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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
Like…
And sometimes I say things I shouldn’t
Like…

24 Responses

  1. DrEasy says:
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    @Paulie Allnuts As always, a fantastic read! Thanks!

  2. Paulie Allnuts

    Paulie Allnuts says:
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    @DrEasy:

    Thanks, good Doctor

  3. PeteN says:
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    Loved the article. Should put a bunch of these articles together to make a book!

  4. Joel says:
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    Great piece. Stuff I’d heard before, but great to read it again!

  5. IowaCubs

    IowaCubs says:
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    I’d never heard that peanut butter sandwich story. Awesome!

  6. geolutes says:
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    Nice work Paulie. Always somegood baseball lore coming from that punkin that passes for your head.
    keep it up!

  7. AL KOHOLIC says:
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    luckily im in a few leagues with Paulie and he rewards us with similar post frequently.As usuall,great job Paulie

  8. Simply Fred

    simply fred says:
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    Thank you, Paulie! A wave of nostalgic memories. I had gone for burgers only to return and find my roomies being dragged off by those ‘nazi’ police at our sit in. Special brownies, only thing better than mom made. Am growing my hair out to return to yester-year! Vote Rhinocerous!

  9. Princess Sparrowhawk says:
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    Excellent article! Grey’s smart to let you publish these entertaining stories.

  10. Paulie Allnuts

    Paulie Allnuts says:
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    @IowaCubs: @PeteN:

    Book is over 80% complete. Hope to have the writing finished by the end of the year. Then its off to find an editor.

    @Joel:

    Thanks, Mr Cub. One of the unfortunate things about baseball today is that there is an absence of flakes. Bill James should do one of his computer graphics to compile the decrease of flakes over the decades. There really isn’t anyone interesting anymore. Some would have said Manny, but his stuff is really not flakiness but self-centerdness.

    Thanks, Joel

  11. Paulie Allnuts

    Paulie Allnuts says:
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    @geolutes:

    Thanks, from the great punkin’ head.

    @AL KOHOLIC:

    Kelly, you were the very first Razzballer to encourage me. I will always be thankful for that.

    @simply fred:

    And you, Fred, were right behind Kelly. My work wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for you guys. Yeah, remember those days of sit-ins, protesting Kent State on campus and liberating the Path tubes. Also remember the time that a good friend of mine had cooked us up some brownies. We were beginning to munch out when his Italian mother came home. She was so pleased to see that Tom had made up some brownies that she attacked them with a vengeance. What were we to do at that point? It was pretty interesting to observe her watching Johnny Carson.

    @Princess Sparrowhawk:

    Yes, Grey is a genious, outside of nudging me to draft Liriano last year to lead my staff. Never really recovered from that draft pick. Yet somehow I think that the lovely Princess may be a bit biased:)

  12. AL KOHOLIC says:
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    that funny paulie

  13. He was before my time but enjoyed him in the Ken Burns documentary. Great job Paulie!

  14. Jman says:
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    Good article. So whose today’s Bill Lee? Nyjer Morgan? Ross Ohlendorf?

  15. steve b says:
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    paulie , Jim walewander could be in that book.Google the name.Be sure to read the detroitathletic.com article.He played for the Tigers and Sparky Anderson for a couple years.He got his first homer and they got him the ball.A reporter asked him after the game where would he put the ball.”oh in my cars glove box next the ball from my first hit”He brought the Dead Milkmen to the dug out to meet Sparky .I woulda paid to see that.He used tin foil for curtains.Theres more.He was great

  16. Paulie Allnuts

    Paulie Allnuts says:
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    @john bratsakis:

    Thanks, John

    @Jman:

    Thanks. Unfortuantely, there is nobody remotely familiar with Bill Lee today. Or any of the lovable flakes of the past. Today, those that are considered “colorful” ballplayers are typically self-centered idiots with enlarged egos. The “Let Manny be Manny” syndrome. At least that is my opinion.

    @steve b:

    Thanks, Steve. Always looking for other ballplayers who follow the beat of a different drummer.

  17. Paulie Allnuts

    Paulie Allnuts says:
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    @steve b:

    I did a cursory google of wawelander. Sounds like a potential candidate for the book. Thans, Steve, never heard of the guy.

    @Jman:

    Ross Ohlendorf is probably the smartest ballplayer in baseball. He seems to be a more talented version of Jay Hook. Look him up – played with the Mets in their initial season. Was a genius; could explain the aerodynamics of the curve ball, but had a great deal of difficulty throwing it successfully.

  18. the bat rastard says:
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    Great job Pablo….He was a classic.

  19. Regurgitating Gordon Wood(got tired of ltf) says:
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    “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.”

    I fear what the gerbil was designated to do! Good stuff. Baseball is still like this, it is just limited because the public isn’t allowed to be in on the joke. Thanks for this, a good read this afternoon.

  20. Paulie Allnuts

    Paulie Allnuts says:
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    @the bat rastard:

    Thanks, Bat!

    @Regurgitating Gordon Wood(got tired of ltf):

    Don’t know if they referred to Zim as “Tight-butt”. At any rate, Zimmer flourished in the role of Asst. Manager for Joe Torre.
    You could be correct; maybe there is lots of zany stuff that is going on But a number of oldtimers were certifiable, and wouldn’t be allowed in the ballpark, never mind taking the field. Could anyone imagine Rube Waddell as a major leaguer in the 21st century?

  21. Zuppie says:
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    Another great story from the most entertaining writer I know! Tanks Paulie AllNuts:)

  22. Paulie Allnuts

    Paulie Allnuts says:
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    @Zuppie:

    Thanks! This one goes back to the time I spent over your and Rob’s house almost two years ago. Tough time, but fruitful in a way.

  23. brett says:
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    Thanks again Paulie! This might be my favorite yet.

  24. Paulie Allnuts

    Paulie Allnuts says:
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    @brett:

    Thanks, Brett. One of my favs as well, since I have remembrances of Lee pitching. Most of the other articles were before my time.

Comments are closed.