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Bill Lee, 1976

September 7, 2010

On the back of this 1976 Bill Lee card, there’s a cartoon featuring a stooped, white-bearded old man in a baseball uniform, using a baseball bat as a cane. Though the cartoon is about a legendary old-timer named Jim O’Rourke who played pro ball into his golden years, it seems now to be a bit of cosmic foreshadowing about the fiercely focused young man depicted on the front of the card in a photo taken during the 1975 season, when Bill Lee won 17 games for the third season in a row and helped lead his team to the American League pennant.

The 1976 season would prove to be a turning point in Lee’s major league career, the last he would spend while still in his twenties. He had logged seven seasons in the majors before 1976, and he’d stick around for seven more, but in part because of an injury to his shoulder that occurred during a brawl with the Yankees, and in part because of a personality conflict with Red Sox management in general and manager Don Zimmer in particular, Lee never regained his previous spot of prominence on the staff of the Red Sox, who eventually dealt him to the Expos, where he, so it would seem, wrapped up his professional career in 1982.  

But then just this past Sunday, Lee, sporting a white beard and white hair similar to the cartoon of the old-timer on the back of his 1976 card, took the mound in uniform for the Brockton Rox, pitched into the sixth inning, surrendering only two runs, and recorded a win. Let me say that again. At the age of 63, facing professional players less than half his age, Bill Lee won.

As this feat basically leaves me speechless, I’ll turn it over from here to other sources. Steve Henson of Yahoo sports has a good overview of Lee’s possibly historic win (the speculation, perhaps impossible to prove, is that he is the oldest man to ever win a professional game). I also enjoyed an article from a Brockton paper that focuses on the reaction from the opposing manager, Rich Gedman, who despite seeing his team lose ground in the playoff hunt can’t help but marvel at Lee’s mastery of the art of pitching. Finally, for the essential fan’s eye view, check out Jere Smith’s satisfyingly photo-laden post at A Red Sox Fan from Pinstripe Territory, plus some video of the game from Jere (who was in double-heaven that day, judging by the moniker he uses to comment now and again on this site: “Gedmaniac”) at his YouTube channel Randomonium (Lee introduces the segment, and then the clips of him pitching are in the segment’s second half).

31 comments

  1. Good for him! I always liked Bill Lee. I think my favorite line of his was before Game 7 of the ’75 World Series: “No matter what the outcome of the game, I’ll be at the Eliot Lounge”.

    I’m sure there are a few others, but Jim Bouton was pitching in a league into his early 60’s as well.


  2. Ask yourself, people: How could the 63-year-old Spaceman being on the 2010 Red Sox roster be any worse than having Manny Delcarmen?


  3. From the Yahoo story: “His first pitch was an eephus.”

    *Clonng!!*

    That was the sound of my jaw hitting the floor in wonder and delight. Bill Lee: perhaps the oldest, and undoubtedly the coolest, game-winning pitcher in the history of professional baseball.


  4. soundbounder—- I am pretty sure that Bouton, when he was about 60, was pitching in an amateur league, not a professional league.


  5. Ruthven,
    I think you are right. Thanks for the correction. He was pitching in some league around Albany NY and Pittsfield MA.


  6. Ian Wilker: In my video, that first pitch appears. It’s kind of hard to see the ball but you can tell by the amount of time it takes to get to the plate (and the crowd reaction) that it was the Leephus.


  7. I wonder whatever happened to Stan Papi?

    Well. maybe not…


  8. I have a question that maybe a Red Sox fan can answer. I was not a Red Sox fan, and I am all for free thinking and free spirited people like Lee, but I never understood why there wasn’t more anger from Red Sox fans towards Bill Lee in Game 7 of the 75 series.
    In the game, the Red Sox are rolling along with a 3-0 lead in the 6th inning, and Bill Lee, in my view, screws around and throws Tony Perez his lob Leephus pitch (I think he may even have thrown him 2 in a row) and Perez smashes it for a 2-run homer to make it 3-2…and totally changed the momentum of the game….leading to the Reds coming back in the 4-3 loss.
    Yes, I know Lee occassionally threw that pitch when he pitched, but that was a hellava time to be doing something like that, especially since the concentration level of the hitters in Game 7 of the world series is likely to be extreme.
    It is a shame that if Lee and the Sox were going to get beat in that game and give up the 3-0 lead, he didnt do it with his real pitches….not one that required the batter to lack discipline and lung at a lob and miss hit it.


  9. Ruthven,
    I saw an interview with Yaz and he was still ticked off about it. He said in the meetings with the pitchers, they repeated over and over not to throw Perez any off-speed pitches.


  10. Ruthven:
    This is just one Red Sox fan’s take (and the take of a Red Sox fan for whom Bill Lee can do no wrong), but it seems to me that we generally heap most of the historical scapegoating on managers (Grady Little for leaving Pedro in too long, McNamara for not putting in Stapleton as a defensive replacement, McCarthy for starting journeyman Denny Galehouse in the ’48 playoff game, Don Zimmer for being Don Zimmer, etc.). If I remember correctly, Lee himself groused in The Wrong Stuff that A) Bosox coach Don Zimmer–I think it was Zimmer and not manager Darrel Johnson–had mis-positioned the infield in a crucial moment in the ’75 7th game, a mistake that cost Lee a rally-crushing double-play and that B) No one came out to visit the mound after that strategic flub, the lack of a visit a missed chance to calm down and re-center a still-young pitcher. I guess none of that really excuses the dubious pitch selection, but all in all Lee performed admirably in the ’75 series, recording a 3.14 ERA in 14.1 innings against arguably the greatest starting eight in baseball history.


  11. Ruthven– I agree with Josh, but there definitely is some anger from some fans (the Republican ones? haha). When I saw Bill throw the Leephus the other day, there were a few older male voices in the corwd saying “you’re still a bum,” and mentioning Perez’s name. I think, though, aside from the fact that he really was great in that series and in that era in general, it’s gonna be hard for fans to get on a player they knew was giving his absolute all every single time out. Maybe if Perez hits a fastball right down the middle for the very same homer, it doesn’t look as bad, but since the Leephus is a slow pitch it looks like laziness, which it certainly wasn’t. To me, criticizing that pitch would be like saying Wakefield should have thrown a fastball to Aaron Boone. Both guys were doing nothing but trying to get the hitter out.


  12. Any idea what park the pic was taken in? He didn’t pitch in Oakland in ’75.


  13. Jon,
    Here is the ’76 Red Sox team set. Aside from Oakland, there are some action shots of several players that looks like Detroit, maybe Comiskey or Cleveland.
    Moret looks like he is in Detroit, although I don’t remember Tiger Stadium having the yellow seat partitions (Yaz, Lynn). Carbo looks like he is at Shea.
    One other thing;….the catcher behind Yaz has a red sleeve. Maybe it was airbrushed, but IIRC, only the Indians, Red Sox and Angels had red sleeves in the AL in ’75. So maybe it is Cleveland.
    The yellow seat partitions hold the key.

    http://www.chuckscards.com/1976Topps/76Red%20Sox.jpg


  14. I just looked up the uniforms. White Sox had red sleeves in ’75. Plus Derron Johnson’s card was taken at Comiskey. I’m going with Comiskey.
    The only thing I can’t confirm is the yellow partitions in the box seats.


  15. Yellow partition can only mean one thing: Comiskey.

    However, at first glance at the ’76 Lee card, I see Oakland. And my proven theory that Topps was known to go back BEYOND the previous year means the pic could be from ’74 or earlier.


  16. If you look at Lee’s 77 card, you’ll see it seems to be from the same photo shoot as Reggie Cleveland’s 76 card. (There are much more obvious examples of Topps going back more than a year but that’s one I can think of off the top…)


  17. Yeah I see Oakland too in that card
    It’s like a zoomed-in version of this ’73 WS card

    http://www.checkoutmycards.com/Cards/Baseball/1974/Topps/472/World_Series_Game_1_Darold_Knowles


  18. On top of the fence and below the seats, there is a band of conrete visible
    in the ’76 Lee photo and here:

    http://www.checkoutmycards.com/Cards/Baseball/1974/Topps/479/World_Series_Summary_As_Celebrate


  19. gee, it’s a shame that those kids couldn’t beat the old man, i guess it takes a bunch of old guys to do it…

    bill pitched in the bamsbl 45+ league this season and we (giants) beat ‘em 2-1.
    it was quite an experience, he pitched smart but we outlasted him.

    here’s the boxscore…
    http://bamsbl.keepmystats.com/gamerecap.cfm?id=4841&template=


  20. wiedesign: That’s awesome. I find myself hungry for more details about the game. Looks like Bill pitched into the tenth inning.

    There should be a monthly magazine tracking all of his exploits and whereabouts.


  21. The Dodgers have a pitcher, Vincente Padilla, who throws an eephus/leephus pitch. Announcer Vin Scully calls it a “soap bubble”.


  22. I saw Satchell Paige pitch against our amateur Kansas “town team” in the early 60’s and he had an eephus type pitch that made the local yokels all look like fools.


  23. I always liked Lee as a kid, long before I knew how much he meant to Red Sox fans. That ’76 card was a cool one. I like how broken in his glove is. Just by looking at it you can feel how comfortable it must have been.


  24. As a young kid with my new, stiff glove, I was always jealous of people with really worn-in gloves that seemed to fold flat somehow, the way Lee’s does in the picture. My glove you needed effort to close. Those gloves were the opposite, defaulting to the flat, closed position. (The glove I still use today which I’ve had for 20 years is beautifully worn…) (A dog stole that first one–which is only part of the reason I’ve always been a cat person.)


  25. OK, since we are now into gloves, what name was on you very first glove? Mine was a Robin Roberts model.


  26. jimmykc1-
    I remember all my gloves… first was Matty Alou, then Reggie Jackson (!), Joe Rudi, and Rick Burleson. After my dog got a hold of the Joe Rudi, my dad told me when buying the Rick Burleson “Take care of this one! I’m not buying you another one!”. That was 1979 and I still use that glove on occasion. Still have the Matty Alou as well, but I was only 6 when I got it so it’s not much use.


  27. My first glove was one of those dopey blue and red ones from the early to mid seventies. Before that I had used one of my brothers. Not sure of the name because I couldn’t read the script signature, but I think it was Dick McAulife.
    Eventually in Babe Ruth League and H.S., I had a Wilson with a Fred Lynn autograph. I had that glove for a long time.


  28. Mine was a Wilson Mike Flanagan split-hinge model. I don’t remember what year I got it, but I am guessing it was 1980, the year after his big year with the Orioles. I still have it and it still feels great on my hand, even after all these years. The ball still POPS in the pocket. The only problem now is that the bottom half of my palm is exposed. For that reason I wouldn’t use it to play catch, but for tossing the ball around, catching tennis balls off a wall, it feels as good as it did back then


  29. Showing my age–Marty Marion. As a kid I could never figure out why a right handed player was on a left handed glove. Maybe it was the first of many betrayals. And Marty Marion? I hardly knew ye. Did these mediocre to grim players supplement their income this way? And why would a glove company sign a contract with these jamokes? Austerity plan?


  30. I wonder if the name-on-glove thing was regional in any way. McAuliffe was a New Englander (and there weren’t too many of those in the bigs), so maybe the glove company thought it was a good idea to put his name on the gloves of New England kids like my brother. (Also, as pointed out in comments in the McAuliffe post, he was pretty good–and Marty Marion was, deservedly or not by current stat-crunching standards, a chronic all-star in his day.)


  31. I’ve heard old times rave about Marion’s glovework, Josh. We’ll never have the numbers on the defensive side for guys of that era, so I’ll go with anecdotal evidence when it comes to defense back then. His career was shortened by an injury, IIRC. The guy is still alive and every once in a while I see a retired writer pen a HOF advocacy pice for him.



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