Most players answer questions yes or no. I end up with a two-page dissertation on the Coriolis effect on how the ball spins. I’m not putting people on. I’m telling the truth. But people consider me flaky. The word “sinister” comes from the Latin word for left-handed, you know. — Bill Lee, 1978
Bill Lee was one of the more eccentric, and certainly the most refreshingly original character in baseball in the last several generations. The Spaceman was the quintessential figure of the ‘70’s counterculture, and was perhaps better known for his at times outlandish behavior then his pitching, which was actually very good. Lee had a career record of 119-92 in a 14 year career spanning 1969-1982, in which the initial five years of his career were spent toiling as a reliever. He had a lifetime ERA of 3.92, and won 17 games three straight seasons for the Boston Red Sox, and 16 games for the Montreal Expos in 1979. He even once discussed his specialty, the Leephus Pitch, an offshoot of the Eephus Pitch, The Eephus pitch, first thrown in 1942 by pitcher Rip Sewell, was named by Sewell’s teammate, outfielder Maurice Van Robays. When asked what it meant, Van Robays replied, “‘Eephus ain’t nothing, and that’s a nothing pitch.” (The Hebrew word “efes” means “nothing.”) Lee discussed the Leephus pitch, which follows a high, arcing trajectory and is very slow. But all of that in some ways seemed but a side show to Lee’s antics, as well as his views on politics and the cosmos.
The Ace from Space was quoted by Sports Illustrated saying: “You have two hemispheres in your brain – a left and a right side. The left side controls the right side of your body and right controls the left half. It’s a fact. Therefore, left-handers are the only people in their right minds.” In 1979, he went on a banana diet. “Did you ever see a monkey with a cramp?” He began to acquire a cult following; fans would assemble outside Fenway Park, waiting for Lee to appear on game day, so that they might exchange their ideas on philosophical issues. On one occasion, he told them: “The secret to life was “at Fernwood Court in Topanga Canyon.” When one of his followers questioned him as to its significance, Lee responded: “That’s where the Dragon Lives.” He also discussed advanced Epistemological and Cosmic Studies in relation to baseball: “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.” On one occasion he request that his uniform number be changed to 337, as that spelled Lee upside down. He was fined $8,250 for admitting he sprinkled marijuana on his pancakes. He then exacerbated the issue when he endorsed legalizing hashish, stating that smoking marijuana while jogging to Fenway Park reduced the effect of bus fumes on his lungs. He once wore a gas mask at batting practice to protest air pollution.. When the Red Sox switched to a two-tone baseball cap, Lee’s reaction was to wear a propeller on top. Later on, he decided to run for the Presidency, as a candidate for the Rhinoceros Party. His platform: no guns, no butter.
Perhaps worse, he began denigrating his manager, Don Zimmer, in public, calling him “The Designated gerbil.” Zimmer was old-school, and it was perhaps inevitable that he would clash with the Spaceman. In 1978, Lee and Zimmer had an unfortunate public feud concerning Zim’s handling of the pitching staff. A number of the more liberal-minded Bosox aligned themselves with Lee, forming a group called “The Buffalo Heads”, protesting what they saw as Zimmer’s tyrannical nature. Zimmer’s response was to trade some of the group, including Ferguson Jenkins and Bernie Carbo, and relegate Lee to the bullpen. The wisdom of these moves was debatable, as Lee was a noted Yankee killer; Zimmer’s stubborn refusal to start Lee in two late season series was possibly one more reason why the Red Sox let a 14 game lead slip, ultimately losing the division to the Yankees in a one game pennant as a result of the eternal shot by Bucky F’ing Dent. Being consigned to the baseball equivalent of Siberia was not an easy pill for Lee to swallow; despite everything, he was an intense competitor, who had a strong dislike of the Yankees, especially ex-manager Billy Martin, whom he once referred to, along with his players, as “That Neo- Nazi and his Brown Shirts.” Soon afterwards, Lee reported receiving a dead mackerel, sent by messenger; attached to it was a note, allegedly from Martin, which stated “Put this in your purse, you #(&@@&*”
The next year, Lee was traded to the Montreal Expos. His comment when informed of the trade: “Who wants to be with a team that will go down in history alongside the ‘64 Phillies and the ‘67 Arabs?” Again, Lee had some success with the Expos, winning 16 games, but he was later released after he refused to play after Montreal released his good friend and teammate Rodney Scott. He engaged in a sit-in outside of team President John McHale’s office, who found him sitting on the floor munching on a peanut butter sandwich.
Concerning the traditions of baseball, Lee was as Conservative as his politics were Liberal. “I would change policy, bring back natural grass and nickel beer. Baseball is the belly-button of our society. Straighten out baseball, and you straighten out the rest of the world.” And then again: “No mascots,” Lee added. “No mascot, no designated hitter, no music between innings. Hot dogs, peanuts and go get ‘em.”He despised the Designated Hitter Rule, especially concerning the manner in which it minimized late inning strategic decisions. He once commented that since the implementation of the DH rule, the manager’s only role was to make out the lineup card, and make sure all of the players got to the airport on time. He wanted baseball to return to the practice of Sunday doubleheaders, and wished to ban Astroturf. Beyond anything else, he believed in the purity of the game; in fact, he compared it to a spiritual experience: “You should enter a ballpark the way you enter a church.” He thought there should be “holy water inside the turnstiles and everyone will have to genuflect before going into the stadium.”
Bill Lee was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame on November 7, 2008. During the ceremony, Lee reminisced about a famous brawl between the Yankees and Red Sox in 1976, which was initiated after Yankee Lou Piniella ran over Bosox catcher Carlton Fisk in a play at the plate. . During the fight, Lee suffered a severe injury, separating his left shoulder. Lee initially blamed the injury on Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles, (although he subsequently believed that Billy Martin had encouraged the Yankees to be more confrontational during the fight.) Lee then revealed that he carries Nettles’ baseball card in his wallet, explaining, “I keep this in here so that Nettles’ face is always up against the back of my ass no matter where I go.” In homage to Lee’s pursuit of quirky individualism, legendary rock artist Warren Zevon wrote a song entitled “The Ballad of Bill Lee.”
The Ballad of Bill Lee
By Warren Zevon
You’re supposed to sit on your ass and nod at stupid things
Man, that’s hard to do
And if you don’t, they’ll screw you
And if you do, they’ll screw you, too
When I’m standing in the middle of the diamond all alone
I always play to win
When it comes to skin and bone
And sometimes I say things I shouldn’t
And sometimes I say things I shouldn’t