Day 11 of (at least) 30 baseball book reviews in 2021: Ground control to Major Bill, in a radicalized non-chronological form

“The Spaceman Chronicles:
The Life of the Earthling Named Bill Lee”

The author:
Scott Russell

The publishing info:
Stillwater River Publications
447 pages
$24.99
Released Oct. 13, 2020

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At Powells.com
At Vromans.com
At TheLastBookStoreLA.com
At PagesABookstore.com
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com
At Indiebound.org
At Bookshop.org

The review in 90 feet or less

Accepting the premise there are variously shaded gray areas between genius and insanity, creativity and wacked out, linear and off the rails, the terms we have reached at the conclusion of this exercise is that a review relying less on reactive words and more on encouraging a very late-night reading experience of this radicalized homage to “an Earthling named William Francis Lee III, aka Bill Lee and one who would eventually be known as ‘The Spaceman’” would be the most realistic way to introduce this the general population.

In other words, simply noting the book’s existence and hubris may be all we’re authorized to do in this space.


A traditional bio of the now 74-year-old would have notations of trajectory starting with his birth in Burbank, rearing in Canoga Park, success in taking Rod Dedeaux’s USC team to the 1968 College Baseball World Series title, and continual efforts to set records for age-related athletic achievements by pitching in professional contests. Much has already been laid out in various book forms.

The most renowned would be “The Wrong Stuff,” with Dick Lally in 1984 (Viking Press, 242 pages), shortly after Lee realized the MLB world wasn’t ready to keep him around in his late 30s. It was also a year after the success of the movie “The Right Stuff” about the original Mercury 7 astronauts, playing right into Lee’s strike zone. A paperback was reissued in 2006 by Three Rivers Press to coincide with a Hollywood version of his life, but if we recall, there was something lost in the historical portal translating 20th Century events into the 21st Century of entertainment.

Just before the reissue, Lee popped up with “The Little Red (Sox) Book: A Revisionist Red Sox History,” with Jim Prime (2003, Triumph Books, 224 pages) as well as another Lally-aided literary piece/followup called “Have Globe Will Travel: Adventures of a Baseball Vagabond” (2005, Crown, 320 pages).

As a way again to revive Lee’s spirit and genius, because we all should never forget it, statistician and long-time Lee drinking pal Scott Russell (who also thinks of himself as someone named Kilgore Trout) writes about how he got Lee’s New Year’s Eve blessing to launch this random-looking look-back and give it the name as homage to “The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury.

More of this, however, is a tribute to Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Cat’s Cradle,” from an author whom the two believe to be the one to channel in formatting this messiness and “begin to understand the present condition of our planet and our species.”

Using a Pawtucket, Rhode Island company that puts its reputation on the line by calling itself “an affordable self-publishing alternative for independent authors & writers,” Russell is encouraged to use as much real estate as possible, and starts the process by calling Lee part Buckminster Fuller, part Professor Irwin Corey, part Rube Waddell and “perhaps a little Woody Allen tossed in,” if that’s supposed to be a compliment. Accurately, Russell notes that Lee is as “unique as the Grand Canyon” and has a life that “incredibly is still evolving.”

With that, among the intended quirks of this cosmic hailstorm:

= 119 chapters, one for each of his MLB career wins between age 22 with the Boston Red Sox in 1969 through age 35 with the Montreal Expos in 1982. That includes back-to-back-to-back 17 win seasons in 1973, ’74 and ’75.
= Six interludes.
= Two postscripts.
= A page of disclaimers.
= Twenty two photos.
= A campaign to get Gil Hodges into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
= A litany of complaints about Don Zimmer.
= A letter from the author at the end admitting this is the first book he’s ever done, and “had never even considered writing the biography of Bill Lee and to be entirely candid, I did not think I was worthy of the task. … I full intended to tell this story by simply, and there has been nothing ‘simple’ in Bill’s life … Putting words to paper, I had absolutely no agenda other than to describe the life of one of the most interesting human beings I have ever met.”

Right side up or upside down, it belies us to still believe in Bill Lee.

How it goes in the scorebook

Bill Lee’s grandfather, William, was once an infielder for the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars.

A big bang of snot rockets delivered by whatever he’s calling his own Eephus pitch these days.

If it was done in any sort of conventional method, it would not ring authentic. If only we had found this earlier during pandemic lock-down reading, the time would have passed much more enjoyable.

And for some more comedy/tragedy, consider the range of reviews posted by verified purchasers at Amazon.com:

Five stars with the headline: “A Biography Like No Other and That’s Great”:
“Since this entertaining and thought-provoking biography is unique in its format and content, I’m not sure that a traditional review would do this excellent look inside the life of the Bill “Spaceman” Lee any justice. You will laugh at times, ponder the joys of life at others. It’s actually more like sitting in a bar hearing anecdotes from the crazy yet insightful folks who have had contact with the Spaceman.”

Four stars with the headline: “Bill Lee Pulls No Punches”:
“This is not a true biography of Bill Lee but a rehash of anecdotes from his somewhat star-checkered career … Bill gets his gripes off his chest.”

One star with the headline “The Worst Sports Biography Ever Written”:
= “Scott Russell thinks he’s clever. In fact, he is self-indulgent, repetitious and boring. Repeating over and over again his characterizations of Bill Lee as a unique being in the universe, he makes what should be a few interesting anecdotes about Lee into a maddening incoherent 426-page book that believes itself and its subject endlessly fascinating merely by repeating assertions that they were. … Reading this is like wading through a swamp.”

And all, on some level, can be assessed as accurate.

More to cover

== One of our favorite signed books is Bill Lee’s “The Wrong Stuff” from 1984. Here’s what it looks like:
The signature is upside down if it helps.


== The 2016 movie “Spaceman” based on the book never seemed to get any traction. A review in the Los Angeles Times called it a “ blandly pedestrian film (that) seldom delivers despite an engagingly game lead performance by Josh Duhamel.” The movie was written and directed by Brett Rapkin, who also did a documentary on Lee in 2006.

== The Warren Zevon song called “Bill Lee,” live in concert in 1980:

== Bill Lee’s SABR biography by Jim Prime starts: “Bill Lee was one of those rare ballplayers whose off-field persona overshadowed his significant on-field performance. In baseball parlance, Lee is known as a “flake,” a term that includes anyone who doesn’t give pat answers to pat questions or dares to admit to reading a book without pictures. He was an original in a sport that often frowns on any show of originality. In fairness, Lee would have been an eccentric in almost any field he chose to pursue, but in baseball he was considered positively certifiable.”

== The great David Zirin has somewhat of a star-struck talk with the “walking non-sequester/radical-conservative” about this book in a January, 2021 podcast for The Edge of Sports as posted on The Nation. Lee says in the interview that he’s reading the greatest baseball book ever, by Mike Shropshire, “Seasons in Hell” from 1996 about the early year of the Texas Rangers, which Esquire calls one of the 20 best baseball books of all time, in 2013. Lee also wanders through his library and talks about other books he’s read.

== By the way: To caption the very top photo of the post shows Lee in a Red Sox alumni game at Fenway Park in Boston on May 27, 2018. (Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe via Getty Images).

== A list of certified Bill Lee quotes kept on file by Baseball Almanac that includes: “You have two hemispheres in your brain – a left and a right side. The left side controls the right side of your body and right controls the left half. It’s a fact. Therefore, left-handers are the only people in their right minds.”From Sports Illustrated (April 7, 1980)







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