Still Pitching and Still Fascinating at 69

Bill "Spaceman" Lee, pictured with a fan, is pitching and now also playing politics at age 69. (via slgckgc)

Bill “Spaceman” Lee, pictured with a fan, is pitching and now also playing politics at age 69. (via slgckgc)

If gracing the pages of both High Times and Sports illustrated magazines doesn’t make Bill “Spaceman” Lee interesting to you, there’s plenty more to catch your attention. The time he pitched drunk, or the fact that he throws his own branded eephus, or the fact that he still pitches (professionally!) today while running a campaign for Governor of Vermont, at 69 years old — maybe those things will catch your attention.

Though the lefty’s career was cut short, either by brawl-induced injury or an ownership angry about the free agency system that Lee helped create, his legacy in baseball looms large. So large that he’s now the subject of a major motion picture, with Josh Duhamel (and his bare butt) playing him in the lead role.

SPACEMAN_Theatrical PosterWith the movie coming out in theaters and via streaming this week, there wasn’t a better time to sit down with The Spaceman and talk anything from baseball to religion to drug use. Two guys that love to talk, talking about a sport they both love — I think you know how this turns out. (But keep reading anyway.)

Eno Sarris: Thanks so much for talking to me today, Bill. I’m a pitching nerd — the best kind of nerd if you ask me — so I just wanted to know more about your arsenal to start us off. Could you tell me what the “Leephus” is?

Bill Lee: It’s a variant of the Rip Sewell eephus with more rotation overhand. It comes from 30 feet up in the air. Umpires didn’t like to call it a strike because it came from too high and landed too low. One time I threw nine straight in the rain. Hitters didn’t like it because they had to look up into the rain to see it.

Sarris: Hah. [Realizes that recorder app is not recording and that scrawled notes are terrible, makes the decision to try and record using old school recorder and speakerphone. Furiously searches for said recorder.] Sorry Mr. Lee, just trying to find something here. Did I notice that you call yourself a Rastafarian these days?

Lee: That’s right. More or less.

Sarris: [Furiously dumping out contents of work bag] That’s interesting! I was born in Jamaica, have lived there and visited all my life. My mother even dated a Rasta for a while, but that became untenable when she was asked to go to the Red Tent and various other old-school things.

Lee: Ah yes. Some of that Judeo-Christian bullsh*t did get in there. I’m in the more liberal wing of the religion.

Sarris: [Finds Recorder!] A-HAH!

Lee: ?

Sarris: Oh, nothing, found the recorder. You don’t mind being recorded?

Lee: We’re always being recorded.

Sarris: Well, anyway, there are great parts of Rastafarianism, no doubt. As with any church, there can be weird parts too. [Starts recorder]

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Lee: Well I’m a new school guy. I do not really believe in any religion but the religion of baseball and the double play and throw strikes. I’m an earth-first guy, more of a Sioux Warrior now than anything else.

Sarris: Let’s go back to your stuff. Did you have a four-seam and a two-seam? I know your sinker was an important part of your success. And the various curveballs. But a four-seam too?

Lee: I very seldom threw a four-seam. I had one up until 1975. I threw everything, though. If I threw you sinkers, if you were starting to drop your front shoulder and go the other way, I had to throw you breaking balls in and high fastballs up and in. If you’re a dead pull hitter, and I’m making you hit the ball the other way, I’ve already succeeded in winning by making you do something you don’t want to do. But if you have the ability to go the other way and do it with proficiency, then I have to come inside and beat you up. And that’s what I did.

Sarris: You didn’t have a ton of strikeouts. That might be a function of the era, because right now there are so many strikeouts in the game. Or do you think it was more a function of the fact that you used the curveball a lot, which leads to soft contact and ground balls?

Lee: Yes, I was looking for a 72-pitch, 11-hit shutout. That was my goal in life.

Sarris: Do you ever think about the partying that you did and think about it in a negative way, and worry that it cut your career short than it might have been? Today’s athletes are pretty intense.

Lee: They are. It’s amazing. I think their attitude leads to the fact that they blow up a lot faster. In the old days, if we lost, we went out and we had a few beers because we were commiserating. If we won, we went and had a few beers because we were celebrating. Basically, we drank when we won and we drank when we lost and we had a good time and I ran six miles between starts every chance I could get. I don’t believe that had anything to do with my career being short. I think the fact that I got into that and I hurt my shoulder and basically I was pitching on fumes the last few years of my life.

Sarris: And then, of course, there’s how management treated you. That seems to be a direct effect. You had some funny stories about Bowie Kuhn and convincing him that marijuana was a condiment.

Lee: Haha, yeah I got the letter to prove it too.

Sarris: How much of the end was your play and how much of it was their idea of your attitude, that they thought you were a problem? How many years did you think you have when you were finished?

Lee: I’m still winning at 61, 62, 63, 65 and 67. So basically by being 6-0 in my sixties, I proved them wrong. In pro ball. In other words, I’ve been paid to play in pro leagues and I’ve won four straight times. Which basically, fundamentally proves that they blackballed me, they were wrong, and they owe me a lot of money.

Sarris: It seems like players… in some ways they don’t do things like this any more, and in some ways they do other things that are worse. It seems like you got a bum rap, man.

Lee: I think the proof is in the pudding. The fact you’re saying I got a bum rap, the fact that I was blackballed, the fact that the documentaries back it up, and the movie backs it up, and the fact that I have proven over the course of my career that I love the game more than they do, that is best revenge you can get on them. That I am better than them. I don’t regret and I don’t care, and the fact that I hit a home run against High Times magazine in Central Park yesterday is proof of it.

Sarris: Hahah. You played *against* them?!

Lee: Against them. I had a one run lead in the last inning and I lost it on a misplayed fly ball. But it doesn’t matter because I hit the home run to put us ahead. That was the best ball I’d hit in a while, and to hit an inside-the-park home run at 69 years of age, that’s pretty good.

Sarris: Hitting is actually pretty important to you. There’s a line in the movie that made me laugh. You wouldn’t talk to the American League because you had to hit?

Lee: I didn’t want to talk to the American League, I wanted to swing the bat. The whole thing of the game is swinging the bat! You know, putting runs up. Getting 27 outs is important, but when you don’t make an out, that makes the game great.

Sarris: Do you ever think that baseball could have had an entirely different approach to you and sort of marketed you as The Spaceman, and used you to get more butts into the seat? They say it’s a business, but you could be good business. You’re good business now. They showed a lack of foresight, it seems.

Lee: Saying baseball has a lack of foresight is the most underestimating statement you can say. [both laugh heartily] That’s why Marvin Miller won 10 straight battles against them in court. We never lost! Baseball lost every time. Because they were always wrong. They’ve been in the wrong.

Sarris: Switching over a little bit, I thought one of the most interesting things in the movie was the psychological aspect of having baseball taken away from you and how you dealt with that. Do you think represented that well for you and were you surprised by how much of your personal identity was wrapped up in baseball?

Lee: I was surprised. I continued to play, though, and that allowed me to bring my children to The Maritimes, and play ball with me in the summer when I went through my divorce. Baseball has always been the lynchpin, it’s brought me back from many bad problems. That’s why I’ve always loved the game.

Sarris: It seemed like you didn’t want to play with Longueuil in the senior league for a bit. Did you have to get over yourself a little bit there maybe?

Lee: Well, I don’t think that part of the movie was entirely correct. I know they accepted me right off the bat. I know the owners did, and the players really liked me and I dedicated myself to whatever team I played for. I was always believed I was a team player. That individualistic thing about me is really not true. I’ve always been a team player, I think.

The movie wasn’t chronological, it’s kind of metaphor for what I went through. In 1984, I got a tryout with the Giants. It was a great experience, playing for Triple-A out there. I did well. Ten scoreless innings, but got released from the Giants because John McHale was a powerful force, as the National League president. That did me in more than anything else. I was not allowed to play for the Giants. I would have won a few games for the Giants.

Sarris: It seems so crazy to me. Just because you were loud and obnoxious, or had different views than the managers? There was one line, who did you sleep with? That’s how I feel. It doesn’t seem like you did enough.

Lee: My presence in baseball has drained billions of dollars from major league owners into salaries for players. I am the number one, me, Joe Torre, Dick Moss, and Marvin Miller are the four people that have taken more money from more owners and redistributed it more than any other sport in the world. You’re looking at a guy that has taken money and redistributed into the worker’s pockets. That’s the bottom line. It’s all economics.

Sarris: I don’t know that I know exactly what you are referring to.

Lee: I hurt the owners economically. I took money out of their pockets, that’s why I’m not in baseball.

Sarris: When did you do that?

Lee: I did that in 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, as being the player rep for the American League. That’s why I’m not in baseball. If you listen to Marvin Miller, you’ll hear that every player rep was traded, released or destroyed because they wanted to break up the relationship between the players and their teammates. They did not like the union. They hated us.

Sarris: Oh my goodness.

Lee: Yes. Look back at the 1994 strike. Look back at the 1981 season. Look back at everything. It’s always about money.

Sarris: I think people don’t really know that. You were right there with Marvin Miller.

Lee: I was his right-hand man.

Sarris: Yeah. That’s why you got blackballed. They probably used your blowups as an excuse, but…

Lee: Exactly.

Sarris: It’s tough to say, be a different person just because…

Lee: Think of this. In 1981, I had a 2.74 ERA and hit .346. I hit .346 for the Montreal Expos! I led the team in hitting and in pitching and got released. No one’s ever done that.

Sarris: You stood up for Rodney Scott, but he was more of a pinch runner. Was there something more going on there?

Lee: According to Dick Williams, he was the reason why we were so good. Dick Williams called him our unsung hero and most valuable player. And then Fanning relegated him to a role like that to punish him because they brought Wallace Johnson up. Wallace Johnson could hit, but he couldn’t play second base. Tim Raines couldn’t play second base. The only guy that could play second base was Rodney Scott! I don’t care if he hit .200, he was the only defensive asset we had out there.

Sarris: And as a former player rep, in a way, you were acting as a player rep, as an advocate, rather than a guy that’s trying to be manager or break up the team.

Lee: Read Pat Jordan’s A False Spring. Pat Jordan, the writer, read that, and you will know Jim Fanning and John McHale. If I had read that book before I went to Montreal, I would have realized that they would have screwed me eventually.

Sarris: [laughing] You would’ve been prepared at least.

Lee: I should have prepared for it. I would have seen the handwriting on the wall. I was offered $3 million to go to Atlanta after 1979, and I turned them down. In retrospect, I should have gone to Atlanta and I may have led them before Tom Glavine. But I had loyalty to the fans of Montreal, not to the management, to the fans of Montreal.

Sarris: Just thinking about today’s game, do you have general thoughts about how baseball has changed, and what you like and don’t like about what’s going on right now?

Lee: I don’t like the fact that they’ve made a scapegoat out of the steroid players. The home run brought fans back after the strike of ’94. I believe they’ve done a disservice to all of those players. I believe they’ve done a disservice to America with Little League and aluminum bats. I believe they’ve done a disservice to baseball by creating pitchers that get hurt all the time.

Sarris: How do you think they’ve done that? What’s the main thing there?

Lee: They did that because they get people throwing downhill and throwing harder because of radar guns. They don’t teach them how to pitch, they teach them how to throw. And that’s not it. You have to be a pitcher, a complete pitcher. I’m very upset with baseball, the way they’ve gone.

Sarris: And the aluminum bats? Just too much power?

Lee: It kills pitchers. It makes cowards out of people. It’s a terrible instrument. It’s a disservice to a game.

Sarris: But wood bats are pretty expensive!

Lee: Yeah, but wood bats are a renewable resource, we should have more wooden bats.

Sarris: Well. Pardon my ignorance, but how is the race for Governor in Vermont going?

Lee: I don’t know. I’m not allowed to participate until they have the primary. Which is today, actually! I’ll know who I’m running against. A democrat and a republican. It’s probably going to be the Nascar guy and Matt Dunne. I think Matt Dunne will win for the democrats. [Editor’s note: Sue Minter actually won the democratic primary, but Dunne finished second.]

Sarris: What’s the main difference between yourself and the democratic candidate?

Lee: I’m a democrat on steroids. I’m Bernie Sanders. I do not take political contributions. I don’t have a machine behind me. We’re just a bunch of social liberals that believe in anti-war and saving the planet earth.

Sarris: You’ve really taken to Vermont!

Lee: 1988, and we’ve been here ever since. Built my house, built the saw mill. Got involved in helping local people provide work. Just trying to help Vermonters stay in Vermont and be multi-dimensional. We cut hay, we cut firewood, we milk cows, we make maple syrup.

Sarris: And you play baseball! Who are you playing baseball with these days?

Lee: I play with the Burlington Cardinals. We won the state championship two years ago, and my catcher is the Mayor of Burlington, Vermont — Miro Weinberger.

Sarris: Are you one of the oldest guys out there?

Lee: I am probably the second oldest. I think there’s a 74-year-old catcher. He and I were on the field — it was 147 years of battery!

Sarris: I hate to ask a radar gun question, but how fast is your fastball these days?

Lee: I haven’t been caught for speeding yet, let’s put it that way.

Sarris: But you still got the Leephus!

Lee: I still have good control and good stuff.

Sarris: It’s been a real pleasure talking to you. I really enjoyed the story of your career and all the stuff you’ve done since. I really enjoyed the movie and I’m glad you helped make that happen.

Lee: Thank you and you had great questions, thanks for having me.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.
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6 years ago

As long as you’re asking about eephus pitches you could have asked about the one to Tony Perez that cost us the f-ing world series.

6 years ago

Until today I would have told everyone I know that I am too young to have ever seen Spaceman pitch

but he’s still going! This is on me now….

thanks for this

6 years ago

Self serving self promoter.Big phoney (sp).What no mention of his getting his ass handed to him by the hated Yankees?

Rick Kovitz
6 years ago
Reply to  Pounder

Bill Lee posted a career record of 12-5 vs. the Yankees. When it came to handing ass, he was the hander and they were the handees. He owned them.

6 years ago
Reply to  Rick Kovitz

Talking about the ass kicking Nettles gave him.Oh, and how many rings did Lee acrue?

6 years ago

Was never happier as a child than when Bill Lee was hurt by Graig Nettles in that brawl.

Probably the only time in the last 50 years that fans on both sides were rooting for the Yankees to win.

Hank Stromber
6 years ago
Reply to  Carl

I want to ensure that I understand what you just wrote.

You found happiness in another person’s physical agony? You found joy in the prospect that the injury may have cost someone his livelihood?

You’ve outgrown this, right?

6 years ago
Reply to  Carl

Hey Carl, you really are ignorant on this subject. Both sides were rooting for the Yanks to win the night Nettles blindsided Lee? At the time, Lee was one of the three or four most popular athletes in Boston, which was a four pro-sport town. Most Red Sox fans were livid over that assault.

6 years ago

“Wallace Johnson could hit, but he couldn’t play second base.”

So the Expos signed Doug Flynn. Who could do neither.

Scot Gould
6 years ago

William Lee, former pitcher for the Red Sox: yes, he is a self-promotor; yes: he is ignorant of many facts. (I.e, there is no evidence he cost owners any money.) But the reality is that he probably is correct the baseball establishment did conspire to keep him out of the game upon retirement.

Regardless, he is we as fans truly enjoy –an entertainer. The video of him discussing the 76 brawl with the Yankees is delightful. Hence I salute your Bill Lee for providing a moment for us to question our sense of truth. And most of all, for making me laugh.

6 years ago

I wore a Montreal Expo cap in the late 70s in honor of Bill Lee. The majors need more characters, and more pitchers rather than throwers. Maybe the Dodgers should sign him. Thanks for the interview Eno. His book, The Wrong Stuff, is pretty entertaining — glad there is now a movie.

6 years ago

Oh, and the documentary, “Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey,” about his trips to Cuba, is a hoot as well.

6 years ago


Wayne Provost
6 years ago

I had the pleasure of playing with him in 2000…there’s not a phony bone in his body Pounder…

Walter Block
6 years ago

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Lee at a Red Sox Fantasy Camp approx 30 years ago. On the last day of the camp we campers played against the former Red Sox players. I was pitching for my team when Mr. Lee came up to bat. After I threw him a bunch of junk I thought I could throw one past him, no such luck the ball is still traveling as it went over the center field scoreboard and into the condominium units behind. Later in the bar Mr. Lee came over to me and said “thank you Walter, that’s the farthest I have ever hit a ball”. Great time & fun meeting Mr. Bill Lee

Yehoshua Friedman
6 years ago

The MLB establishment couldn’t allow a Bill Lee as a player nor a Bill Veeck as an owner. The owners could care less for the local fans. A pro sports franchise today is a cash cow. The owners give priority to the balance sheet rather than either performance or entertainment. Yes, go watch indie baseball. The day will come when the worm will turn and the fickle media will give the TV contracts to indie instead of MLB. We need franchises with Green Bay type community ownership that has primary loyalty to the local fans.

Yehoshua Friedman
6 years ago

Donald Trump as a MLB owner could have saved us from Donald Trump the presidential candidate.

6 years ago

There is an ugly condition to which baseball players (and others) occasionally succumb. I call it “Bill Lee Syndrome”. It happens when a good player who is refreshingly eccentric (“the Spaceman”) decides instead that he is a cutting-edge performance artist who happens to play baseball (Spaceman™), and puts all his energy into his act. What was funny and refreshing in the first context becomes lame and stale in the other. The fact that, for many, Lee is a now a kind of sacred counter-culture cow makes the whole spectacle even more mind-numbing and eye-glazing. Go on, invoke the names of Marvin Miller and Bill Veeck if you want, but, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, you ain’t them.

As for that brawl with the Yankees, though, Lee was not yet Spaceman™, and in any case Graig Nettles delivered the cheapest of cheap sucker punches (and, if I recall correctly, not for the first or only time). What a man, pounding in the face of someone who can’t defend himself!

Chris Ballard
6 years ago
Reply to  mando3b

Hmm,where is your proof of Lee’s transition from sincere spaceman to performance artist? And ehat do you mean by the latter term? Do you know Bill or is this just a second- or third-hand surmise on your part? What is yout basis for comparison? I have knoen Bill well for 45 years and he’s the same person I met back in 1972.

Chris Ballard
6 years ago
Reply to  Chris Ballard

And sorry for the typos above. The keypad on my cell is too small for my fingers.

6 years ago
Reply to  mando3b

What about Varitek fighting Arod with his MASK on.Hard feelings from Mariners minors camp between Arod and Varitek over some girl.

6 years ago

Actually a .364 average, 2.94 ERA. (Easy to see how those can be slightly mis-remembered.) Of course, that was 22 AB and 88.2 innings, and Bill Gullickson had a lower ERA, and Lee pitched 12 innings for Montreal the next season.