Archive for the ‘Bill Lee’ Category

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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).

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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. 

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Bill Lee

April 28, 2010

Before we get to this card, a couple book-related thoughts from my increasingly scattered mind:

1. Chicago Tribune writer Robert Duffer has posted, at his Chicago Literary Examiner blog, a review of Cardboard Gods and an interview with me. Elsewhere, Albert Lang has posted part 1 and part 2 of an interview with me at Fantasy Baseball 101.

2. Tomorrow (4/29) at 7 p.m., I’ll be proving that I know how to read by publicly doing so aloud from my book. This demonstration will occur at Quimby’s in Chicago (1854 West North Avenue). I’ll be doing a fair amount of readings and appearances over the next few weeks (or a lot for me, anyway, and enough to max out my vacation days at my job). Please check the “Cardboard Gods book tour” page for more details. (Note: This page may continue to be updated; we are still working on possible additional appearances in the NYC area between May 13 through May 16.)

3. The latest addition to the list of appearances for the book had me jumping around my apartment a couple days ago:

WEDNESDAY, MAY 19TH, 5:30 PM EASTERN
Red Sox Team Store, 19 Yawkey Way, Boston, MA
Author appearance, book signing.
***With special guest Red Sox legend BILL LEE***
Open to those holding tickets to May 19th Red Sox game.
(Note: We tried to get a bookstore appearance in Boston, too, but because we started looking so late–or because I’m not exactly Stephen King–were unable to find any takers.)

And on that note, on to the card:

One late summer day, my brother and I bought a couple packs of cards at the general store, knowing they’d probably be mostly full of cards we’d already gotten by then, and then as we were about to head home we noticed something going on at a house just over the little bridge by the store. We walked over. There was a bunch of junk on the lawn, and a couple people picking through it, and one lady who looked a little older than our mom sitting in chaise lounge with a cigar box full of dollar bills and coins in her lap. Among the rusty garden tools and lopsided lamps and stacks of plates, we found a box that had a few baseball cards in it. I don’t remember what the price tag on the box said, but it must have been cheap, maybe 5 cents a card. This seemed like a stroke of great luck to us, as the cards seemed incredibly ancient, even though they dated from only four or five years earlier than when we’d started buying cards. We couldn’t have been more excited or more convinced that we’d stumbled upon the key to great riches if we’d taken a shovel to our back yard and found the bones of a tyrannosaurus.

We both walked away with about a pack’s worth of old cards each. This card was my favorite find, of course, and I didn’t even put any extra value on getting a player’s rookie card. I just liked that this card featured a member of my favorite team, and not only that but one of my favorites on that team, Bill Lee, and not only one of my favorites but the one guy on the team who seemed like he could waltz right into my weird house at any moment and start talking loudly with my parents about solar power and homemade beer while simultaneously joking around with me and my brother about Dick Pole and Mad Magazine.

I like that he is shown here with the Green Monster in the background. Around the time the picture was taken (perhaps on the very same day), Lee got his first look at the batter-friendly wall and famously asked reporters, “Do they leave it there during the game?”

Beyond being a fitting visual accompaniment to that quote, the card is also—and I just now realized this—the single card that ever came to me as a kid that features my favorite place in the world. All later cards featuring the Red Sox, or any other players, for that matter, were either taken in spring training or at another stadium. (Other readers of this site with a better handle on identifying stadiums in cards can more accurately comment on this, but I think California stadiums showed up most often in 1970s cards, with Yankee Stadium and its Brut sign also in the mix).

So anyway, it’s a beauty, this card—Bill Lee as a very young man in the place I love the best. I was just a year old when the picture was taken. When I was born, Bill was in the last season of a stellar college career at USC. In June, he started the final game of the College World Series, which his team won (I can’t find anything confirming that he got the win in that final game, but he was named to the all-tournament team). He rose quickly through the minors, excelling in each of his three quick stops, and was in the majors for good by 1969. His big league career spanned my childhood almost exactly, and it was a good one, over a hundred wins and a strong ERA even while pitching in a park that seemed designed to send lefties to the trauma ward; a selection to an all-star team; and eventual induction to the Red Sox’ Hall of Fame and to the Baseball Reliquary Shrine of Eternals. His career after the majors is even better in some ways in that it revealed an unsurpassed love of the game: he never stopped growing and roaming the globe and, most of all, pitching. He has played the game on practically every last shred of land on the globe. His old nemesis, Don Zimmer, is renowned for never existing as an adult outside organized baseball, even to this day holding down a job as a coach with the Tampa Bay Rays. But Bill Lee is much more impressive to me: he has never been outside of disorganized baseball, even when he was in organized baseball.

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Bill Lee

October 31, 2006
 

Unlike most Red Sox hurlers, Bill Lee was good at beating the Yankees. Keenly aware of this, Mickey Rivers and Graig Nettles conspired during a wild 1976 Red Sox-Yankees bench-clearing brawl to ambush Lee and rip his pitching arm out of its shoulder socket. He struggled the next couple of years for the Red Sox and in December 1978 the team, with the blessing of manager Don Zimmer, who hated and was hated by the nonconformist lefty, shipped Lee to the Expos for Stan “Little Papi” Papi, who proceeded to hit a Stan Papiesque .188 for the Red Sox while Lee turned in a classic “fuck you, Red Sox” year, going 16-10 with a 3.04 ERA. His major league career came to an end in 1982 when his one-game walkout to protest the release of teammate Rodney Scott resulted in the Expos showing him the same door they showed Rodney Scott.

My Vermont childhood was coming toward a close around that time. My brother was away at boarding school (rooming with our friend from the Randolph Center days, Buster Olney), and the house adults, Mom and Tom, had both long-since given up on their dream of hippie grow-your-own-food self-sufficiency and had gotten regular full-time jobs, which made the house feel even emptier than it already might have in the glaring absence of my brother. In a couple years we three remainders would all go our separate ways, and maybe on some level we all knew the separation was coming. Maybe that’s why we took our only trip as a threesome around then, a gray weekend visit to Montreal. I can only remember that there didn’t seem to be very much to do on that trip. It was like life in general for me during that twilight time, as if the distractions that had wallpapered over the void for most of my childhood were dissolving.

We wandered the streets, ate in a restaurant where you ordered in French, sat around the hotel, and, in the one gleaming highlight, went to a documentary, which as far as I know was never released in the U.S., about Bill Lee. Here he was in all his glory, talking about sprinkling marijuana on his pancakes, cursing Don Zimmer for his beady-eyed, self-righteous, slow-witted devotion to traditional thinking, lauding meditation as a way to take a snapshot of your mind at any moment, and blaming the chronic back problems that besieged Americans on the fact that we, unlike the more enlightened Japanese, were slavishly devoted to the con game of chairs. With his bushy Expos-era beard and his good-natured motormouth communist rantings, he seemed like one of Mom and Tom’s friends from the old days of the hippie pot-luck suppers and the moonlight brandy-sipping cross-country ski outings.

It makes sense to me that Bill Lee ended up settling post-career in Vermont, maybe the only major leaguer to ever have done so. Not only was it the midpoint between his two major league stops, it was also a land where a bearded iconoclastic weirdo could chairlessly sprinkle marijuana on his pancakes in rustic peace. It makes even more sense that when the Red Sox finally ended their sufferings in 2004 they did so in part by creating a reverse image of their dubious treatment of Lee, acquiring a certain pitcher from Montreal, who though otherwise extremely effective was generally undone by the Yankees, and who in a wild 2003 Yankees-Red Sox brawl deftly hoisted Yankee bench coach Don Zimmer on his own foolish petard. Lee, as usual, was not at a loss for words when asked to comment on Pedro Martinez’s terse deflection of the onrushing Zimmer: “Maybe it knocked some sense into him. It’s pretty hard to grab a bowling ball by the ears. What amazes me is that he didn’t bounce. I would have been sure he was full of helium.” One short year later, my brother and I were screaming our voices raw at the happiest parade since VJ Day.

In closing, and apropos of nothing except maybe as a tribute to the way William Francis Spaceman Lee was always spilling over with raw irrational illogical life, I’d just like to add that the back of this card features a space-filling cartoon with a caption that reads as follows: “Pete LaCock is a son of television personality Peter Marshall.” It is not the first instance of a major leaguer changing a surname from something potentially offensive, such as Marshall, to something completely immune to mockery, such as LaCock. In the late-1930s a man who had been born John Oscar Dicksus played under the name Johnny Dickshot. If you don’t believe me, you can view his “stage name” and career numbers by clicking here. You’ll also find a listing of his given name and be able to see that Johnny Dickshot’s nickname was “Ugly.”

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