Work in Sports
In an orbit all his own
Bill Lee, the Spaceman, takes a different track, whether he's "retiring" from the Red Sox, lofting a Leephus pitch or probing the wisdom of Zevon
By Curry Kirkpatrick
Issue date: August 7, 1978
Bernie Carbo says that in baseball a flake is merely someone who is not boring, someone who enjoys himself. Someone like Bill Faul, whom Carbo remembers from the minor leagues because of his rather outré appetite. According to Carbo, Faul once interrupted a dreary evening in the clubhouse by biting the head off a live parakeet and gulping it down. This came as no surprise to those teammates who had witnessed Faul's performance the day before, when he chewed up a live toad and swallowed it. "Now there was a flake," says Carbo. "Bill Lee goes much deeper than that."
What does the number 337-7718 stand for? Bill Lee upside down. "I'm just an excitable boy," says Lee.
During the nearly 10 years that 31-year-old Bill Lee has spent pitching and performing in the uniform of the Boston Red Sox -- two similar activities which in Lee's case can be vastly dissimilar -- there have been countless occasions on which Lee has reinforced his image as America's paragon of lefthandedness.
More often than not, Lee's act has been punctuated by his blurting out a lyric or two from a rock song with which nobody in his right mind would be familiar unless he had an FM receiver firmly embedded in his gizzard. Since the overseers of our National Pastime are still poking around stacks of Vaughn Monroe platters while the world inhabited by Bill Lee boogies to Steely Dan, few of them can empathize with -- much less approve of -- him.
It is not so much that anyone objects to Lee jumping off motel balconies into swimming pools or playing bullpen Frisbee games with bleacherites. Or making references to his own error-prone infielders as "guys who are lucky they can see" and to former Yankee Manager Billy Martin and the New Yorkers as "that neo-Nazi and his Brown Shirts." These are run-of-the-mill nutty things to do and say. Mere rattles in the playpen of flakedom. Lee is not satisfied with such kid stuff.
Sure enough, so that nobody -- not even his blonde, frizz-curled jewel of a wife, Mary Lou -- would know what he was about to do on the afternoon of June 16, Lee kept mumbling rock 'n' roll non sequiturs during his daily rounds:
Speeding along in his lime-green BMW toward an appearance at the Massachusetts Hospital School for the Handicapped -- "You can't run away from yourself. ... Bob Marley & The Wailers." Riding in an elevator to the fourth floor of the Jordan Marsh department store in downtown Boston, where a group of housewives waited for him to divulge his recipe for vegetarian lasagna -- "Obladi oblada, life goes on. ... The Beatles." Walking through the players' parking lot at Fenway Park -- "Don't go changin' to try and please me. ... Billy Joel." Riding, walking, talking, everywhere, all day -- "He's just an excitable boy. ... Warren Zevon."
Later that day Lee stormed into the Boston clubhouse, cleaned out his locker, hurled his nameplate to the floor, walked out on the Red Sox and thoroughly "retired" from baseball.
This was so wondrous a news story to the millions of New Englanders who concurrently love and hate Lee that the baseball-made Boston newspapers bannered it on the front pages, above the Carter-Torrijos meetings in Panama. In truth, the only novelty was how utterly unsurprising Lee's behavior really was. A man who lives by the sword dies by it. In this case Lee's blade was a career-long, counter-culture appreciation of systematic, laid-back whimsy. "He's just an excitable boy. ... Warren Zevon."
Much of Lee's ramblings over the years has been about such terrific subjects as pyramid power, zero population growth, the goodness of soyburgers, the badness of sugar, interplanetary creative Zen Buddhism and heavy, heavy, zapped-out karma. But Lee's philosophy is more out of comic books -- to be specific, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, which his 8-year-old son Michael shares with his dad -- than Nietzsche or Vonnegut or even Paramahansa Yogananda.
Moreover, Lee's spiritual leaders are pop music legends. He has repeatedly seen American Graffiti, a movie about rock 'n' roll and the '50s, which was filmed along Fourth Street in San Rafael, Calif., where Lee grew up. His brother Paul was stabbed at a Jimi Hendrix concert, an event that gave shape, Lee says, to his own "wariness of peripheralness and the absurdities of daily life." Records and tapes and programs from rock concerts clutter up the front room of Lee's large duplex in suburban Belmont. Then there is the new guy, Zevon.
In the music industry, Zevon, a bespectacled, disheveled former songwriter for Linda Ronstadt, is usually described as being from the "California Outlaw" school, which is also known as "California Weird." It would be impossible for Lee -- the guru of baseball's flakes, the game's Spaceman -- not to relate to that. Among the songs of Zevon's latest album are Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, Werewolves of London and Accidentally Like a Martyr. Lee has the album practically memorized. Then there are the lyrics to Excitable Boy, which begin:
Well, he went down to dinner
After a couple of months of this banging into his consciousness, it was little wonder that Lee made sure gravy was spilled all over the place when it came time to get out of the game he loves to shock almost as much as he loves to play.
The Spaceman has always said things like "I wasn't supposed to be around here 15 days after I got here," referring to the day in 1969 when he was called up from the bushes to temporarily replace Jim Lonborg, who had injured his toe while attempting to bunt. So what could it matter when the Spaceman left? Though Lee could not supplant Lonborg as Boston's ace, his 84 victories over the next nine years, including three straight 17-win seasons, where enough to endear him to Sox fans, whether or not they knew Ouspensky or Gurdjieff, the mystics Lee says are his "psychological" advisors.
The Boston-area public always has been divided along geographical as well as generational lines in its feelings toward Lee. In the blue-collar Irish bars of Southie, Lee was anathema after he defended Judge Arthur Garrity Jr., who ordered the desegregation of Boston schools by busing, as "the only guy in this town with any guts." On the other hand, the Spaceman was a prince to the city's hip-liberal college population -- largely based in Cambridge -- which was thrilled by his outspoken lobbying for decriminalization of marijuana and his open defiance of pot laws.
The Red Sox were left in a quandary as to just what to do with Lee. Possibly the most straitlaced organization in all of pro sports, Boston was one of the first teams to impose a no-liquor rule on team flights and one of the last to dress out in form-sitting knit uniforms. In the matter of race, the Sox signed their first black player -- Pumpsie Green -- long after every other team in the majors had blacks. Even today only two U.S.-born blacks are on the Red Sox' roster, Jim Rice and George Scott.
In Lee, team officials saw a flaming radical, junkballing journeyman lefthander with no fastball, no loyalty and no moral values. Yet they also saw a media hero who visited all the sick children, kept the sports talk shows in clover and drew crowds at Fenway Park. This same man also refused to believe there was no tomorrow -- even after his team lost the seventh game of the 1975 World Series.
Lee's friend, former Red Sox Pitcher Tom House, who now plays for Seattle, says, "Deep down inside -- where nobody has ever gotten to him -- Bill is a great human being. It's just that in baseball the Peter Principle reaches its highest level, and the absolute worst people run the show. Bill realized very early the ludicrousness of being in a position where so many intellectual vegetables have so much authority and influence over the way he lives his life. I always thought Bill was an accident looking for a place to happen. But he's too intelligent to be self-destructive. He knows marginal players have to play by the rules. Any deviation from the norm is a ticket out. But he's a master at walking the tightrope. Bill never let anybody or anything diminish his character. And he never will."
Nor will he flinch when it comes to saying what is on his mind:
About teams. The Oakland A's championship clubs of 1972, '73 and '74, Lee observed, "are emotionally mediocre. They remind me of Gates Brown lying on a rug." Cincinnati's Big Red Machine, he said, "is about the third-best team in fundamentals I've ever seen -- behind the Taiwan Little Leaguers and the USC NCAA champion of 1968. The Reds act like a drill team; they should be managed by Jack Webb." Lee said the California Angels "couldn't break a chandelier if they held batting practice in a hotel lobby." Naturally, he called the Yankees "a bunch of vagabonds with bad wheels" and "a fine sociological study of human frailties."
In addition to these group assaults, Lee has come down fairly heavily on certain individuals. He described Yankee owner George Steinbrenner as "a convicted felon" and during a spitball controversy said former American League President Joe Cronin acted "like an idiot."
The Red Sox management has not been spared. During the classic 1975 Series between Boston and Cincinnati, Lee said that Manager Darrell Johnson's decision to pitch Luis Tiant, instead of himself, in Game 6 was "stupid. But Darrell's been falling out of trees and landing on his feet all season." Last season Lee called current Manager Don Zimmer "a gerbil."
Unable to rid themselves of Lee without risking the torching of Fenway Park, the Sox hierarchy set about eliminating his running partners. Since last season Pitchers Ferguson Jenkins, Rick Wise and Jim Willoughby were either sold or traded away -- primarily, it must be admitted, because they were not getting the job done on the mound. But their close ties with Lee and his off-field lifestyle did not strengthen their position. When Willoughby was sold to the White Sox on the last day of spring training, Lee placed a lighted candle on Zimmer's desk as his personal memorial.
Following the purge, the coterie, which was named the Royal Order of the Buffalo Heads in honor of the rotund, bald Zimmer -- Jenkins said, "My Indian friends consider the buffalo the ugliest, dumbest animal in captivity" -- was left with only two members, Lee and Carbo. When Carbo, the Sox' utility outfielder who had become and underground celebrity by hitting a famous home run in the '75 Series and then 15 more last season when he led the Sox in on-base percentage, was sold to Cleveland an hour before the June 15 trade deadline, it was the straw that broke the Buffaloes' back. Lee wept for 20 minutes, ripped his telephone from the wall at home and vowed he would never play for Boston again.
At the time Lee quit, the Red Sox were on a seven-game winning streak, were six games ahead of everybody in the American League East and had the best record in baseball. Lee had won his first six decisions. Plagued by shoulder trouble and a lack of fielding support -- 10 unearned runs had scored in his previous two appearances -- he nonetheless had a 7-3 record by mid-June and was playing a major role in the Red Sox' drive for the division championship.
Because of his sense of theater, not to mention his bent for the absurd, it was reasonable to believe that Lee was merely parodying Dave Cowens' walkout from the Celtics a couple of years ago. More simply, it was difficult to take Lee seriously because he never seems to do so himself. However, this time the cuckoo sounded as if he was burning his nest behind him.
Lee said, "The Red Sox trade away all the personalities and surround themselves with [agent Jerry] Kapstein plastic." He blasted Zimmer as "a no-good front-running son of a bitch." The new owners of the team, Haywood Sullivan and Buddy Leroux, he called "gutless." He said he wanted to fight them. And then he made the most telling comment of all. "Baseball isn't fun anymore," Lee said.
The next day, after the Spaceman had jogged three miles from Harvard Square to Fenway, returned to the team and been fined $533, he said he had asked management "to make it $1,500 so I could take another couple of days off." Moreover, Lee said he was not happy about the "qualities in the system, the ambiguities in life." He said he would be much happier working on his grandfather's walnut farm than pitching for the Red Sox. He cited S.I. Hayakawa and George Patton. He said he felt like the character in the movie Network who was shot while on the air. He said he had returned on behalf of "future ballplayers yet unborn." He said he was looking for compassion. He said it was time for everybody to "start thinking about the earth."
Boomer Scott, the first baseman from Mississippi, who, someone once pointed out, would be a dead ringer for Idi Amin if he could only speak the English language as well, had characterized the terrible distress his teammates felt over Lee's quitting by squealing, "Spaceman take off. Spaceman take off." Now Scott summed up the weekend. "Spaceman splash down," he said. "You know, Billy Lee's jes' a whole bunch of fun."
Fun is what Billy Lee has always had in common with baseball. As a kid in Canoga Park, in Southern California, and then in Marin County near San Francisco after his father was transferred there by the telephone company, Lee played all sports. But in football he got smacked around a lot, and sometimes hurt; basketball demanded all that running, and he got tired. Baseball? Now baseball was really fun.
As a youth Lee had no heroes, no idols. He didn't read anything about the game's history, and he didn't collect bubble-gum cards. The times he went to see his Dodgers, he was embarrassed for his friends when they rushed to obtain autographs. The fun of baseball was in playing the game. That is what Lee wanted to do.
"I've never had so much fun in my life as when I was playing ball," Lee says. "Pitching. Hitting. Fielding. Catching flies. Running the bases. I wanted to do it all. God, I loved it. Playing ball. I'd play ball all day."
If he had stopped playing a moment and picked up any old record book, Lee might have noticed that for one who enjoyed the game and appreciated its eccentricities; who was destined to have a certain goofy impact on college baseball, Boston baseball and baseball in Alaska, for godsakes; who was growing up lefthanded and, well, <I\>different,</I\> he would have done well to get himself some preposterous name. Something like Dizzy or Dazzy or Van Lingle Mungo. At the least, Lefty. But William Francis Lee III? Bill Lee? Billy Lee? A kid might as well be named Johnny Smith as Billy Lee.
It may be a very important insight, or just another one of his glib put-ons -- it hardly matters which -- when Lee says that he knows the exact point in his life when he recognized he would not be totally ordinary. Then he proceeds to put his finger on a whole bunch of altogether separate points. "My parents made the big mistake when they put me in school too early. Four years old. I handcuffed myself to the bedpost. Screwed myself up forever." Or, "They called me William at roll call, and I didn't answer. I didn't know what William meant. I guess that did it." Or, "In our kickball game during recess from Holy Communion class I booted the ball and ran the bases from third to second to first. A triple the wrong way. From that moment I was a goner."
At Terra Linda High in San Rafael, one of those shiny, progressive institutions where the kids learn to smoke their bicycle tires before they get to the meanings of "deal with" and "mellow out" in their vocabulary lists, Lee became a gifted, if inattentive, student. An ability to, as he describes it, "cross-reference everything in my life" earned him good enough grades to qualify for an academic scholarship to USC. "I want to go to Humboldt State for forestry school," Lee says. "Or UCLA. I was very UCLA-ish. I questioned authority. I questioned everything. At USC you couldn't kiss the girls, because they had spoons in their mouths. Or their noses. Alan Ladd Jr. snaked my girlfriend from me in drama class. He drove a Ferrari. I hated that elitism."
But Lee had educators in his family -- his maternal great-grandfather was the noted California historian Rockwell Dennis Hunt, who had been dean of the graduate school at USC -- and Lee wound up staying in college the full four years and graduating.
Ever since, Lee has gotten a lot of mileage from the old saw about a degree in geography helping him find his way around the minor leagues. In fact, Dr. Rod McKenzie, now chairman of the geography department at USC, says Lee "was as good student as we ever had around here. I'd rank him among the brightest 5% to 10%."
On the diamond for Coach Rod Dedeaux' perennial national champions, things were not so smooth. For one, the gangling 6'3" Lee considered himself a hitter, not merely a pitcher. But from Lee's sophomore year on, Dedeaux never let him do anything but pitch. One season Lee refused to attend preseason practice -- a college holdout, no lie -- unless Dedeaux promised to let him play first base, too. The coach agreed to let Lee take some batting practice, and Lee came back to the team and pitched.
It was at USC that Lee began doing strange things. Wacked-out things. Lefthander-type things. He demurs. "I was the only sane one," Lee says. "Did I drink from the Texaco pump after we clinched the pennant? Did I strip off my clothes in the parking lot? Did I take out a cop with a hook slide in Tijuana? No, no and no. All righthanders. Mental patients are lefthanders who were made to change into righthanders. Righthanders are really screwed up."
Yet Lee did have his moments. A teammate recalls that one day Lee showed up late for a doubleheader because, he told Dedeaux, the early dew on the ground, combined with the acorns in the outfield, gave off an unpleasant odor. And once in the middle of a tight game Lee called a conference on the mound -- catcher, coach, third baseman, the whole cast -- and informed them that his lips were chapped. Lee cruised Sunset Strip on Halloween in drag. On a road trip he slid down the airport baggage chute wearing the team's duncelike red wig.
"I also understood everything Casey Stengel said, which sometimes worried me," says Dedeaux, who in 1935 was signed by Stengel off the USC campus to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. "But I know that all my hours with Casey helped prepare me for Billy Lee."
Despite Lee's buffoonery, Dedeaux also knew he had a prospect. By the time Lee got out of college he had perfected an assortment of at least 55 tantalizingly slow, spinning pitches to go with a fastball that was rumored to break glass. In his sophomore year teammates remember him being even tougher to hit than another Trojan starter, Tom Seaver. During his college career Lee had a 38-8 record, including two victories in the 1968 College World Series, which the Trojans won.
"It was then that I felt Billy would make the majors," says Dedeaux. "He could get a variety of pitches over with good control. He was never afraid to challenge the hitters with his, er, fastball. Above everything else, he was an outstanding competitor."
Following graduation Lee was drafted in the first round by the Red Sox, and after playing for Waterloo and Winston-Salem, he arrived in Pittsfield, Mass., Boston's Double-A farm team. By that time Lee had married Mary Lou Helfrich, a former "Miss Alaska person" whom he had met while playing in Fairbanks during his college summers. According to both parties, the couple managed to do "a lot of parking," but didn't get to know each other much until after their honeymoon at -- where else? -- the Mardi Gras. To understand that this match was made, if not in heaven, at least in a cuddly corner of Hellzapoppin', it must be reported that Mary Lou is of Indonesian and Dutch parentage, lived in the Tlingit Indian village of Yakutat, Alaska, went to the University of Alaska and Southern Mississippi, dated Eskimos (in Alaska, not Mississippi, one presumes), still dresses to the teeth for games in U.S. Army khakis and waits longingly for the Red Sox to win a World Series so she can buy a giraffe for the backyard. "And she ain't lefthanded, either," says Lee.
Boston Catcher Carlton Fisk, at the time a fuzzy-cheeked 20-year-old just out of the woods of New Hampshire, vaguely recalls Lee from both Waterloo and Pittsfield. "The prevailing atmosphere in Iowa was a whole lot of screaming matches between Bill and the manager," Fisk says. "There was no way Bill would have anything to do with discipline or authority. He was way ahead of us in age and worldliness, and he resented being treated like a teen-ager, which most of the players were. I had never met anyone from California before. It was wild. His cares and priorities were at the opposite end of the rainbow from mine. Maybe that was the attraction.
"When I did something it was for a reason, out of judgment or something. I never talked back to anybody in my life. If I did, my dad would beat the dickens out of me. But this guy would do something just for the hell of it, and not think about the consequences. He was always questioning the manager. Why, why, why? In the second game Bill started in Waterloo, the leadoff batter got a hit. Bill picked him off first and pitched 8 2/3 innings of no-hit ball. Right after the game he was sent up to Winston-Salem.
"Later at Pittsfield I don't remember him throwing more than a few times. Billy Gardner was the manager, and Lee went up to Boston fast. I asked Gardner why they would call up a kid with less than a year in the pros. Gardner said that Bill had decent command of five pitches and that he wouldn't learn anything more in the minors. I've thought about that and figure that they moved Bill up to be sure he couldn't get anybody out. Then they could send him on his way.
"Management was still making it hell for Bill last season. People around here told him he wasn't worth anything, that he wasn't the type of guy to have around. The club tried to infect the area with nasty talk about what a miserable mess Bill Lee was. They tried to turn the flock on one of its own. But the Spaceman tricked 'em. He tricked everybody."
There have been pitchers who threw the ball slower than Lee. Mike Cuellar comes to mind, if only because Lee regards him as the alltime artist. "The Orioles drive Cuellar to the mound in a sanitation truck, dump him out and here comes the garbage," Lee once said. "He's lobbing melons up there, squash, cabbage, rotten grapefruit. 'Here, have a cabbage,' he says. Then, K, K, K. Wow! What a guy." Since Lee's left shoulder ripped from its socket in a Red Sox-Yankee brawl in 1976, and especially this season when the shoulder has acted up again, Lee has become a Cuellar incarnate. And his record this season, 10-6 at the end of last week, was almost what could be expected of Cuellar, too.
Because his right knee was injured in high school, Lee did not develop the leg drive most pitchers need to throw overpowering fastballs. Because he was tall and had an upright pitching stance, he also failed to learn the classic mechanics of his craft. As a result, Lee became an "arm pitcher" with a natural sinkerball and a fadeaway motion that makes his ball run away from righthanded batters. "I also got smarter than the flame-throwers," says Lee. "I realized the harder the ball comes in, the harder it goes out. Softer in, softer out."
His height notwithstanding, Lee hardly seems intimidating out on the hill. His No. 37 uniform -- somebody in the Boston organization has a sense of humor; Stengel, not to mention Lee's precursor on the Sox, Jimmy Piersall, wore the same number -- droops over his narrow body like a toga. Then there are all those watermelon pitches arriving so invitingly at the plate. No wonder he frequently has to resort to basic psychology -- stalking the mound with his head scrunched into his shoulders when facing Walt (No Neck) Williams -- or bizarre tactics -- delivering his lollipop slow curve, called "the moon ball" or (with apologies to Rip Sewell) "the Leephus pitch."
Traditionalists have questioned Lee's desire and intensity, but he has laboriously worked on his fielding over the years, and the time he has spent developing his pickoff move -- now perhaps the best in the game -- belies his reputation for insouciance. "Bill Lee is a college graduate," says Zimmer. "He's above me, and I don't try to understand him or those words he uses. I can't spell most of them anyway. But never, no way, do I believe Lee is not trying. Or that he is anything but a great competitor."
Because Lee's cartoon character has dwarfed his accomplishments on the field, even die-hard Fenwayites are occasionally stunned to learn that he is the most successful Sox lefthander since Mel Parnell. Or that his mysteriously brilliant 12-5 record against the hated Yankees is the third best in history (behind Dickie Kerr and Babe Ruth).
In 1971, as the ace of Boston's bullpen, Lee was 9-2, and two years later, having become a starter, he made the All-Star team. When American League Manager Dick Williams asked the pitching staff before the All-Star Game whether "anybody doesn't feel capable of getting the other side out," Lee raised his hand. He didn't get in the game. In 1975 he made two starts in the World Series and pitched well right up to the sixth inning of the seventh game, departing with a 3-2 lead. "Gullett [the Cincinnati pitcher] is going to the Hall of Fame, and I'm going to the Eliot Lounge," he said after the Reds won.
In 1973-75, the three-year period during which Lee won 51 games, Fisk says Lee "was the best lefthander in the league. We didn't get him any runs then. With a couple more here or there, he might have won 24 or 25 games each season. Not many big-name throwers know how to pitch the way Bill does. He turns the curve, the fastball and the slider two and sometimes three different ways. He senses situations -- times when a guy is trying to yank him to right or take him up the middle or go downtown. He changes speeds, fights 'em, outfoxes 'em. He's a real gamer."
Carl Yastrzemski marvels at Lee's athletic ability. "He'll play pepper for 20 or 30 minutes and never want to stop," says Yaz. "He'll take fungoes in the outfield all by himself. He shags forever in batting practice. He runs four or five miles a day. Bill really works. Between the lines he's all business. He puts the uniform on. He enjoys the game. You talk about a guy who would play baseball for nothing, no pay. This is the guy."
It is hardly a secret that the Red Sox have had their share of cutups. There was Piersall, who in his pre-sanitarium days ate grass, climbed the screen, squirted home plate with a water pistol and ran backward to first base. There was Gene Conley, who once got fed up in a Manhattan traffic jam, jumped off the team bus and attempted to take a plane to Israel. And there was Carbo, who used to hold up play while he admired his likeness on the picture-scoreboard and who bought extra plane tickets so his stuffed gorilla could sit next to him on road trips.
But none of them captivated the Boston public or the city's fawning media as Lee has. "The writers and microphone guys are his disciples," Fisk says. "I just sit back, watch him hold court and laugh and laugh," says Yastrzemski, whose locker affords a spectacular view of Lee's press conferences.
House says, "I don't think Bill would have made it in any other town. Where else do you have 120 media people running around listening to a ballplayer talk about Red China as if he knows what he's talking about? New York would have been too sophisticated. Plus, the press would have burned Bill. Boston was the perfect sounding board for him. He was refreshing, bombastic, loony and not threatening. Who'd want to scare him into straightening up?"
Space prohibits listing in alphabetical order the things Lee has done and said to outrage the baseball Establishment. But in just a few inches, he has:
The zaniness has been readily accepted in places like Cambridge, Charley's Eating and Drinking Saloon and the bleachers at Fenway, where Lee met his best friend, Mike Mulkern, who, Lee says, used to be one of those great dope-smoking radicals who got amnesia a lot." Mulkern presented himself as a human goalpost for Lee's bubblegum-wad field-goal tries from the bullpen.
Moreover, Lee's easy manner, sparkling green eyes and aging-beach-boy looks always have gone over with the ladies. Witness the young thing who breathlessly approached him the other day saying, "Bill? That letter you got? About the term paper? The term paper 'A Love Story -- Bill Lee'? It was from me."
Other observers have not been so enamored. Clif Keane and Larry Claflin are two veteran reporters with rather rigid beliefs about how baseball players should look and act. Their radio show,Clif and Claf, is popular nighttime entertainment in New England, and the two have waged a campaign to rid the region of Lee almost since he originally toed the Fenway rubber. Teammates say Lee rescued Claflin once by stepping in where others feared to tread when former Red Sox Pitcher Gary Peters was ready to rearrange Claflin's face in a Detroit bar. Keane, however, has no such reasons for restraint when criticizing Lee on the air.
"Imbecile," "goon-head" and "drug addict" are some of Keane's milder descriptions of Lee. When Keane questioned how Lee's wife and family could put up with his nocturnal meanderings, Lee came close to filing a lawsuit. "The guy is on flea powder or angel dust," Keane will rant in the press box. "Did Lee get a cortisone shot in the shoulder or the head?" he loudly asked Red Sox General Manager Sullivan at the June press conference after Lee left on his 24-hour sabbatical. "If this team has any class you'll tell him to shove it."
George Kimball, a tattooed, irreverent representative of the local journal most closely aligned with Lee's style, the underground The Boston Phoenix, makes an important distinction between Lee's fanatical friends and his fanatical foes. "Nobody who can count doesn't like Bill Lee," Kimball says.
Now wait. Fisk has argued vehemently and publicly with Lee on the mound. When he was with the Sox, Reggie Smith beat up on the pitcher. In the Puerto Rico winter league, Lee was jumped by Catcher Ellie Rodriguez and Rodriguez' cousin and brother -- one of whom reportedly carried a knife. The assault was in retaliation for Lee's one-punch knockout of Ellie in an earlier encounter. Lee suffered no knife wounds against the Rodriguez tag team, but he was urged to contact a dentist immediately.
Then there are the Yankees. On the night of May 20, 1976, while backing up home plate in Yankee Stadium, Lee unwisely took part in a full-scale rumble, the results of which nearly cost him his left arm, not to mention his career. While trying to prevent the Yankees' Otto Velez from joining the fray, Lee was punched by Mickey Rivers, and then grabbed from behind by Graig Nettles and heaved to the ground on his shoulder. At that point, films show, Rivers pounded away at Lee under a mountain of bodies. When Lee finally was able to get up and throw a punch, his arm was shot. Nonetheless, he went after Nettles, who opened up with both fists, and Lee was hammered into a bloody pulp.
Because of his assault on Lee, Rivers has been pelted with racial epithets, bottles, bolts and firecrackers at Fenway, and Lee still wonders if his shoulder is all there. "I don't think the Yankees started the fight to get to me," Lee says, "but once it started, I know there were a few Yankees looking for me. My opinions may have caught up with themselves." A long time before the fight, Lee had described the Yankees' gladiatorial prowess as the equal of "a bunch of hookers swinging their purses."
It was August 1976 before Lee won his next game. He finished with five victories -- this after his three seasons of 17 each -- and has not been the same pitcher since. Nonetheless his reputation as a Yankee killer convinced Zimmer to shuffle his pitching rotation last year, so that in each of the first four Red Sox-Yankee series Lee was the Sox' starter in the opening game. He finished 1-1, with two no-decisions and one dead fish courtesy of Billy Martin, who sent the Mafia-style gift to Lee with a note reading, "Put this in your purse, you no-good ----."
This season Lee's one turn against the Yankees was rained out, but it has made no difference, as the Red Sox have opened a lead on the Yankees as well as the rest of the division.
Contradictions continue to abound in Lee's life. Two years ago, after spouting off against overpopulation, Lee was embarrassed to learn that Mary Lou was pregnant with Kate, the youngest of their three children. He is an enthusiastic supporter of the Save the Whales movement, but around his neck he wears a Yin-Yang symbol that looks suspiciously as if it is fashioned from a whale's tooth. He lobbies against sugar, but he is the only one in his family who takes his coffee sweet.
"It all started out as a joke, a put-on," says Clark Booth, another of Lee's media friends. "Bill entertained us and amused us and it was, you know, 'all seriousness aside' and that routine. Somewhere along the line, though, Bill started to think he had to keep it up. He was like a little kid who wanted to please the elders. Maybe he still wants the role and all the attention. But maybe he's tired of it, too."
Lee's father, William Jr., is described by his son as a "Goldwater Republican." Often the older man is contacted by friends who ask if he has heard what his wild offspring has done this time. "I don't want to hear," says Williams Jr. A Boston writer who overheard Lee's mother on an airplane between World Series games recalls her saying," I only wish it was Bill's younger brother Paul who had made it to the big leagues."
The other day Lee was tooling along in his car with 3-year-old Andy, his middle child, and talking about nothing and everything. "I went to a psychiatrist at Harvard once," Lee said. "He said I was the greatest con artist he had ever met. He said don't dare stop.
"The problem with the world is that everything moves so fast. We should all slow down. I think that's why I love baseball so much. When the ball is popped up, you have enough time to get in a whole thought. My dilemma in life is that I have never known who the white hats are. I've been misunderstood. ... Pete Townshend, The Who. I'd love to go live on the beach in Malibu. Or go up to the Allagash waterway in Maine. Or just take over the family walnut ranch. Where is the time? Maybe I could go host Saturday Night Live on TV? I've always been a cone head.
"Baseball's magic moments are what count. I remember this. My last game in the minors. Pittsfield versus Manchester. The manager let me pinch-hit in the last inning. I was the winning run at the plate, and I cold-cocked one. A long fly ball over the fence. Bye, bye. As I was rounding second base, I looked up, and the centerfielder was reaching and jumping and flinging himself over the fence to make the catch. It was great. I was screaming like a madman, it was so great. I remember feeling pain and joy and denial and excitement all at once. Unbelievable. It was so much fun. Everything in baseball seemed wrapped up in that moment. I haven't felt that great since."
Just then little Andy in the backseat said, "Daddy, are we going to move to Disney World?"
And Bill Lee said, "I don't know, Andy, your daddy is crazy most of the time. Maybe we'll make our own Disney World right here."
Issue date: August 7, 1978