On Friday night, August 22, 2014, at Albert Park in San Rafael, California, the Lioness and I witnessed an historic event: At the age of 67, Bill “Spaceman” Lee retired from professional baseball as a member of the San Rafael Pacifics. Bill was the Designated Hitter for the Pacifics in the game against the Pittsburgh Mettle and went hitless as the the team staged a come-from-behind victory in the eighth inning with a walk-off home run to win 5—4.
In 1962, Bill threw a no-hitter in a high school ballgame on this very field. As a left-handed pitcher, he went on to play college ball for USC from 1964—1968 and was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 22nd round of the 1968 Major League Baseball Draft.
It was Red Sox teammate, John Kennedy, who gave Lee the nickname, Spaceman, in recognition of Bill’s free-thinking, independent nature, coupled with an unfiltered, outspoken approach to life. Bill Lee was eventually traded to the Montreal Expos in 1978, after a season-long feud with Red Sox manager Don Zimmer over the handling of the pitching staff.
In 1982 Bill’s sense of right and wrong led to his being released by the Expos after his one-game walkout in protest of the club’s decision to release second baseman, and friend, Rodney Scott.
If I accomplished anything as a player, I hope it’s that I proved you could exist as a dual personality in the game. I had to pass through the looking glass every time I went out on the field. Away from the ballpark, I tried to care about the earth, and I wasn’t concerned with getting ahead of the ‘other guy.’ On the mound, I was a different person, highly competitive and always out to win. Who I was off the field fed the person I became on it. I had to make the stands I did. To be silent in the face of injustice would have made my life and my pitching meaningless. If I was able to keep my compassion while retaining my competitive senses, then I would judge my career a success. I hope I was able to make more than just a few fans smile, while showing them that the game shouldn’t be taken too seriously. If I am remembered by anyone, I would want it to be as a guy who cared about the planet and the welfare of his fellow man. And who would take you out at second if the game was on the line.
—Bill Lee, The Wrong Stuff, 1984
Reelin’ In the Years
Following his release from the Montreal Expos, Bill Lee traveled the globe playing semi-professional baseball from Venezuela to New Brunswick, Canada; from Alaska to California. Bill participates in fantasy camps and sandlot games—he has said, “I just don’t want to look fat when they bury me.”
“I think about the cosmic snowball theory.
A few million years from now the sun will
burn out and lose its gravitational pull.
The earth will turn into a giant snowball
and be hurled through space. When that
happens it won’t matter if I get this guy out.”
—Bill “Spaceman” Lee
In 2012, at the age of 65, Bill Lee signed a one-day contract to pitch a home game for the San Rafael Pacifics against the Hawaiian team, Maui Na Koa Ikaika. He drove in the first run of the game for the Pacifics using a homemade bat and the team went on to win 9—4. That start gave him the record as the oldest pitcher to make a starting appearance, pitch a complete game and also to earn a win in a professional baseball game. Lee’s bat and uniform were donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
There is a great story about Bill Lee’s visit to Boston earlier in the week prior to the Pacifics’ game. Bill was attending the funeral of beloved Red Sox second baseman, Johnny Pesky. According to Lee when his cab from Fenway Park pulled up curbside for the services he noticed a New York Yankees fan behind him. Bill flipped him off—at a funeral—“Johnny would have wanted it that way,” he said.
In 2013, at the age of 66, Bill Lee celebrated Senior Citizens Day with the San Rafael Pacifics by playing all nine positions, starting out at catcher in the first inning and finishing the night at second base.
In 2014, the professional side of baseball came to an end where the sport began for Bill—in Marin County, California. At the ceremony before the game Bill Lee thanked the crowd and the Pacifics organization for bringing him home from the East Coast to beautiful Marin County. Said Bill, “If I die and go to heaven I will be disappointed.”
Thank you for your contributions, Bill. Both on and off the field.
Here is a trailer for a great documentary about Bill Lee: Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey
August 2016 Update
On the 19th of this month Spaceman, a movie about Bill Lee, will be in the theaters.
January 7, 2017 Update
For all of you Streamers out there: the documentary, Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey, is now available to view on Amazon Prime Video.