You would have to guess that anyone who goes by the nickname of “Spaceman” must be a pretty interesting character, and with Bill Lee, you couldn’t be closer to the truth. Once asked whether he preferred grass to artificial turf, the tall, lanky left-hander replied: “I don’t know – I’ve never smoked the fake stuff.”
With a personality slightly off-center, few people remember that he was actually a great pitcher during the mid-1970s, winning 17 games in three straight seasons between 1973 and 1975. Considered an “arm” pitcher because he failed to use his leg to help drive the ball towards home, his bag of slow, deliberate pitches included a natural sinkerball and a bloop curve (referred to by Sports Illustrated as his “Leephus pitch,” in reference to the Eephus pitch made famous by Rip Sewell, a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates staff in the thirties and forties).
After beginning his career in the bullpen, Lee was made a permanent fixture of the rotation in 1973 and responded with 16 wins in 33 starts and an overall 17-11 record with a 2.75 ERA, enough to earn him his only All-Star appearance. After posting a 17-15 record the following season, he went 17-9 in 1975 during Boston’s pennant-winning season. 16 of those wins came between May and August to help the Red Sox distance themselves from their division rivals, and he enjoyed a stretch of eight straight appearances between early July and mid-August that included seven starts without a loss, including four straight complete game victories, and compiled a 6-0 record with a 3.14 ERA during that span.
Lee pitched another next three seasons with Boston but managed only a mediocre 24-22 record, in part due to an arm injury that resulted from a bench-clearing scuffle with New York in May of 1976. Traded to Montreal after the 1978 season, Lee pitched another three-plus seasons, winning 16 games in 1979, then abruptly quit baseball in 1982 to finish his career with 119 wins, a 3.62 ERA, and enough off-the-wall comments made during his 14-year career to create a Fenway Park legend.