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Bill Lee, 1974

May 27, 2010

Well, I met Bill Lee. It was last Wednesday at Fenway, or actually at the Red Sox Team Store right outside Fenway on Yawkey Way.

I’ve been having trouble writing since I got back from my book tour through the Northeast, possibly because the foundation of my writing has always been whining and complaining, and what’s left to whine and complain about if you get to meet Bill Lee at the Red Sox Team Store right outside Fenway on Yawkey Way?

I guess at least I can try to tell the story. I drove over to the park in the late afternoon with my wife, who’d just flown in to meet me, and our friend Alex. We found the alley that led to the lot where I’d been told I could park. A guy ambled over to us as we pulled in, and I explained why I was there.

“You’re the authah,” he said.

This accented utterance made the dream of my life official. For good measure, the man then directed us where to pahk the cah. After that, we went up a back way to the store (my second Goodfellas entering-the-Copa moment in the last two weeks). We found two guys from Seven Footer, Pete the editor and Robert the sales honcho, up near the front by a table with a couple stacks of my book.

“Bill was here,” Robert said. “He said, ‘I’ll be back in a few. I gotta go “tune up”.’”

It’s hard for me to make judgments on time for that evening, which went by in a euphoric blur, but I guess about a half hour went by before Bill was done tuning up. He barged in and made his way over to our table. We shook hands. I don’t remember what I said. Probably not much—he pretty much runs any conversation he’s in. He is a big guy with a booming voice. He had the rough hands and sunburned face of a farmer. He had white hair and a gray and white goatee. At one point during the signing someone asked me if I was his son.

“You guys look exactly alike,” the person said. This was a surprise to me. I later related it to Bill.

“All white people look alike!” he boomed.

Here are those two white people, in a picture taken by my aunt Bonnie:

 

The moment captured in the picture is one of my favorites from the evening. Bill was leafing through the book and telling stories about the players in the cards at the head of each chapter. He said J.R. Richard almost ended his life with an errant fastball that passed close to his head during a spring training game. He said John D’Acquisto once got so down after getting a tongue-lashing from manager Dick Williams that Lee and others had to hold D’Acquisto back from leaping out of an airplane. He criticized Mike Kekich for trying to distance himself from his unusual marital experiment involving teammate Fritz Peterson in the early 1970s (“You’ve got to own that kind of thing,” Bill said). He may or may not have said that [someone whose name rhymes with “Wedgie Paxson”] was an [something that rhymes with “mass soul”].

“I had to ride to the 1973 all-star game with that guy,” Bill said, briefly and uncharacteristically morose as he relived the ordeal.

I could have talked baseball with him all night, but he was of course besieged by fans. I noticed that he always asked each person where they were from, and wherever it was, he had been there and had a story to tell about it, a way of connecting. Everyone walked away smiling. 

When the signing was over, we watched an inning of the game on a television in the store. Bill didn’t want to go across the street to the game because he’d be mobbed.

“When I go I make sure to always have a cup of beer in both hands so people can’t ask me to sign stuff,” he said, “but then people just buy me more and more beer and I end up getting hammered.”

Bill watched David Ortiz bat with special interest. He’s a bat-maker, and Ortiz uses one of his creations, made from a tree Lee had chopped down himself in Vermont. Later, after we said goodbye to Bill and went across the street to the game, Ortiz used that Vermont wood to clout a two-run home run, the difference-maker in a 3-2 win. It just barely cleared the top of the wall. I choose to think that Bill Lee’s handiwork made the difference. 

13 comments

  1. “All white people look alike!” he boomed.

    Mr. Lee is clearly everything I’ve always hoped him to be, and more. That comment at the end of your last Spaceman appreciation sums him up perfectly: “… he has never been outside of disorganized baseball, even when he was in organized baseball.”

    This whole story made my day.


  2. As a kid I disliked the Red Sox. My family lived in Cincinnati in the early 70s and I grew up a huge Reds fan. They won 108 in ’75 and deserved a majestic sweep in the Series to complete an all-time great season.

    Instead they got a grinding, rainout-filled struggle against the Sox. Seemed like Luis Tiant started all seven games and nothing came easy for the Reds. Did one of the greatest offensive teams in history win Game 7 on a soaring home run? Nah, just a bloop single.

    Only as an adult did I realize how conservative and stiff the Reds organization was. Had I been 29 in 1975, not 9, I probably would have rooted for Boston and a unique player like Bill Lee.


  3. Ian: Keep an eye on your mailbox–a piece of my day (our day) at Fenway should be arriving soon.

    toadguardian: Boston was pretty conservative and stiff as an organization, too, which they proved when they gradually purged themselves of Bill Lee and his fellow “Buffalo Heads” (the name for the wild and woolly guys on the team, including Lee and Bernie Carbo; I asked Bill about Bernie and he said that he was on a radio show recently with him and objected to Bernie’s claim that back in the day he’d been high all the time–“Bernie, you weren’t high all the time! Sometimes you were asleep!”).


  4. Bill Lee was one of my favorite players as a kid, but I never really understood him until I saw the “Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey” documentary a couple of years back. Check it out if you haven’t seen it. It’s worth the time.

    http://www.spacemanincuba.com/


  5. Thanks for the Bill Lee post. He’s another one of my favorite Red Sox and I was sorry to see him traded in that infamous Stan Papi deal (with Don Zimmer as The Gerbil, right?). I had the opportunity to meet Lee in Cooperstown during the Ripken/Gwynn Induction weekend, where he was holding court at his own book signing. By the way, Josh, it was good to meet you at your book signing out at Book Revue on Long Island. Thanks again.


  6. Doesn’t get much better than that, congratulations on a great day. The Wrong Stuff remains my favorite player autobiography, starting as it does with him sitting in the Montreal GM’s office in the middle of the night, waiting to be released.

    This Lee post prompts me to ask a musical question. You’re probably aware of the Warren Zevon song “Bill Lee” but have you ever heard the music of Karl Hendricks? I ask for a couple of reasons. One, his “The Ballad of Bill Lee” is a worthy anthem for the lefty. Two, one of Hendricks’ early songs “Baseball Cards” is, in its longing and sadness, as apt a theme song for your work as any song I’ve heard.


  7. I happen to love Zevon’s “Bill Lee,” and I will seek out that other tune. Thanks cazimirin!

    Here’s the great Warren Zevon singing about another cultural iconoclast:


  8. Zevon is my all time favorite musician. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon is a great book and worth reading. BTW Josh, I loved your references to Pancho and Lefty in your Book. Made a Townes Van Zandt fan proud.


  9. cazimrin: No, I don’t know Karl Hendricks. Thanks for the recommendation–I’ll look for his stuff.


  10. Hey Josh,

    Meant to send congrats on the publication of the book, but the Spaceman has finally moved me to get a WordPress account.

    Anyway, I’ve been enjoying and quietly cheering on your book tour adventures. Having Lee join you at Fenway-adjacent must have been like Alex Chilton sitting in with your college band, or Hunter Thompson editing your first magazine piece. I’m also glad to see that he (Lee) looks and sounds great. All-around a big celebration for the Good Guys (or Good Fellas.)

    Looking forward to seeing/hearing you in Pasadena in June.

    JWP/FBJ


  11. Thanks for logging in, wockenpuss. I appreciate it. See you in (South) Pasadena!


  12. I absolutely love the “Spaceman” he is the coolest.. I just got your book I cannot to get into it…I played Wiffle Ball a few summers back against the “Spaceman” he is devestating. I was lucky enough to blop a hit off him at “Little Fenway” thanks for doing this site it is awesome…been collecting cards for over 40 years and will continue…thanks for sharing.


  13. Bill Lee, along with Mark Fidrych and countless others in your book, and on this blog, are people I would have loved to meet. From your description here, Bill Lee is exactly as I’ve ever pictured him in all stories I’ve ever read about him, including your book. Something about those players made them wondrous. It’s just different now. Can’t explain it…it’s like the celebrity is SO HUGE they can’t have a personality without it being faked or hyped. Sad.



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