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The BASEBALL RELIQUARY Inc.


THE SHRINE OF THE ETERNALS
2000 ELECTEES

 

WILLIAM FRANCIS LEE

 

For 14 years as a left-handed pitcher (1969-1982), ten with Boston and four with Montreal, Bill Lee was anything but a conventional major league ballplayer. His career record was a respectable 119-90, including three consecutive 17-win seasons with the Red Sox (1973-1975) and a 16-win season with the Expos in 1979. He was selected to the American League All-Star squad in 1973 and pitched in the World Series in 1975 against the Cincinnati Reds. But it was Lee’s rebellious spirit and opposition to the conservative baseball establishment that usually rated more attention than his performance on the field. Lee’s coach at the University of Southern California, Rod Dedeaux, said that his pupil did little to dispel the stereotypes about southpaw pitchers: "I always understood everything Casey Stengel said, which sometimes worried me. But I know that all my hours with Casey helped prepare me for Billy Lee."

Lee was one of the game’s few counterculture symbols: he talked to animals, championed environmental causes, practiced yoga, ate health foods, sprinkled marijuana on his buckwheat pancakes (an indiscretion for which he was fined $250 by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn), pondered Einstein and Vonnegut, quoted from Mao, and studied Eastern philosophers and mystics. It was in this context that former Red Sox teammate John Kennedy first dubbed him "Spaceman," a nickname writers thereafter used as shorthand to describe his free spirit. At first irritated by the appellation (preferring to be known as "Earth Man"), Lee would eventually approve of the "Spaceman" moniker. "I realized that it’s the ultimate compliment," he remarked. "Everybody thinks they’re earthlings but in actuality we’re only here for a brief moment, and the cinder that we’re on is moving as Spaceship Earth, so we’re all space travelers."

A folk hero to fans (especially to the students, hippies, and radical subculture that adopted Fenway Park in the early ‘70s), Lee was a voice of reason and sanity in a game corrupted by "planet-polluting owners" and the corporate mindset. Although he often crossed swords with management, matching his wits with their authority, Lee, in hindsight, can be viewed not as a rebel but as a "purist" and "traditionalist." In his freewheeling autobiography, The Wrong Stuff (1984), Lee argued his case: "I hated the D.H. and all the other new wrinkles that had been introduced in an attempt to corrupt the game. I wanted to go back to natural grass, pitchers who hit, Sunday doubleheaders, day games, and the nickel beer. . . . We have to drive these atrocities out of baseball. It will be doing the entire country a great service. Baseball is the belly button of America. If you straighten out the belly button, the rest of the country will follow suit."

Lee’s belief that ballplayers had an obligation to work for the good of humankind rooted his value system squarely in a socially-conscious, 1960s mentality. And he saw no contradiction in an athlete maintaining a strong competitive desire in concert with humanistic values, addressing this issue directly in the final paragraph of The Wrong Stuff: "If I accomplished anything as a player, I hope it’s that I proved you could exist as a dual personality in the game. I had to pass through the looking glass every time I went out on the field. Away from the ballpark, I tried to care about the earth, and I wasn’t concerned with getting ahead of the ‘other guy.’ On the mound, I was a different person, highly competitive and always out to win. Who I was off the field fed the person I became on it. I had to make the stands I did. To be silent in the face of injustice would have made my life and my pitching meaningless. If I was able to keep my compassion while retaining my competitive senses, then I would judge my career a success. I hope I was able to make more than just a few fans smile, while showing them that the game shouldn’t be taken too seriously. If I am remembered by anyone, I would want it to be as a guy who cared about the planet and the welfare of his fellow man. And who would take you out at second if the game was on the line."

When Bill Lee was given his walking papers by the Montreal Expos in 1982 (which he appropriately signed "Bill Lee, Earth ‘82"), only the chapter of his life dealing with major league baseball was closed. He still plays baseball whenever and wherever he can, participating in fantasy camps and organized leagues or competing in whatever sandlot games he can get into. "I just don’t want to look fat when they bury me," adds Lee. Baseball’s version of Peter Pan, Lee is scheduled to pitch a doubleheader in Portland, Maine the day before his induction into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals.

A resident of Vermont, Lee continues to break barriers and blaze new grounds, having recently barnstormed Cuba with a team of American old-timers competing against senior Cuban players.


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