 of that series, Lee twice retired Cincinnati slugger Tony Perez with his space ball, but went to the well one too many times and in his third at bat Perez hit one out of the park for a 2-run home run to bring the Reds to within a run. That was the beginning of Cincinnati’s comeback and the Reds went on to win the game and the World Series.
By all means, he was a very intelligent young man…….perhaps as some would say “too smart for his own good”. But behind the facade, he knew his craft. This exchange with a reporter summarizes the point. Reporter: “Bill, what would you say is your best pitch?” Bill Lee: “Strike one.” Now doesn’t that about sum it up a basic component of successful pitching in just two words…….nearly all pitching coaches would have embraced him as a role model for the Art Of Pitching …….though maybe it was more about the developing brand.
Being “out there” for Bill Lee became a second career. His jerseys are still prominent sellers on the internet. He’s still connected to the Red Sox PR department available for speaking engagements that come quite regularly. Publicity stunt or not, he still managed to pitch a complete game win in the North American Independent League (California) at the tender age of 65. Fittingly, the game was completed in 2:21 (strike one!). His legacy lives on……
NOTE: If you missed Chapter One (Rocky Colavito), check it out here.