More than forty-five years later former All-Star pitcher Bill Lee still insists that the Boston Red Sox should have won the 1975 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. “We were a better team than the Reds, we outscored them [30-29], and we outplayed them,” Bill says.
“In fact” he continues, “we should have won that Series in six games. Can you imagine the celebration if Fisk’s Game Six home run had been the World Series winner?”
Lee, who was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2008, adds, “That 1975 Red Sox team was the best team I ever played on. The 1975 team had so much depth that we should have won it all,” Lee said during a February interview from his winter home near Fort Myers, FL.
Bill Lee won 17 games for the 1975 Red Sox, the third straight season he had reached that level. And he pitched well in Games Two and Seven of the World Series, leaving with the Red Sox ahead in both games. During his ten seasons with the club he pitched in more games (321) than any other Red Sox left-hander, and his 94 career wins ranks third among southpaws.
William Francis Lee III was born on December 28, 1946, in Burbank, CA. He graduated from Terra Linda High School in Rafael, CA, where he played baseball and basketball, in 1964.
“When I was a baby, they filled my crib with square blocks and round blocks. I threw all the square ones out and kept the round ones,” Lee has been told. “That was the first sign that my life would revolve around a round object.”
Lee says he owes his pitching career to his Aunt Annabel Lee, who pitched in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League from 1944 through 1950. “She was the only other left-hander in the family so I learned my delivery from her. She taught me how to throw my big curveball and she taught me how to turn the ball over.
“I pitched exactly like her. You get a certain genetic code and that’s it. I was locked in as a ballplayer because of her. And she threw harder than me right through high school.”
His next big influence was legendary USC baseball coach Lefty Dedeaux, who coached the Trojans for 45 seasons. Lee, who went 39-8 during his four seasons at USC, recalls, “Playing four years for Lefty Dedeaux was like having four years of minor league experience.”
Bill went un-drafted until the 22nd round of the 1968 amateur draft. “I wanted to play for the Dodgers. They had moved to Los Angeles when I was a kid, and I was a big fan. But Al Campaneris [then Dodgers scouting director] told me I would never pitch in the big leagues. He was wrong. I don’t think the scouts do a good job of identifying the late-bloomers.”
Bill Lee was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the 22nd round of the June 1968 MLB Draft, behind about 500 other amateur prospects. One year later, after brief stops with three Red Sox minor league teams, he was pitching in the big leagues for the Red Sox.
From 1969 through 1972, Bill Lee pitched in 125 games for the Red Sox, mainly in relief. Given a chance to start in 1973, he went 17-11 with an impressive 2.75 ERA. When he followed up with 17 wins in 1974, he became a mainstay of the pitching staff.
According to legend, Bill Lee was called “Spaceman” because of his non-traditional views on baseball and life in general. “Not so,” says Bill. “I had relieved Luis Tiant in the first inning of a game in Baltimore against the Orioles and pitched 8.1 innings of shutout ball.
“It was right after Apollo 15 had landed on the moon [July 30, 1971] and the reporters were all crowded around while I gave them my views on the space program,” Bill says. “John Kennedy [Red Sox utility infielder] couldn’t get to his locker through the crowd, and he said, ‘Looks like we’ve got our own spaceman.’ It stuck.”
OPENING DAY 1975
When spring training came to an end in early April 1975, the Red Sox were a consensus pick for third place in the AL East behind the Orioles and the Yankees. How did Bill Lee feel then about the Red Sox chances for the upcoming season?
“I was still soured by the way the 1974 season turned out,” he says, referring to the Red Sox third place finish in 1974, after holding a seven game lead in late August. “We had the talent to win in 1974, and I was still upset that we didn’t get it done.”
And how did Bill Lee feel personally about his upcoming season? “I felt great. I had accomplished everything I wanted to in spring training. My calluses came in right on schedule,” he remembers, “and I had pinpoint control in the exhibition games.”
The Red Sox and Bill Lee got off to a slow start in April. The team ended the month in last place with a 7-9 record and Lee was a disappointing 1-3. But May was a different story.
The Red Sox went 16-9 in May and moved into first place, while Bill Lee went 6-1. “After the slow start, a number of the veterans like Yaz, Luis, and myself stepped forward and showed some leadership,” Lee says. “After that things started to turn around.”
The club continued its strong play in June, highlighted by Fred Lynn’s three-home run performance against the Tigers on June 18. “Fred Lynn had as good a season in 1975 as any major leaguer I have ever seen,” Lee says. “He never looked like a rookie. Of course, some of that was the Rod Dedeaux influence,” he says, referring to Lynn’s three years at USC.
“And fans forget that Jim Rice’s performance pretty much matched Fred’s until he broke his wrist in late-September. Everybody talks about their [Lynn and Rice] hitting but they both played great defense. Lynn’s catches were highlight reels, but I remember Jim reaching over the fence in Minnesota and pulling back a home run.”
LEADING THE PACK
At the All-Star break the Red Sox had a four-game lead in the AL East and Bill Lee had won ten games. How did he like the Red Sox chances at that point?
“I thought we would win the East,” he says. “That team had so much depth. We had Bernie Carbo, Rick Miller, and Juan Beniquez—three guys who could have played regularly—on the bench. And we added Moret [Rogelio] to the rotation and he was lights-out.”
One day that stands out for Bill Lee is a doubleheader against the Yankees in New York on July 27. “I pitched the first game and shut them out,” he recalls. “Fred Lynn made a great catch and we won 1-0. Then Moret shut them out for the win in the second game and they [the Yankees] fired their manager.
“Sometimes I’ll meet fans who tell me they like the Yankees. I tell them I do too. I beat them 12 times and enjoyed every single one of them,” Bill laughs.
On August 24, Bill Lee pitched his 16th complete game of the season, beating the Chicago White Sox 6-1, to improve his record to 17-7. Between May 1 and August 24, he had gone 16-4, with 13 complete games. He agrees that was the best stretch of his MLB career.
“All of my pitches were working for me and I had pin-point control. With my stuff I had to hit him my spots perfectly,” he emphasizes. “My fastball topped out at about 90 mph, so I relied on changing speeds, mixing pitches, and hitting my location.”
Lee pitched a complete game in a tough 3-2 loss to the Indians on September 9, but after that he was used sparingly. “What happened is the pitchers started taking batting practice in September to get ready for the World Series and I hyper-extended my elbow.”
The Red Sox clinched the AL East on September 26, and went on to sweep the favored Oakland Athletics in the ALCS behind strong pitching from Luis Tiant and Rick Wise, plus the leadership of veteran Carl Yastrzemski. “I didn’t get to pitch,” Lee says, “But they didn’t need me and the time off helped.”
WORLD SERIES FOR THE AGES
The 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds is considered one of the great Series of all-time, and Bill Lee agrees. “I watched a documentary that likened it to an Italian Opera. It had everything. But I still say we should have won.”
After Luis Tiant baffled the Reds in a 6-0 shutout in Game One, Bill Lee took the mound at Fenway Park as the Game Two starter. “The Reds were laughing in their dugout when they saw the junk I was throwing warming up, but when they found out they couldn’t hit it they stopped laughing.”
Lee pitched masterfully for eight innings, limiting the Red to four hits and a single run in the fourth inning. He was poised to take the mound in the ninth inning with a 2-1 lead when the umpires called for a rain delay.
“I was breezing along and I think I would have sailed through the ninth without the delay,” Lee declares. “When I finally took the mound after the delay Johnny Bench doubled to the opposite field and they brought in Dick Drago to hold the lead. The Red scored two runs to win 3-2 and we lost a game we should have won.”
The Red Sox returned to Boston trailing three-games-to-two with Bill Lee scheduled to pitch Game Six. Then it rained, and rained, and rained some more. After the three rainouts manager Darrell Johnson announced that Luis Tiant would start in Game Six and Bill Lee would pitch Game Seven if needed.
“I was upset,” Bill remembers. “I knew I could handle the Reds in Game Six at Fenway. But more importantly, I knew Luis needed another day of rest.”
Luis Tiant pitched valiantly in Game Six but he was relieved in the eighth inning with the Red Sox trailing 6-3. After Bernie Carbo hit his dramatic three-run homer in the eighth inning, Bill Lee headed for the trainer’s room to prepare for Game Seven. “I was lying on the trainers table when Fisk hit his home run but I got out to the dugout pretty fast,” he chuckles.
Bill Lee shut-out the Reds through five innings and he entered the top of the sixth with a 3-0 lead. With a runner on first and one out Johnny Bench hit a perfect double play ball to shortstop Rick Burleson but second baseman Denny Doyle’s throw to first landed in the Red Sox dugout to keep the inning alive.
Bill Lee threw the next batter Tony Perez a looping curveball that Perez hit far into the night easily clearing the screen in left field. “I never should have thrown that pitch,” Lee acknowledges. “But I was still brooding about the missed double play.”
Lee pitched into the seventh inning, leaving with the Red Sox clinging to a 3-2 lead. But the Reds tied the game in the seventh, and a single by Joe Morgan in the top of the ninth inning gave the Reds a 4-3 win and the World Championship. “Not getting the win in Game Seven and losing the World Series was by far my biggest disappointment in baseball,” Bill Lee says.
Not much went right for the Boston Red Sox or for Bill Lee in 1976. The defending American League Champions never found their groove and finished in third place, fourteen and one-half games behind the New York Yankees. Manager Darrell Johnson was fired after the All-Star break, and long-time Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey passed away on July 9.
Bill Lee injured his shoulder in a brawl with the New York Yankees on May 20 that year. The fight followed a collision at home plate when Carlton Fisk successfully blocked the plate against Yankee outfielder Lou Pinella. In the scrum that followed Graig Nettles picked Lee up like a rag doll and tossed him to the ground. Bill ended up in the hospital with a severely damaged shoulder.
Bill Lee finished the season with a record of 5-7, appearing in only 24 games. The 1977 season was somewhat better for Bill. He improved to 9-5, but he pitched only 128 innings in 27 games.
The Red Sox and Bill Lee got off to a great start in 1978. By mid-June the Red Sox lead over the second-place Yankees was into double-digits, and Lee was sporting a record of 7-3. Things took a turn for the worse on June 16 when Lee learned that his great friend Bernie Carbo had been sold to the Indians.
“I was giving a cooking lesson at Faneuil Hall when I found out we had sold Bernie. I thought it was a terrible decision. I stormed into the clubhouse at Fenway, cleaned out my locker, and announced my retirement.”
Lee’s retirement was brief. When Red Sox General manager told him he would be fined $500 for missing one game, Lee responded, “Make it $1,500. I want to take the weekend off.”
Lee ran his record to 10-3 on July 15, but manager Don Zimmer had lost confidence in the left-hander, and he was used in mop-up duty for the balance of the season. Bill Lee watched the heart-breaking playoff loss to the Yankees from the Red Sox bullpen.
On December 7 the Red Sox traded Bill Lee to Montreal for Expos infielder Stan Papi. Asked how he felt when he learned of the trade, Lee responds, and “I cried like a baby. And then I slept like a baby. What I mean is that I would sleep for two hours, then wake up and cry, sleep two more hours and wake up and cry some more.”
The change in scene appeared to do wonders for Lee in 1979. He won 16 games, and his 3.04 ERA ranked eighth in the National league. “I loved Montreal and Canada in general,” Lee emphasizes. “And I got to bat again. The designated hitter is one of the worst things that ever happened in baseball. We get a lower-class of athletes among pitchers today, because hitting doesn’t matter.”
Lee spent the 1980 and 1981 seasons with the Expos, but in 1982 his season came to a premature end. After the Expos had released second baseman Rodney Scott, Bill staged a protest and General Manager John McHale called him in to give him his unconditional release. “I told McHale that the Expos would never win the World Series. And he told me that I would never play in the major leagues again.” They were both right.
BILL LEE TODAY
Could Bill Lee give the Red Sox a couple of innings on the 2016 postseason, if necessary?” “Heck, I could pitch tomorrow,” he responds. “I played just the other day and I had three hits, drove in four runs, and pitched the eighth inning. “
Lee, who will turn 72 next December, adds, “I pitched 347 innings last year. I’m in tip-top shape.”
At the time of our interview Bill had returned from a trip to Cuba where he managed a team of Canadian youngsters in a tournament. “We had a great time,” he says. “Everyone in Cuba loves baseball.”
Bill Lee and his wife Dianah live most of the year in their home in Craftsbury VT, but they spend the winter months in the Fort Myers area. Bill has four grown children from previous marriages, Michael, Andrew, Kaitlan and Anna. And he is the proud grandfather of five grandsons and one granddaughter.
Does Bill Lee have a message for current Red Sox fans? “Tell them to keep the faith. The 2016 Red Sox are going to make it worst-to first-to worst-to worst-to first. That’s a record that will be hard to break!” he says emphatically.
Portions of this article originally appeared in Red Sox Magazine. To subscribe to Red Sox Magazine click here.
Terrific piece Herb, thanks for writing and posting! Always liked Bill Lee, a Yankee Killer, for not just his professional spirit but his personal perspective as well. Bill Lee was and is a refreshing throwback to the old days when ballplayers were colorful and not bland, media managed, overpaid cardboard cutouts. Despite being branded by the brass as a ‘trouble-maker’ (and maybe he was, but it’s the same passion and personality that fueled his competitive spirit), he still loves the game with a purity of heart and purpose. And I didn’t know where his ‘Spaceman’ nickname really came from until just now. Well done — got to get back to sprinkling my cornflakes now.
Loved Bill. He made the whole city better. One thing I remember was him jogging to the ball park from Belmont just to get warmed up. When asked why he had not won 20 games he said “Donno I guess I’m just a consistent 17 game winner! He was also an excellent fielder. Helped himself win with both bat and glove. Used to call Zimmer the gerbil. I liked everything about the guy. To me he will always be on the Sox Mt. Rushmore along with Ted,Yaz and Frank Malzone(just kidding). Thanks for the article.
Saw him play in a charity game at Fishercat Stadium in Manchester, N.H. around 2008. He pitched an inning or two. But what struck me was his skill with the glove. He took a turn at 1st base and a ground ball was hit to him and he non-chalantly back handed the ball and made the play. Also playing in that game was Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd. He still had dsomre gas in his pitches . Both he and Lee mingled freely with the fans.
Great article Herb…would love to see one about Bernie Carbo…I think he batted 1.000 in the 75 World Series, and I want to say he only hit home runs…he was a funny guy who would have said something like – singles, doubles and triples are a waste of time…I’ll hit dingers and take my time around the bases.
I remember meeting Bernie Carbo at the Red Sox Fantasy camp when I turned 50 (thanks for the great gift wife Nancy!).
I told him I saw his 3-run blast from right field where I was sitting. He looked at me and said, Yuh, you and 250,000 other people,” and then he walked away. Poor Bernie.