Bill Lee, 1976September 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).