He is one of baseball’s greatest all time characters who also just happens to be one of the best left-handed pitchers in Boston Red Sox history.
Bill “Spaceman” Lee, now 68, and a resident of Vermont, is also one of the nicest, smartest, and funniest persons you will ever come across. A wonderful story teller, he has authored several popular baseball books including The Wrong Stuff (Viking Press 1984) and Have Glove, Will Travel: Adventures of a Baseball Vagabond. (Crown Publishers 2005)
Inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame as the team’s record-holder for most games pitched by a left-hander (321) and the third-highest win total (94) by a Red Sox southpaw, Spaceman Lee was also known for his pot smoking counterculture behavior and colorful quotes. (ie. On Fenway Park’s Green Monster: “I felt like I was scraping my knuckles against it every time I went into my motion, and I was always afraid that it would fall down and kill Rico Petrocelli at short.” (To this day Bill believes he was blackballed by baseball and I can’t disagree.)
The man who called his Boston manager Don Zimmer “The Gerbil” and once said “you should enter a ballpark like you enter a church,” has been the subject of a documentary, Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey, a song by the late rocker Warren Zevon, (“Bill Lee”) and is now the subject of an indie biopic “The Wrong Stuff” currently being filmed that stars actor Josh Duhamel.
It has been my pleasure, (and I mean my pleasure) to interview Bill Lee on a couple of occasions. Nearly a year ago I spoke with him about his memories of playing at Tiger Stadium. Here is what he said:
“The first win of my career was at Tiger Stadium in September of 1969 when I came in for relief. It was great. I liked the ballpark because it was in a neighborhood where all the locals were parking cars and the Lindell AC bar was just down the road. It was an old, old baseball venue and I just loved it. It was a jewel and it is too bad they closed it down. They could have fixed it up like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and it would be a jewel today. I felt bad when they tore it down. It was just the best.”
I did not like pitching at Tiger Stadium I didn’t do well there. I had a rough time with them and they had good ball clubs. Tiger fans were very knowledgeable and very fair and then you had a lot of Canadians come over who were very polite.
Fenway and Tiger Stadium were just the opposite for a pitcher. Tiger Stadium was big to left field. The funny thing is though that when the wind blew out it was like a suction device because the ball just seemed to fly out of there. It was weird it was totally encased in there. The ball carried and carried. Reggie Jackson’s homer in the ’71 All Star game was the longest one I have ever seen.
The bullpen at Tiger Stadium was a little pill box and the smallest in the league. You’d tell a rookie to get up in the late innings and he’d stand up and bang his head. Anyone who was 6’2” was going to bang their head.
From ’69 to ’72 I would sit out in the bullpen and just read. I would stick my books under my warm up jacket, sit down in the corner and wait for the phone to ring. I would watch a little of the game, look up, and if nothing happened I would just read. I was reading a lot of Vonnegut back then and text books. I remember Alfred Toffler’s Future Shock. I read a lot of economics and a lot of history.”
“In 1972 we lost the division to the Tigers at Tiger Stadium in the second to the last game of the season. I’ll never forget Luis Aparacio is waved around third slips and falls and we lose by half a game. I was so upset how we lost and everybody was crying in the locker room. The manager really didn’t care for me and he didn’t use me enough and I was pitching well. I was walking to our bus when some Detroit fans asked me to come party with them. And I did! I ended up in Birmingham on some pool table, shit faced at four in the morning. I don’t know how I got back to the hotel but I was lit like a Christmas tree.”
I’m sorry, but Bill Lee is a national treasure.
A few years ago I acquired one of his game used bats from his days with the Montreal Expos. Knowing that he was making his own baseball bats from wood harvested near his home, I offered to swap the Louisville Slugger R43 for one of his customized bats on the condition that he write some type of note on it.
The man did not let me down.
With a blue Sharpie, this is what he wrote:
“Old K 55. ‘Al’. Albert William Kaline, could have been ‘Bill’.
‘You don’t have pigeon shit on your shoulders yet, swing the fucking bat.’
Bill Lee, Earth 2011.”
Now I wouldn’t trade that piece of wood for anything.