There will only ever be one Bill 'Spaceman' Lee

December 28th, 2023
Design by Tom Forget

There are three constants in life: Death, taxes and "Spaceman" Bill Lee taking the mound. Yes, the man who once left his team in anger to grab a beer and showed up again in the eighth inning (we'll get to that in a bit), is still out there to this day, hucking the horsehide in any town and on any field that will let him.

An iconoclast when he played, and perhaps the baseball flake to end all baseball flakes, Lee hasn't changed a bit since his final big league pitch. As he noted in 2016, he cuts his own firewood, doesn't use gasoline or fossil fuels, eats only within 15 miles of his house and turns over his potato patch with nothing but a shovel.

Of course, we should perhaps listen to what he told a certain magazine devoted to a certain substance that is legal only in a handful of states back in 1980: "Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see."

We'll do our best to wade through the truths and half-fictions and see where we end up. To celebrate his birthday, these are seven notable moments in Lee's career and life:

1. The pitching
There may be only a small handful of ballplayers with a personality like Lee's ever to play the game, but even fewer had his ability on the field. After breaking into the Majors as a 22-year-old with the Red Sox in 1969, he became a trusted reliever for the team over the next four seasons. But Lee -- armed with a sinker, overhand curve, screwball, slider and four-seam fastball -- got his first brush with stardom in 1973. Pushed into the rotation, Lee made an immediate impact.

That season, the southpaw from Burbank, Calif., who quickly became a New Englander at heart, went 17-11 with a 2.75 ERA and was invited to his first -- and only -- All-Star Game.

He repeated the performance the following season, wracking up a 17-15 record despite leading the Major Leagues in hits allowed. The year after, he went 17-9 and even received an MVP vote. If you're scoring at home, that's three consecutive 17-win seasons. Since he left the Red Sox, no Boston left-hander has accomplished even two non-consecutive 17-win campaigns. Eduardo Rodriguez, Chris Sale, Drew Pomeranz and David Price all did it just once.

That would be the high point of Lee's career as injuries -- including one suffered during a fight against the Yankees -- took their toll. But he pitched for another four years with the Red Sox before joining the Expos in 1979, where he won 16 games with a 3.04 ERA. He also played an important role as a swingman on the '81 team -- the lone season that Montreal played in the postseason.

2. The eephus
Lee may have had other offerings, but his most famous was eephus, or "Leephus." In a sport where pitchers are usually searching for every extra bit of oomph to get on their fastballs or every inch of bite on their sliders, Lee's signature offering looked more like he was floating a package of hamburger buns to a friend at the annual barbecue.

Unfortunately for the Spaceman, his signature pitch was also hammered at the very worst time: He was on the mound in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series when the Reds' Tony Perez deposited his floater over the Green Monster. The Red Sox were leading 3-0 at the time and would go on to lose, 4-3.

Unfortunately, this was one of the times that Lee should have listened to his teammates.

"We made it pretty clear to Bill that Tony was to see none of those pitches, period," backup catcher Bob Montgomery said. "In Game 2, Lee threw one to Perez and he took the pitch. And I remember thinking to myself, 'Don't do that again.'"

Years later, Lee's eephus went Hollywood as he taught the pitch to actor Josh Duhamel during the shooting of "Spaceman," the biopic about Lee's career.

“Bill actually taught me how to throw an eephus, believe it or not,” Duhamel told NESN. “He came to the set the last day we were shooting. … And literally, you know, it’s about getting it high and getting this topspin on it. And after a few tries, I started getting it. And then we did some BP, and I just love the guy. I loved what he stood for.”

3. The Buffalo Heads
Fortunately for Lee, he wasn’t the only wild one on those mid-’70s Red Sox teams. No, he – along with Ferguson Jenkins, Bernie Carbo, Rick Wise and Jim Willoughby – were known as “The Buffalo Heads.” The group was known for their oddball antics, a propensity to stay out way too late and a unified opposition to manager Don Zimmer.

Though Jenkins was the source of the group's moniker after having referred to Zim as a buffalo -- the “stupidest animal that ever was" -- Lee often had the quote attributed to him. In actuality, Lee had called Zimmer a "gerbil" for his puffy cheeks.

When the team slowly started trading away members of the group – perhaps for poor play, perhaps for insubordination – Lee was apoplectic. He left a burning candle on Zimmer’s desk after Willoughby was traded and refused to show up for the 1978 team photo (he had to be inserted later). When Bernie Carbo was dealt to Cleveland, Lee "wept for 20 minutes, ripped his telephone from the wall at home and vowed he would never play for Boston again." When he returned the next day and was given a $533 fine, Lee asked for the team to make it $1,500 so he could have a few more days off.

Oh yeah, when he arrived at the clubhouse he also was wearing a T-shirt bearing a very unusual slogan (at least for a professional athlete): "Friendship first, competition second."

4. Expos Expulsion
Lee had a similar experience a few years later while pitching for the Expos in 1982. Relegated to the bullpen that season, Lee was incensed when friend and defensive whiz Rodney Scott was unceremoniously released on May 8, 1982. Lee stormed out of the clubhouse and headed to a nearby bar -- in uniform, no less -- to have a few beers while Montreal took on the Dodgers. He kept tabs on the game though, so when he saw that the team might run short on pitchers and could use him, he hurried back to the stadium.

Unfortunately, Lee was 35 years old now and the Expos were fed up with him and released him. Despite Lee's pledge that plenty of other teams would be interested in a lefty with a history of success, this would prove the end of his big league career. The Spaceman had finally gone too far.

Bill Lee juggles three baseballs in the Wrigley Field bullpen during a game in 1981. (AP)

5. The politician
So what is this former big leaguer ballplayer who is obsessed with Cartesian logic to do after his career is over? Why, run for office, of course. Lee first ran for president in 1988 as a member of the Rhinoceros Party under the slogan "No Guns, No Butter" because both could kill you.

Though he never made the official ballot in any state, Lee wasn't dissuaded from another attempt at public office. So, nearly 30 years later, he ran again -- this time looking to become Vermont's governor in 2016. His platform:

“I’m a pragmatist. I could call myself a very radical contrastive pragmatist rastafarian ex-Catholic," Lee told Time Magazine. "I’m not a flag waver. I want to do away with that. I want to get all the steroid guys in the Hall of Fame.”

6. He's still playing
Sure, the Major Leagues may have said they were done with the southpaw in '82, but Lee has never grown tired of the game. The pitcher has played in Cuba, China, Russia, and the small town of Moncton in New Brunswick, Canada -- lacing up his cleats for the Moncton Mets. Most recently, Lee has suited up for the Savannah Bananas.

Lee became the oldest player to get the victory in a professional game when he suited up for the Brockton Rox of the Canadian-American Association in 2010 at 63 years old. (The second-oldest player on the roster was Mike Smith at a positively spritely 32.) He went 0-for-3 at the plate, but gave up just two runs in 5 1/3 innings on the mound to get the W.

"I got pulled before I could use all of my pitches today," Lee said afterward. "I was hoping to be able to break out my Juan Marichal screwball."

He broke his own record two years later when he signed with the San Rafael Pacifics of the North American League. He seemingly used the time off to improve his game. This time he went 1-for-3 at the plate with an RBI and threw a complete game victory, surrendering just four runs.

“I’ve just solidified myself as the best old guy on the planet,” Lee said afterward.

Don't think that just because Lee hasn't signed any contracts that he's not still out there on the mound. Lee headed back to Moncton to pitch once again in 2021 at the age of 74. To the surprise of absolutely no one, he dominated the other players who were decades younger. He pitched 4 2/3 innings and gave up six hits and just one run.

And despite a scary moment when he collapsed while warming up for the Savannah Bananas in the bullpen on Aug. 19, 2022, Lee said he plans to keep pitching after his recovery

7. The Yankee hater
Lee may be California-born and his separation from the Red Sox may not have been pleasant, but Lee just may be the epitome of a Boston baseball fan. He hated the Yankees while playing, famously injuring his left shoulder in a brawl after Lou Piniella bowled over Carlton Fisk at the plate. Graig Nettles was involved in the scrap and Lee kept Nettles' baseball card in his wallet until at least 1990, saying that he hoped Nettles enjoyed "the view and the smell, which hasn’t gotten any better over the years.”

Lee may never have been happier than when the Red Sox came back from a 3-0 series deficit to defeat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, either.

"I was in Maui. I found out that it’s the greatest place on earth to watch a Red Sox playoff series," Lee said, making every member of Red Sox Nation jealous. "The games start at 2 p.m. You get up at first light, have a nice Kona coffee, and then you snorkel with all the natives and the 2000 species of fish and turtles. And then you have a nice lunch, a cocktail, and then sit down and watch the Red Sox kick Yankee butt. It doesn’t get any better than that."