Neil Armstrong, astronaut, and Bill Lee, lefthanded pitcher, never flew in the same circles.
Armstrong became arguably the most famous spaceman of all time a half-century ago this weekend (July 20, 1969) as the first human to step foot on the moon, with buddy Buzz Aldrin hard on his heels.
Lee, a rookie with the Red Sox that same summer, soon became baseball’s forever Spaceman, a moniker that has followed him around for nearly an identical 50 years and one that no doubt will be with him whenever the day comes that it’s his turn to leave planet Earth.
“I don’t think,” the 72-year-old Lee said the other day, musing over his life of interesting, eclectic orbits. “I don’t wear a ring. I’m not bound to anything but gravity . . . and going to space, which is when you have to leave. But you better bring a supply of oxygen, ’cuz there ain’t any up there.”
For those unfamiliar with the oft-zany, non-conforming California-born Lee, he remains the good-humored, accessible, sometimes-controversial, off-center, eminently-quotable character who helped lead the Red Sox to the World Series in 1975, ultimately to get himself traded for the highly forgettable Stan Papi, and to this day still loves to be on the mound with the ball in his hand.
If you’re scoring at home, Lee will pitch Sunday in a senior game in Montpelier, not far from where he lives in Craftsbury, Vt., and then again Monday just outside Montreal. More recent engagement have had him on the mound in Carmel, Calif., and Thetford Mines, Quebec, once the Double A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“Oh . . . I’ll tell ya . . .,” said Lee, “ . . . as long as they’re breeding hitters, I can get ’em out.”
Over the last 20 or so years, Lee became pals with Jim Bouton, the ex-Yankee hurler who passed away in recent days at age 80. Best known for his controversial book, “Ball Four”, Bouton was 13-6 lifetime against the Sox, while Lee was 12-5 vs. the Yanks, a fact that Lee was unaware of until nearly three years ago when Lee invited Bouton to present him here at the Sports Museum’s annual Tradition gala at the Garden.
“Such a great night, and people wondered why I picked Bouton to intro me,” said Lee. “Always a dream of mine to have a Yankee honor me in Boston.”
Bouton, said Lee, was “first and foremost” an entrepreneur, recalling his pal’s myriad business ventures, including those as an author and businessman, endorsing such things as bubble gum and trading cards.
“Every time he talked to me, he was always looking for an angle to make money,” said Lee. “And I was always looking for angle just to play ball. That was the difference between us.”
Bouton’s wildly successful “Ball Four”, written along with New York Post sportswriter Leonard Schechter, was considered sensational and revolutionary for its time — an unvarnished look at the Major League Baseball and the many, shall we say, foibles and predilections of the men who played it. Which is to say it was heavy on swearing, drinking, and womanizing, with a side order of baseball.
“Ball Four” was published in 1970 when Lee, 23, went 2-2 for the Sox as a sometimes starter mixed in with the likes of regulars Ray Culp, Sonny Siebert, Gary Peters, and Mike Nagy.
“I read a little bit of it then,” recalled Lee, “but it didn’t mean that much to me because I was living the exact same life he was. I’ve been rereading it lately and it is hilarious.”
It was the following summer, 1971, when Lee officially became the Spaceman, a nickname pinned on him by John Kennedy.
“Not John Kennedy the US president,” Lee is quick to caution, “but John Kennedy the [hot-tempered] third baseman.”
Following Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind in ’69, the United States delivered five more crewed landings to the lunar surface over the next three years. One of them, Lee recalled, happened near the day in ’71 when he took over a rocky start by Sox newcomer Luis Tiant.
“I throw 8⅔ innings of relief, get two hits, win the ballgame, beat Baltimore and go into first place,” remembered Lee. “We land on the moon — the second moon landing in ’71. And John Kennedy had made a date with a divorcee. But he couldn’t get to his locker because it was [alphabetical] — H, I, J, K, L — and the press was all around me, and I’m talking about the space program. And Kennedy’s trying to get his clothes off so he can spark this divorcee over on the third base line. And he goes, ‘We’ve got our own spaceman right here!’ And the next morning, the headline was, “Spaceman Lands in Baltimore.”
The name lives on . . . and on . . . and on. A bit of an entrepreneur himself, Lee sells wine under the “Spaceman” moniker along with partners John and Michele Truchard.
“I’ve got 80,000 gallons right now to put in bottles,” said the southpaw vintner. “I’m either going to be really dead early or make a boatload of money. My wine is like 15 percent alcohol by volume, so you have to decant it for two weeks. We might have to sell it to Turkey for jet fuel.”
On a recent night in Craftsbury, with the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing approaching, the Spaceman grabbed a lawn chair and stared at the moon, the sky so clear he was able to spot the Sea of Tranquility with the naked eye. Fireflies lit up around him, said Lee, describing what sounded like a scene written by Roy Hobbs himself.
“Yeah, the moon rose over Stoner Ridge,” said Lee, noting the ridgeline was named after a local family in Craftsbury. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, Stoner Ridge . . . so apropos.’ ”
Like Field of Dreams, the fans still come. Oh, they come, typically with a baseball for Lee to sign. More often than not, he said, they request that he signs “Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee.”
Whatever they ask, he says, the aged astronaut is happy to deliver.
“Sure, right there on the sweet spot, ‘Spaceman,’ ” he said. “But underneath it, on the other side, I always put, ‘Earth, 2019.’ A person . . . a place . . . and time.”
Fifty years. We chose to go to the moon, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. Like those lunar shots of long ago, they don’t make ’em like the Spaceman anymore.