Lost in Space: Bill Lee Interview

Bill Lee's outspokenness and wit has overshadowed a fine pitching career in which he won 17 games three years running, and gave up only a walk every four innings in his heyday.

Sports Central caught Lee in the Washington, DC area at the American Film Institute's SILVERDOCS Film Festival for the first complete screening of the biographical documentary "Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey" (produced by Brett Rapkin).

SC — Do you ever feel that in all the discussion of your quirky persona, the fact you were a competitor who had a very good pitching career at USC and in the majors gets lost?

Lee — That's what my film in this festival gets across. It's like I'm lost in space, as two different people — like one turns off and the other on. I was just at a plumbing fixtures convention — they had a radar gun there. I wasn't gonna let these plumbers beat me. One guy there was a 47-year-old who played minor league ball in the Toronto system. He got it up to 71 on the gun. I reached 60 mph. I factored in his age, and I beat him. To prepare for that, I threw rocks in his rock garden, and did leg stretches over a toilet to get two feet further on my throws.

SC — (jokingly) So the competitive fires have burned out?

Lee — I won 17 games three years in a row. The Red Sox have a Hall of Fame up in the private suites, the EMC Club. Bronze plaques of Jean Yawkey with those big glasses, Pudge Fisk with that nose of his. There are plaques of Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Hurst and Bill Monboquette. I won more games in a Red Sox uniform than Eck [Dennis Eckersley], [Bruce] Hurst, or [Bill] Monbouquette. I had fewer losses than they did. Other than Mel Parnell, I'm the winningest lefty in Red Sox history. What's worse than a pitcher who's a radical and a rebel? I helped form a group, The Save Fenway Park Society, to save Fenway Park when the Yawkey Trust wanted to build a new stadium. We fought them, and I cost them $286 million.

SC — In the book "Ball Four," which I kept on my nightstand one summer as a kid so I could open to any section and begin re-reading, Jim Bouton and others referred to you as "Orbit." Did "Orbit" give way to "Spaceman"?

Lee — "Spaceman" came from a teammate. I'm the most anti-space guy you want to meet — I always felt the space program was a ruse to take the focus off greater needs, such as poverty and the need for fossil fuel. But during Apollo 14 in 1972, the middle infielder John Kennedy couldn't get to his locker for all the reporters around me (I'd pitched a great game), and he had a date that night. He told the writers, "We got our own Space Man right here."

SC — In your days in the AL, batters like Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Willie Horton, and Frank Howard were around. Who were some of the toughest for you to face?

Lee — I didn't worry about Robinson much, but you nailed the rest of them. Horton, Howard, they hit it right down the middle. Killebrew I never had much trouble with — he liked to get his hand out and away, so I pitched him away so he couldn't get them into position, to take away his power. Pitching is about angles and physics — it's throwing a hitter's timing off. I'll be watching a game on TV with my wife, and I'll say, "If he gets that up five miles per hour more, and an inch away, an inch down, he'll get the batter to ground out into a double play, and it never fails"

SC — In light of that, in your years of spring training at Winter Haven, any anecdotes about Ted Williams, who was such a scientist as a hitter, but hated pitchers?

Lee — Williams says to me, "Bill, you're so dumb, you probably don't know why a curveball curves." I said "Bernoulli's Principle, the same thing that gave your airplane lift, and makes rivers run faster through narrow banks. And he's Belgian- I bet you thought he was Italian." He comes over and puts his arm around me. He liked people that challenged him, even though he wanted to be right. Neither he nor I were well-liked by the Boston pres, sort of the same persona, California kids. I was one of the last to see him alive. He was in a wheelchair at The Breakers in Palm Beach. It was just his former teammates, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, and Joe Cronin's daughter Maureen, and this retired general from the Marine Reserves. Six months later, he was dead.

SC — Are you at all emotionally attached to the Red Sox, in the sense that you were either fulfilled or relieved when they won it all in 2004?

Lee — You know, if anyone has a right to hate an organization, it's me. You can't take it out of my blood, though. Boston fans are the best in baseball — emotional, inherently tough. I'm a mathematician, sooner or later, it was going to happen. But it's strange that little Dave Roberts, a second baseman, changed the pivotal game. This for a team that tried to win without speed, defense, and pitching for so long. Yawkey built teams around the longball. I'll never forget this game when a fan was yelling at the Sox skipper in a Jamaican accent, "Put the jumper (pinch runner) in!" And Posada made a great throw on that [Roberts] play, maybe an inch to the third base side. Then we get a base hit up the middle, we're back in it.

SC — Do you feel if Tony Conigliaro hadn't gotten beaned and lost some of his vision, Baltimore wouldn't have won all those East Divisions and pennants?

Lee — Never thought about it. Everyone has injuries, you have to overcome them. Yawkey just insisted on winning with the longball. Tony C. wasn't really into baseball, though, I always felt he was using it as a stepping stone to become Ocean's Eleven or something. In '75, we had some young guys, guys who could run — [Jim] Rice, [Fred] Lynn, and [Rick] Burleson — [Carlton] Fisk, who could move for a catcher, along with the plodders, [Rico] Petrocelli and [Carl] Yastrzemski, and we put it together. I was injured late in the season, but came back to pitch in the World Series.

SC — Last question, and I thank you for your time. What was the favorite road city to eat in when you played in the American League?

Lee — Chicago, but players' palates weren't as sophisticated as they are today. Most of us were just out to get a meal. In Baltimore, we ate at O'Brickey's, in Kanas City, we ate at steak houses, Chicago. It sure wasn't Cleveland — they had the Triangle Diner and the Theatrical. We were there one Fourth of July and the streets were so deserted I thought the world had ended and I was the last survivor, like a scene out of Neville Shute's "On the Beach."

SC — Thank you again, Mr. Lee.

Lee — Thank you.

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June 18, 2006

Mark Black:

Dave Roberts, the best second basemen that never was.

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