Remembering Spaceman: The strangest lefty to pitch in the big leagues

Let’s face it, left-handed people are far more likely than right-handed people to be eccentric and weird. That’s not a criticism, as I am proud to count myself as one of the many oddball lefties in this world. But in the history of left-handed people, and left-handed athletes, in particular, there’s perhaps no one more outlandish than pitcher Bill Lee, a man so out there that he was given the nickname Spaceman.

Lee earned his nickname in part from the lack of filter whenever he opened his mouth. He was snarky, sarcastic, and at times cruel. But that’s what made him such a beloved figure among both fans and the media. From the time he first broke into the big leagues in 1969 with the Red Sox, the Boston media loved him, knowing they could always get a quote and perspective from him that no one else could provide.

You have two hemispheres in your brain – a left and a right side. The left side controls the right side of your body and right controls the left half. It’s a fact. Therefore, left-handers are the only people in their right minds.

Bill Lee

Of course, it was the same inability or unwillingness to censor himself that earned him the nickname Spaceman that also got him into trouble, particularly with the powers that be. Lee was constantly butting heads with management, unafraid to speak up if he disagreed about something. But when it came to his teammates, he was fiercely loyal, often to a fault. He even got injured defending his teammates during an on-field brawl with the Yankees in 1976, a fight he blamed for the decline of his career.

During his time in Boston, Lee had a longstanding feud with coach turned manager Don Zimmer. Lee disagreed with how Zimmer managed the team’s pitching staff, most notably his propensity for moving veteran pitchers, including Lee, to the bullpen after one or two bad starts.

Zimmer wouldn’t know a good pitcher if he came up and bit him in the ass.

Bill Lee

Lee often referred to Zimmer as “The Gerbil” and took the feud so far as to form the Buffalo Head Society, a group that included fellow pitchers Reggie Cleveland, Bernie Carbo, and Ferguson Jenkins. The purpose of the group was to provide an avenue for the pitchers to express their dislike toward the manager.

As one can imagine, the group ultimately backfired, as each of its members, including Lee, were eventually traded. But Lee stood by his convictions and his teammates. When Carbo was traded in 1978, the Spaceman proclaimed, “Today just cost us the pennant.” He also announced his retirement, only to return to the team the following day. Upon his return, Lee learned he had been fined a day’s pay. He responded by asking to be fined three days pay, saying, “I’d like to have the whole weekend.”

Most of the managers are lifetime .220 hitters. For years pitchers have been getting these managers out 75% of the time and that’s why they don’t like us.

Bill Lee

Such antics led the Red Sox to trade him the following winter, despite backlash from the team’s fans that included graffiti on the walls at Fenway Park. After he was traded to Montreal, it turned out Spaceman had a little fuel left in his tank. He beat out the great Steve Carleton for National League Left Hander of the Year in 1979 and played a role in the only Expos teams to ever reach the postseason in 1981.

But as was the case in Boston, Lee’s antics got him kicked out of town. When the team released teammate and friend Rodney Scott in 1982, Lee walked out on the team in protest and was released the next day. The Spaceman would never play in the majors again.

However, Lee was far from finished with baseball. He’s been an ambassador for the game and has co-written four books about baseball. Lee never stopped playing either. He played independent ball and with senior league teams, playing baseball anywhere he could. In 2012, Lee signed a one-day contract with a team in the North American League, and at the age of 65, pitched a complete game and got a win. By doing so, he broke his own record for the oldest pitcher to win a professional baseball game.

The Spaceman has also dabbled in politics over the years, the perfect career path for a person with no filter for the words he speaks. In 1988, Lee ran for President as part of the Rhinoceros Party (a real thing as it turns out), and in 2016 he ran for Governor of Vermont on the Liberty Union Party ticket but only managed 2.78% of the vote.

Just in case the stats are important, Lee pitched in 416 big league games, including 225 starts. He was 119-90 with a 3.62 ERA with 72 complete games and 19 saves. He made just one All-Star Team and never won a ring. But he’s still remembered, and fondly so, not just because he was just another eccentric lefty, but because he was authentic and real, things that are too often lacking in the world. That’s why they called Bill Lee the Spaceman; he was out of this world.