Rob Gronkowski’s departure from the New England Patriots offered a reminder: There sure have been some fascinating athletes to come through this region.
As such, NESN.com is taking local fans on a lighthearted trip down memory lane by highlighting 10 “charismatic characters” in Boston sports history. You know, those enthralling players with big personalities who captivated audiences for reasons beyond their on-field performance.
There aren’t many out there like Bill “Spaceman” Lee.
While baseball, in many ways, was just a small fraction of Lee’s legacy, he had quite the career with the Boston Red Sox.
The left-hander got creative on the mound, with his own variation of the Eephus pitch, which he called the “Leephus” pitch. He was named a Red Sox Hall of Famer on Nov. 7, 2008, while holding the team record for most games pitched by a lefty (321). Lee posted a 94-68 record and a 3.64 ERA over 10 seasons with Boston.
But there was much more to Lee than just his stats. Lee and then-Red Sox manager Don Zimmer had an ongoing clash during the 1978 season when he disagreed with how the pitching staff was being handled. The underlying tension was rooted in the opposing natures of the two, though.
Lee was a non-conforming, sometimes-controversial, free-spirited, unique character. Zimmer, on the other hand, had more of an old-school, traditional approach. The result? Management stuck Lee, who had been a starter, in the bullpen and didn’t play him down the stretch. He ultimately was traded to the Montreal Expos before the 1979 season.
Lee stayed true to himself and never shied away from sharing his opinions — no matter how controversial they might have been. In his book, “The Wrong Stuff,” Lee claimed that marijuana (which he said to have “sprinkled” on his pancakes) made him resistant to the bus fumes while he ran to Fenway Park.
After his MLB career came to a close in 1982, Lee played for a number of semi-pro baseball teams and toured the world. In 1987, he announced plans to run for President of the United States for the Rhinoceros Party. His slogan — “No guns! No butter! They’ll both kill you!” — and his plan to flatten the Rocky Mountains to improve the weather in Alberta sum up his approach to politics. He later ran for governor in Vermont.
Lee’s quirkiness captivated so many that filmmakers created a documentary in 2006 called “Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey.” Josh Duhamel played Lee in a biopic called “Spaceman” in 2016.
The lefty’s nickname “Spaceman” came from another instance of Lee talking to the press about anything but baseball. In the summer of 1971, third baseman John Kennedy was unable to get to his locker because of the crowd surrounding Lee. He was talking about the space program, which recently had a second moon landing. Finally, Kennedy said, “We’ve got our own spaceman right here!” and the name stuck.
“The other day they asked me about mandatory drug testing. I said I believed in drug testing a long time ago. All through the sixties, I tested everything.”
— Bill Lee
“Whatever he wanted to do, he’d do. Whatever he wanted to say, he’d say. You don’t like it? That’s your problem,”
— Former Red Sox teammate Luis Tiant, from “Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey.”