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Former Red Sox ace Bill 'Spaceman' Lee reflects on baseball's beautiful absurdity

bill-lee-vpr-cengeri-20160804.jpg
Ric Cengeri
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VPR
Former Red Sox and Montreal Expos pitcher Bill Lee still plays baseball with the Savannah Bananas and Vermont's senior league (above).

Bill Lee, a.k.a. the Spaceman, was one of the best left handed pitchers in Red Sox franchise history — he’s in the team’s hall of fame. Lee played for the Sox for nearly a decade in the late 1960s and 1970s, before rounding out his career with the Montreal Expos.

Besides throwing a wicked Leephus pitch, Lee is a well-known, eccentric Vermont character. In 2016 he ran for Governor with the Liberty Union Party, pulling in just under 3% of the vote. Before that, in 1988, he ran for U.S. President with the Rhinoceros Party (he didn't win that one either).

At 75, Lee still plays baseball with the Vermont Senior League and the Savannah Bananas, a comedic, touring exhibition team. In August he suffered a heart incident during a Bananas game. He’s since recovered, but since baseball’s on our minds with the World Series and whatnot, we thought we’d give him a call at his home in Craftsbury and see how he’s doing.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: You're a beloved figure in this state. We were worried about you and your health. How are you doing?

Bill Lee: Don't worry, I have $100 bill and a "do not resuscitate" in my back left pocket. Clean up the mess, and don't worry about it. And, you know, no one gets out of here alive. Every morning I wake up, and it's a line out of a little movie called "Little Big Man" with Dustin Hoffman. Every morning I get up, I see the sunrise, and I go, "it's a good day to die, Grandfather."

You've been playing with the Savannah Bananas, an independent baseball team. They do some comedy and there's a little Globetrotters flair.

Here's what it is. It's PT Barnum meets the Harlem Globetrotters. It's Euripides of the underworld, a ballet, a choreograph of Dante's Inferno. It's absurdity. It's beauty, and it's baseball. It's a fantasy. It's Shakespeare. It's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Bill_ Spaceman _Lee_with_2012_Boston_Marathon_runner_(cropped).jpg
Wikimedia Commons
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Bill Lee in 2011.

Do you play real baseball games? Or is it all staged?

We play real baseball within the confines of absurdity. It's all spontaneous, but with a little rehearsing in between

And where do you play?

We play at Grayson Stadium in Savannah, Georgia. It is unbelievable. It is the greatest. Bob Feller played there, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig. I played there in the minor leagues. It's an old-style baseball [stadium], and we love playing in old places. And here's the great thing about it. It's your turf, but it's our rules. We'll play anybody on your turf, but you've got to play by our rules.

Are people agreeing to that bargain?

They are! It's the economic advantage. They want the money and we want the game.

You're a relief pitcher for them. How's your throwing arm feeling? How's that left shoulder?

I'm the number two ERA on the team. You can look it up. I won the job fair and square. I went down in the winter and won the job fair and square. I am teaching them pace. I am teaching them how to pitch.

What pitches are you throwing these days?

I throw strikes. I don't walk anybody. I put the ball in play. In Ruthven, Iowa this year, when I traveled across country playing banana ball and promoting it, I pitched a 14-inning game in 55 minutes. I increase tempo and show them how to play the game.

So this heart event you suffered in August — they said they had to paddle you twice. Essentially, you were dead.

[Laughs] I've been paddled a lot more than that. Trust me. This is the funniest thing: They put a pacemaker in me now. I don't want a pacemaker! I've got paddles in me now, I've got a pacemaker, I've got wires, and in the winter I can jumpstart my Prius.

You're playing for the Savannah Bananas. Are you in any other baseball leagues? What role is baseball playing in your life?

I've played 33 years in Vermont. I've won more games than any pitcher in the history of Vermont history, in the senior leagues. I started in Newport with the Lake Region, got thrown off of that ball club, and ended up in Burlington with [Burlington Mayor] Miro Weinberger as my catcher. I got him elected, you know. I said, 'Hey, Miro, you know what this means? Free parking.' Of course you can't get a parking ticket in Vermont.

We have the elections coming up. You ran for president many years back, as well as the governor of Vermont in 2016. What do you think of this election season so far?

I love this state. And we're doing all right. The greatest thing about this state is when you break down in the winter, we pick you up within three cars. We're a good bunch of people up here and I'm proud to be a Vermonter.

The governor of Tennessee is named Bill Lee. So I was wondering if you thought that maybe that's why you didn't win the race in 2016 — because there's already one Gov. Bill Lee.

[Laughs] You see me all the time. I'm like a bad meal. I'm always popping up.

In all seriousness, are you thinking you're going to run for elected office again?

Well, I should be president. That's the only way we're gonna get out of this mess. We would probably have world peace. I'll tell you what, I'll be a benevolent despot. We wouldn't have the designated hitter, games would be under two hours, everybody would be happy. Our economy would be rolling.

I think the most impossible thing you just listed is getting a baseball game down to under two hours ago.

I could do it easily by just playing banana ball and speeding the game up. The problem with humanity is we're all anal retentive. It's amazing. It's all psychological. It's all there.

And what does that have to do with a quick baseball game?

You watch the batters in the batter's box. No one wants to do anything. They don't want to get in there. This is what's wrong with America. It's — look at the leaves falling off the trees. God is it beautiful. You know what that means, though? Four more months of winter.

You're an autumn guy?

No, I hate autumn.

Why?

[Off mic: Bye, honey!] My wife's going to the library. She's mailing off her immigration so she can reapply to be an American permanent residence. Why do you want to be a permanent resident when you're going to be buried in Canada? Oh, that's funny. Anyway, now you're getting a conversation in Craftsbury. Oh, is it beautiful. Look at that. The rain just parted. The skies are beautiful. Another beautiful fall day.

On that note Bell. I'm gonna let you go. Thank you so much for talking with me. This has been probably the most hilarious interview that I've done.

Love you guys.

Broadcast on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Mikaela Lefrak joined Vermont Public in 2021 as co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Originally from Delaware, Matt moved to Alaska in 2010 for his first job in radio. He spent five years working as a radio and television reporter, radio producer, talk show host, and news director. His reporting received awards from the Alaska Press Club and the Alaska Broadcasters Association. Relocating to southwest Florida, he was a producer for television news and NPR member station WGCU for their daily radio show, Gulf Coast Live. He joined Vermont Public in October 2017 as producer of Vermont Edition.