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Lost & Found: Brian James Barr on Bill Lee
Many pitchers can boast about gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated, but only one eccentric southpaw has bragging rights to High Times. Here’s Brian James Barr on the lovable Bill “Spaceman” Lee’s The Wrong Stuff and Have Glove Will Travel, two memoirs of life on the mound—and far afield from baseball’s orthodoxies.
I did not find my baseball hero on ESPN or on any of the player cards I collected between 1986 and 1992. Instead, I found him in a place normally occupied by fictional assassins and British werewolves—a Warren Zevon LP.
A friend and I were high on Zevon our junior year in college and on a mission to scrounge up all we could of him from the used bins. One of our discoveries was 1980’s Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, which contains a ballad called “Bill Lee.” The lyrics include: “You’re supposed to sit on your ass and nod at stupid things / Man, that’s hard to do.” We assumed Zevon was singing about one of his usual misfits until it somehow got back to us that Bill Lee was a left-handed pitcher for the ’62-’78 Boston Red Sox and the ’79-’82 Montreal Expos whose “extracurricular activities” named him the name “Spaceman.”
Zevon singing about a ballplayer? This threw us a bit.
Baseball is no place for freethinkers, which is why Bill Lee never fit in. Unafraid to voice his opinions, he called George Steinbrenner “a convicted fellow” and said the Oakland A’s were “emotionally mediocre.” He told reporters he sprinkled marijuana on his buckwheat pancakes. He was a favorite among Boston’s Harvard crowd, and they showered him with gifts—a bottle of tequila lowered to him in the bullpen, a fat rail of cocaine in the restroom of a nearby bar. When asked by reporters why he did such things, Lee would sing, “I’m just an excitable boy.”
To many, Lee threatened the sanctity of America’s pastime. I still carry a grudge over being rejected for Little League, so at age twenty-two, when I finally discovered Lee, I was eager for anything that might piss on the holy institution of baseball. I tracked down Lee’s memoirs, The Wrong Stuff (1984) and Have Glove Will Travel Adventures of a Baseball Vagabond (2005) (both coauthored with Richard Lally), assuming these books would satisfy my grudge. Turns out, the Spaceman does consider baseball divine—he just doesn’t take himself as seriously as most other ballplayers do.
In his essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” David Foster Wallace concludes: “Great athletes usually turn out to be stunningly inarticulate about those qualities and experiences that constitute their fascination.” In The Wrong Stuff and Have Glove Will Travel, however, Lee is quite the opposite. Best consumed back-to-back, these books explore the two halves of Lee’s career—major league and post-major league. The Wrong Stuff is the more serious of the pair, a straightforward narrative tracing his California roots up through being canned by the Expos. Lee uses his life story as a soapbox for his baseball philosophy, which is aggressively purist for a guy everyone dubbed a rebel. In the seventies, baseball was becoming big business. Lee railed against Major League Baseball ownership’s theory of “More homeruns and strikeouts, more butts in the bleachers.” Lee wasn’t that kind of player. This, combined with his public reputation as a flake, has overshadowed the fact that he was one of the best pitchers the Red Sox ever had. A focused hard worker on the mound, Lee accumulated ninety-four wins during his ten years in Boston, the third most of any Red Sox southpaw. Furthermore, his three consecutive seventeen-win seasons took place in a ballpark often considered a graveyard for lefty pitchers. But this is where Lee’s particular genius came into play—to compensate for any disadvantage, he relied on curves, sliders, and pure finesse, not to mention intellect, preferring to outwit his opponents over zinging them with nonstop fastballs. His idea of great pitching was to mess with a batter’s head—annoy him with a slow curveball or inflate his ego with purposefully awful pitches until, right when the batter figures he has the slow stuff timed, rip a 90 mph fastball to finish him off.
As with most sports memoirs, The Wrong Stuff has an agenda: Lee wants to explain himself. And yet, he has no specific ax to grind. In the opening pages, it’s 1982 and Lee has just been informed he will be indefinitely suspended from the majors and probably fined (for staging a one-man walkout over the Expos’ firing of second baseman Rodney Scott). Instead of playing the blame game of which many disgraced athletes are fond, Lee looks within: “I began to wonder why my life had taken the direction it had.”
One answer would be college. Lee was the only player on the Red Sox to have pursued higher education (his goal was a life in forestry). This was a cause of some concern, as Red Sox manager Don Zimmer would later admit to Sports Illustrated: “I don’t try to understand [Lee] or those words he uses. I can’t spell most of them anyway.” College didn’t just arm Lee with a hefty vocabulary—it taught him to argue well. He confronted every decision made by management with “Why, why, why?” Compulsive disagreeing would not endear him to any employer, but Lee claims he wasn’t just arguing for the sake of arguing. “To be silent in the face of injustice,” he writes in The Wrong Stuff, “would have made my life and my pitching meaningless.”
At the end of The Wrong Stuff, Lee is considering his options for post-major league life and pondering a return to forestry. But as we learn on page one of Have Glove Will Travel, he can’t help but continue to play ball. As its title suggests, Have Glove is like a buddy showing you his travel scrapbook. A glimpse into the world of senior leagues, foreign teams, and fantasy camps, it jumps from place to place and from tangent to tangent, each chapter triggering memories that have less to do with baseball than with Lee’s bemusement over the arc of his career.
Lee is willing to go anywhere in the world if it means he can pitch. $2,500 for a weekend in Landisburg, Pennsylvania. $2,000 per month plus living expenses to play in Venezuela. (He’s even thrown trick pitches for Canadian hockey halftime shows.) Obviously, Lee is no DiMaggio—he has to keep working for money. But in Have Glove, he writes with such child-like—if occasionally clichéd—wonder it’s clear his post-MLB life has only strengthened his love of the game: “I love the pop the ball makes when a fielder catches it cleanly. I love the feel of the ball sliding from my left hand, sweet as a lover’s caress.”
When Wallace argues that great athletes are almost always inarticulate, he is also suggesting that, in a sense, they have to be. Dumbing oneself down is not only a coping mechanism for the extreme stress of professional sports but also a way of keeping your mind in the present moment. Lee’s penchant for overthinking had its advantages on the mound, but it also led to some major fumbles, most notably his infamous “blooper pitch,” which helped to sink the Red Sox in the 1975 World Series. But even if he hadn’t fucked up here and there, he still would have been frowned upon for allowing his brain to be on the field with him. Lee’s books are proof baseball is a socially conservative institution, rewarding the straightlaced and tight-lipped. Thinking back, it makes sense that a kid like me drifted away from the sport in favor of Jack Kerouac and rock ‘n’ roll. Today’s ballgame is not rock ‘n’ roll; it’s smooth jazz, a safe sport for bankers and accountants, If the MLB bigwigs ever again wonder why attendance is low and America is disinterested in the Yankees winning yet another pennant, they should pick up Have Glove Will Travel and turn to page forty-four. Quoth the Spaceman: “Straight types may be more dependable, but they have zero entertainment value.”
Brian James Barr’s work has appeared in venues including Oxford American, the Believer, Architectural Record, Seattle Weekly, the New York Times among others. Visit him on the web here.