Nearing 70, Bill Lee remains the ‘Spaceman’
He lives in Craftsbury, Vt., just south of the Canadian border, and his days are full of reading and chopping wood.
Bill Lee will turn 70 next month, plans to pitch again next summer, of course, and calls himself a Zen Buddhist Rastafarian — a religious expressway fender-bender — who seeks out the wonder in each day, provided it doesn’t happen to find him first.
“I watched a four-point buck walk right by my nose today,” Lee said last week, switching quickly from a glowing review of his latest best read, Carl Hiaasen’s “Razor Girl.” “It was just a nice feeling — I had no urge to shoot it. I said, ‘Honey, do you know who that is?’ She said no. And I said, ‘That’s Bill Monbouquette. He came back as a four-point buck!’ ”
For those new to these parts, Lee and Monbouquette were notable Red Sox hurlers of different eras. Best known as “Spaceman” for his steady stream of oft-controversial, way-out-there comments (see above), Lee was a fan and media favorite in the 1970s and was a central figure in the classic ’75 World Series. Monbo’s days were earlier, in the nowhere years of the ’50s and ’60s. He was from Medford, won 20 games one year, and also threw a no-hitter. Forever a gentleman, he died in January 2015 and surprisingly stays in contact with some Sox alums.
“Monbo,” said Lee, musing over his chance encounter with the reincarnated righthander, “he would have let me come out and put a ‘Z’ on his back with a piece of charcoal.”
Which is to say, same old Bill Lee, grayer for sure but still zany. He and his unremitting stream of kookiness, for the most part lovable, will be back in Boston Tuesday night at the Garden when the Sports Museum honors him as part of its annual “Tradition” gala. The other honorees include Laila Ali, Shaquille O’Neal, Drew Bledsoe, and Wayne Cashman.
“That’s the guy . . . the hockey player” said Lee, at first struggling to recall Cashman, the Bruins’ legendary winger. “I used to drink with him all the time at Daisy’s [Daisy Buchanan’s]. We were drinking . . . I think I was there the day he got popped. They took him down to the lockup — where the [Liberty] hotel is now — and they said they would give him one phone call. And he called out for Chinese food!”
Legend has it that Cashman, amid the unbridled joy of the 1970 Stanley Cup parade, took it upon himself to act as a Boston traffic cop, causing a case of epic gridlock that cleared only days before the ’72 Cup parade.
Nearly a half-century later, who knows whether Cashman and Lee really downed ’em at Daisy’s that day. But let’s hope. The megabillion-dollar sports industry, full of clichés and image protecting, is sadly bereft of such laughs these days.
Lee arrived in town in 1969, the ’67 Impossible Dream season still casting a golden hue over the Back Bay. He was a bright-eyed, California kid from USC, used exclusively as a reliever for five seasons because, he recalled the other day, then manager Eddie Kasko “wouldn’t have known a good starter if it walked up and bit him on the ass.”
But Lee coped with Kasko and eventually thrived as a starter. Not true of Don Zimmer, the conservative, jowly Sox skipper of the late ’70s whom Lee dubbed, “The Gerbil.” His ongoing and quite public conflict with Zimmer ultimately led to his hastened departure, Lee dealt to the Montreal Expos for the little-known-and-quickly-departed Stan Papi.
“It’s amazing,” said Lee, thinking back to his Sox days, “I came there in a three-piece suit, buttoned down, short hair, willing to be just as excited as all hell. Then I saw, you know, it was during the late ’60s and Woodstock, and everything seemed to be falling apart. And you know, Cambridge was on the other side, telling me, there’s men over there with guns, and I got to beware. All that stuff. It was an amazing time to be in Boston. Then the busing [in the Boston public schools]. I just felt I had to speak out.
“My dad said, ‘Bill, you’re amazing, you are a lefthander, you throw strikes, you’re Irish Catholic, you drink a lot, you’ll go far in that organization. All you gotta do is keep your mouth shut.’ Well, three outta four ain’t bad.”
Lee in the summer of ’78 staged a one-day walkout when the Sox traded Bernie Carbo. Haywood Sullivan, who ran the Sox then at the direction of club owner Jean Yawkey, summoned him to his Jersey Street office.
“I’m there, sweating on his desk,” recalled Lee. “He comes in, and there’s cigarette ashes everywhere, and I see someone in the back room and it’s the shadow of Mrs. Yawkey. There’s smoke coming out of the door and she’s rocking back and forth and, hell, I think I’m in the Bates Motel.”
Sullivan, recalled Lee, fined him $500, a day’s salary.
“The greatest line I ever had,’’ said Lee, “I said to him, ‘Make it $1,500 and give me the weekend off.’ ”
Come the following season, he was pitching for the Expos.
They were good years, said Lee, major league baseball at its best, until what he now calls “the end of the innocence’’ that came with the repeal of the reserve clause and the advent of free agency in the late ’70s. His best memory of baseball now, Lee says, is not the ’75 World Series, but his three games last summer when his club won the Vermont Senior Baseball League championship. In three playoff games, Lee threw 11, 9, and 12 innings, respectively.
“My pitch count?” he said. “All of ’em.”
Jim Bouton, the ex-Yankee hurler who penned the controversial tell-all “Ball Four,” will present Lee at Tuesday night’s soiree.
“My gravestone is getting bigger and bigger,” Lee said, sounding genuinely appreciative of “The Tradition” honor. “And Bouton, yeah, I always wanted a Yankee to honor me in Boston, that’s why I picked him.”