Bill Lee

By Bijan C. Bayne

BaseballSavvy.com contributor Bijan C. Bayne spoke to Bill Lee at the SILVERDOCS Film Festival in Silver Spring, MD, where Lee attended the first complete screening of the biographical documentary "Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey" (produced by Brett Rapkin).

He was more than a flaky, left-leaning lefthander. Bill Lee was the ace of the Red Sox staff before Luis Tiant arrived, and with "El Tiante" formed a one-two punch that made Boston a formidable team in the 1970's.

"I was two people; one on the field, and the image away from it. That's what my film in this festival gets across. It's like I'm lost in space, as two different people, like one turns off and the other on.

I was just at a plumbing fixtures convention. They had a radar gun there. I wasn't gonna let these plumbers beat me. One guy there was a 47 year old who played minor league ball in the Toronto system. He got it up to 71 on the gun. I reached 60 miles per hour. I factored in his age, and I beat him. To prepare for that, I threw rocks in his rock garden, and did leg stretch over a toilet to get two feet further on my throws."

"I won 17 games three years in a row. The Red Sox have a Hall of Fame up in the private suites, the EMC Club. Bronze plaques of Jean Yawkey with those big glasses, Pudge Fisk with that nose of his. There are plaques of Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Hurst and Bill Monboquette. I won more games in a Red Sox uniform than Eck, Hurst or Monboquette. I had fewer losses than they did. Other than Mel Parnell, I'm the winningest lefty in Red Sox history.”

“What's worse than a pitcher who's a radical and a rebel? I helped form a group, the Save Fenway Park Society, to save Fenway Park when the Yawkey Trust wanted to build a new stadium. We fought them, and I cost them $286 million."

Of his moniker, Lee says, "in college they called me 'Superpsych.’ 'Spaceman' came from a teammate. I'm the most anti-space guy you want to meet. I always felt the space program was a ruse to take the focus off greater needs, such as poverty and the need for fossil fuel. In my book, ‘The Wrong Stuff,’ I talk about how Tom Wolfe's ‘The Right Stuff’ was a parody. It wasn't about the space program, it was about the best test pilots, or as Chuck Yeager called them, ‘spam in a can.’ They didn't care who they sent up there.”

“But during Apollo 14 in 1972, the backup middle infielder John Kennedy couldn't get to his locker for all the reporters around me. I'd pitched a great game, and he had a date that night. He told the writers, ‘We got our own Space Man right here.’”

Asked about the most feared American League hitters of the early 1970's, Lee commented, "I didn't worry about Frank Robinson much, but Willie Horton, Frank Howard; they hit it right down the middle. Harmon Killebrew I never had much trouble with. He liked to get his hands out and away, so I pitched him away so he couldn't get them into position here [draws hands closer as if readying to hit], to take away his power.”

“Pitching is about angles and physics. It's throwing a hitter's timing off. I'll be watching a game on TV with my wife, and I'll say, ‘If he gets that up five miles per hour more, and an inch away, an inch down, he'll get the batter to ground out into a double play. And it never fails.”

Sounds as if Lee analyzed pitching, much as Ted Williams did hitting. "Williams says to me, 'Bill, you're so dumb, you probably don't know why a curveball curves.' I said 'Bernoulli's Principle, the same thing that gave your airplane lift, and makes rivers run faster through narrow banks. And he's Belgian. I bet you thought he was Italian.’

He comes over, puts his arm around me. He liked people that challenged him, even though he wanted to be right. Neither he nor I were well-liked by the Boston press. Sort of the same persona; California kids. I was one of the last to see him alive. He was in a wheelchair at the Breakers in Palm Beach. It was just his former teammates; Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr and Joe Cronin's daughter, Maureen, and this retired general from the Marine Reserves. Six months later he was dead."

Lee thinks Major League Baseball's amphetamine ban will make beer sales go down. "I look for who will be affected. They're already making stronger tea. When I was in Montreal, the trainer would tell us how many barrels of greenies the Phillies were taking. They were incredible."

On the Bosox breaking the supposed "Curse" in 2004, Lee said: "You know, if anyone has a right to hate an organization it's me. You can't take it out of my blood though. Boston fans are the best in baseball; emotional, inherently tough. I was blessed to play there. I'm a mathematician. Sooner or later it was going to happen. But it's strange that little Dave Roberts, a second baseman, changed the pivotal game. This for a team that tried to win without speed, defense or pitching for so long. That turned down Jackie Robinson.”

“Tom Yawkey built teams around the long ball. I'll never forget this game when a fan was yelling at the Sox skipper in a Jamaican accent, 'Put the jumper [pinch runner] in! Put the jumpah in!' But Posada made a great throw on that [Roberts] play; maybe an inch to the third base side. Then we get a base hit up the middle, we're back in it."

Lee spoke about Tony Conigliaro's beaning and horrible eye injury, and its effect on his club. “Never thought about it. Everyone has injuries, you have to overcome them. Yawkey just insisted on winning with the long ball. Tony C. wasn't really into baseball though. I always felt he was using it as a stepping stone to become Ocean's Eleven or something.”

And about 1975: “In '75 we had some young guys. Guys who could run. Rice, Lynn and Burleson; Fisk, who could move for a catcher, along with the plodders, Petrocelli and Yastrzemski, and we put it together. I was injured late in the season, but came back to pitch in the World Series."

"Yaz wasn't our leader. He was the leader of the old guard. Fisk was the leader. We had the young guys, and that forced Yaz to play well. Dick Williams hated Yaz in '68, when he wasn't giving his all.”

“Yaz was conservative, like Ted Williams. Anybody who made the most money and was close to the owners was pretty right wing. When I was head of the Players Union, of the five players that stood against us in our demands, three were Red Sox. Yaz, Smitty. Reggie Smith, said to me, 'You guys are only losing $200 a day, I'm losing $500 a day.’ I said 'You didn't just say that Reggie. Tell me you didn't say that.’ I showed him up in that meeting, and he wanted to fight me then. Later, he got traded for sucker punching me. He was a hothead, but the Black athletes hated Boston. Very few lived in the nice suburbs. I was talking with Raymond Clayborn, the old Pats defensive back, and he said he was the first local Black athlete to live up in North Andover, on the North Shore.”

"I was a radical, a union leader. When I backed Judge Garritty on school desegregation in Boston, the South Boston Irish told me they were gonna come kill me. I read a lot of Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky. I just read Neil Sheehan's ‘A Bright Shining Lie.’ There were three American reporters that listened to John Paul Vann about how we were approaching the Vietnam War the wrong way. [David] Halberstam was one, and Sheehan. It's the same thing that's happening now.’

"When people ask who the best player I ever played with was, I tell them Reggie Smith. He and Yaz were fooling around one day in the outfield having a throwing contest. Yaz was bouncing them off the left field wall. Smitty came on, and was putting them on Kenmore Square. He had a cannon. Best arm I ever saw, until I played with Ellis Valentine. But he followed Yaz. When we first got those horrible double-knit uniforms, they only made one, Yaz's no. 8. Yaz put it on. The rest of us hated it, and stuck to our flannels. So Reggie says, 'What is this?' And he puts on Yaz's flannel '8'. So I go 'Hey me and my shadow!’ He took it racially. Oh, he was something"

"Lonborg was and is a great guy; very bright. Lonnie and I are still close. I got along well with the hockey guys. I was at a fundraiser in Canada with Bobby and Dennis Hull, and the Mahovlich brothers.

Back to the '70's Sox. "Getting rid of Cepeda, Marichal and Aparicio the same year really hurt us. That was wrong."

Lee and Jim Bouton, of "Ball Four" fame, are developing a talk show for satellite radio. Lee still does post game shows for the now-Washington Nationals, as he had when the Expos were in Montreal. He told me a Seattle-based production team is working on another documentary about him, called "High and Outside."

"Space" also coaches youngsters. “I tell the girls, ‘stay up on your toes.’ Then I see their high heel shoes, and say, ‘Oh, you're already on your toes.’” He’s had fantasy camp teams, and loves to bat. "I was a very good hitter at USC 'til my eyesight went. My last injury was as a hitter, and I loved to hit. The things you love will hurt you. My last professional year was down in Venezuela with Los Tiburones. Ozzie Guillen drove our bus, and we had Ozzie Virgil, Jr. That was in '84."

Bijan C. Bayne is the author of "Sky Kings: Black Pioneers of Professional Basketball.” Bayne has contributed to books such as "Baseball in the Carolinas" and "Basketball in America," and resides in Washington, DC.

BaseballSavvy.com spoke with the Spaceman in 2000 as well. Here’s the link to earlier story.


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