“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”


 
1969-1978
#22   BILL LEE

Bill Lee was one of those rare ballplayers whose off-field persona overshadowed his significant on-field performance. In baseball parlance, Lee is known as a "flake," a term that includes anyone who doesn't give pat answers to pat questions or dares to admit to reading a book without pictures. He was an original in a sport that often frowns on any show of originality. In fairness, Lee would have been an eccentric in almost any field he chose to pursue, but in baseball, he was considered positively certifiable. His often-outrageous statements and bizarre actions marked him as an oddity and ensured him a lasting reputation in the buttoned-down baseball world. They also earned him the nickname "Spaceman," a title he never fully embraced, arguing that his first priority was always Mother Earth. Nevertheless, Lee's record speaks for itself and places him in the company of some of the best pitchers in Red Sox history.  Boston being a city where blue collar and scholar co-exist, a city of stark contrasts, it is not surprising that he would be embraced by some and derided by others. When he called the city racist for the opposition to forced busing of black students to white schools, he alienated a conservative element in the city. But he won hardcore baseball fans over with his solid work ethic while on the mound.
 
William Francis Lee III was born in Burbank, California, on December 28, 1946, the son of William Francis Lee Jr. and Paula Theresa (Hunt) Lee. His baseball lineage is impeccable. His father had played sandlot ball and later fast-pitch softball. His grandfather, William F. Lee Sr., was a highly touted infielder in the 1900s in Los Angeles. His aunt, Annabelle Lee, was a star in the Women's Semi-Pro Hardball League in Chicago. She too was a southpaw, and played with the Minneapolis Millerettes, the Grand Rapids Chicks, and the Fort Wayne Daisies, in the All-American Girl's Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). In 1944, Lee pitched a perfect game for the Daisies against the Kenosha Comets.

Bill Lee's own baseball apprenticeship took place at the University of Southern California where he came under the tutelage of highly respected coach Rod Dedeaux. As a member of the USC Trojans, he helped them capture the 1968 College World Series. Lee graduated from USC with a BA in geography, a degree both appropriate and useful in that he has become a roving ambassador for baseball throughout the world. Immediately after graduation, Lee was selected by the Red Sox in the 22nd round of the free-agent draft (June 7, 1968). He was assigned to Waterloo (1-1, 1.33 ERA) of the Midwest league and then to Winston-Salem (3-3, 1.72 ERA) of the Carolina league.  Lee began the 1969 season with Pittsfield, and started 10 games, racking up a 6-2 mark, with a 2.06 ERA. By late June, he was brought up to the big league club.

Lee's debut came in a relief appearance on June 25, 1969, in the second game of a Fenway doubleheader against Cleveland. The Indians led 6-3 after three full innings. Lee pitched the fourth through the seventh innings, giving up just one run on four hits before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh. After 19 relief stints, Lee earned a start late in the season, on September 30. The Senators beat him up and he suffered his third loss of the year, finishing the campaign 1-3, with a 4.50 ERA. The one win had come on September 20, when Lee threw 6 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.

Early on, Lee started feeding zingers to the press. When he first came to Boston in 1969 and was given a tour of Fenway Park, he stared wide-eyed at the Green Monster and inquired, "Do they leave it there during the games?" Sports journalists throughout New England may have given silent thanks. The team could use a little color, and before too long Lee became the darling of the dailies. Over the years, reporters came to know that regardless of the on-field prospects of the Sox, this refreshing newcomer could provide them with lots of colorful copy. Lee rarely disappointed. He always seemed good for an original quote, not just a canned cliché. 

In 1970, Bill opened the season with the big league ball club and started five games, appeared in six others, and through the end of May ran up a record of 2-2, with a 4.62 ERA. His best game was a 2-1 win over Oakland on April 28 at Fenway. In 1971, all but three of his 47 appearances came in a relief role. He gave up 102 hits in 102 innings, posting an excellent 2.74 ERA with a 9-2 won-loss record. In 1972, Lee did not start a game, again appearing 47 times and helping keep the Sox in the hunt right up to the final day when the team fell just a half-game short of capturing the pennant. Lee's record was 7-4, with a 3.20 ERA. He hit his only American League home run on the night of September 11 off Ray Lamb in Cleveland Stadium.

1973 was Bill Lee's breakout year. After four quality long-relief stints in April (totaling 18 2/3 innings), and after several Red Sox starters struggled, Lee got his first start on May 1, and never left the rotation. He started 33 ballgames, and won 17 while losing 11. Only Luis Tiant won more but Lee lead the team's starters in ERA with a stellar 2.75. Lee was honored by being named to the American League All-Star squad, but did not appear in the game itself.  The year was notable in another way, too. In 1973, Carlton Fisk became the team's player representative, with Lee as the alternate. This was remarkable for such young players, but both men arrived on the scene immediately willing to speak out for themselves and their teammates. This marked the start of a strong relationship between Fisk and Lee. The young take-charge catcher would often come out to the mound and get in Lee's face to get him to focus, or throw the right pitch. It was a very successful partnership for several years.

Lee won 17 games again in 1974 (17-11, with a 3.51 ERA), still the #2 man on the mound, behind 22-game winner Tiant. Both pitchers threw one-run games -- but lost - in a frustrating Labor Day doubleheader at Memorial Stadium, Baltimore. Orioles pitchers Ross Grimsley and Mike Cuellar both tossed 1-0 shutouts. The Sox finished the season seven games out of first place, behind the pennant-winning Orioles.

Then came 1975. For the third year in a row, Lee won 17 games. His record was 17-9 (3.95 ERA), providing the team with an effective front three: Rick Wise won 19 and Tiant won 18. Lee remained a workhorse, tying for the team lead, throwing 260 innings (albeit down some 20 innings from '73 and '74) and was a major part of the pennant-winning Bosox ballclub. Lee did not appear in the League Championship Series, which the Sox swept in three games behind starts by Tiant, Cleveland, and Wise. Bill started Game Two of the 1975 World Series, and held Cincinnati's Big Red Machine to just five hits and two runs over eight-plus innings. He departed the game after Johnny Bench led off the ninth with a double. Dick Drago, on in relief, gave up two hits, giving the Reds a 3-2 lead. Red Sox batters went down 1-2-3 in the ninth, and Lee's great performance was wasted.

The day after Bernie Carbo and Carlton Fisk hit Game Six homers to keep the Series alive, Lee started Game Seven of the World Series. He pitched 6 1/3 innings, shutting out the Reds through five until he gave up a prodigious two-run homer to Tony Perez on an ill-advised blooper pitch that Lee claims today "is still rising." Lee left with a 3-2 lead, but the Red Sox went on to lose the game and the World Series. 

1976 was a disaster for Lee and the Red Sox. On May 20, Lee was trailing 1-0 to the Yankees at the Stadium when Lou Piniella and Graig Nettles struck for back-to-back singles. Otto Velez then singled to right, where Dwight Evans fielded the ball and eyed Piniella trying to score. Lou was thrown out by a country mile. A melee ensued at the plate, and Lee was blindsided by Nettles and fell awkwardly on his shoulder. He left the game crippled, unable to appear in another game until July 15. The Sox won the May 20 game but at great cost to their playoff hopes. Lee's was pitching poorly at the time of the fight. He was 0-3 with a 7.31 ERA, and never really fully got back on track. He finished 5-7, with a disappointing 5.63 ERA.

The following year, 1977, Bill was used sparingly, only getting 16 starts. He posted another winning record, but it was just 9-5 (4.43 ERA) in 128 innings of work, a far cry from the totals of 1973 through 1975 when he pitched more than twice as many innings each year. In 1978, things seemed to have turned around. Lee won his first four games, and was 10-3 in early July. There were underlying tensions, though, that racked the Red Sox. His relationship with management can only be described as tumultuous. A founding member of a Red Sox faction known as the Buffalo Heads, the purpose of which seemed to be making Sox manager Don Zimmer's life miserable, Lee famously referred to Zimmer as "the gerbil" and openly questioned many of the strategic moves made by the beleaguered manager.  From July 15 through August 19, though, Lee seemed to fall apart, losing seven straight decisions. On closer inspection, though, one sees that in five of the seven losses, he gave up no more than three earned runs. The July 30 game was the most dispiriting defeat, a 2-1 complete-game loss to the Royals at Fenway Park. Zimmer's refusal to start Lee against the Yankees in September was a huge subplot in the collapse of the Red Sox. Lee appeared in two of the "Boston Massacre" games, but both times it was in relief. In the September 8 game, he threw seven innings in relief, allowing the Yankees just one earned run in a game New York won 13-2. On September 10, his last appearance of the season, Lee closed out the game with 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief; the Yankees won nonetheless, 7-4.  Lee was in the doghouse the rest of the season. One more win at any point along the way and the Red Sox never would have had to play New York in the infamous single-game playoff.

Before the year was out, he was sent packing. On December 7 Lee was traded to the Montreal Expos for Stan Papi. When the trade was announced, Lee covered his disappointment with bravado, saying of the 1978 team, "Who wants to be with a team that will go down in history alongside the '64 Phillies and the '67 Arabs?" Lee left the majors for good in 1982 following the May 7 game, after one of a series of arguments with Montreal management. When friend Rodney Scott was released by the Expos on May 8, Bill Lee took another hike, walking out on the team. He never came back; he was released by the Expos on May 9.

Bill claims that he has been blackballed from major league baseball ever since. The years following Lee's departure from the majors have been nomadic, ranging from independent baseball to senior league games both north and south of the border. At this writing, Lee still plays baseball and shows little sign of slowing down. Since leaving the major leagues, he has been an effective, if somewhat unorthodox, ambassador for the game in such places as Cuba, China, the former Soviet Union, and small town Canada.