Interview with Bill Lee: Baseball’s Spaceman Talks Weed, Politics, & New Biopic

At 69-years-old, "Spaceman" Bill Lee still plays ball — and well. Dave Gram / Getty Images

“You’re supposed to sit on your ass and nod at stupid things,” the late Warren Zevon sang on his tribute to the former big league pitcher Bill Lee. But the free-spirit player, known to most as “Spaceman,” wasn’t about to do that — and it eventually cost him his career after a one-game walkout.

Several years ago filmmaker Brett Rapkin made a documentary about Lee’s post-MLB life, following the indomitable lefty to the baseball diamonds of Cuba. But Rapkin, himself a former ballplayer, wasn’t done with Lee’s story. He enlisted Josh Duhamel to play Lee in the new biopic Spaceman, which opens in select cities and becomes available on various platforms on Friday. We recently spoke to Lee, who’s now running for Vermont governor on the Liberty Union ticket, on the phone from his farm in the state’s remote Northeast Kingdom.

What do you grow on the farm?

Well, I want to grow hemp. It’s amazing, they haven’t legalized it. It’s all in the courts. I want to start a hemp uniform company, make all the kids’ Little League clothes, so they don’t get epilepsy. I could grow it if I lived in Colorado or the state of Washington. My son may be doing that in Washington right now.

What’s the best professional game you’ve ever pitched?

The best game I ever pitched was at the age of 65, the San Rafael Pacifics in the California League. [Lee is believed to be the oldest pitcher ever to win a pro game.] I beat Maui, went nine. Got a base hit and an RBI. I threw a one-hitter for the Vermont [Senior Baseball League] championship two years ago. I had a perfect game with two outs in the seventh, and I walked the catcher on a 3-2 changeup.

Tell me about the radio gig you do in Montreal.

It’s called “Answers from Space.” I’ve been doing that for 12–15 years now, five days a week with [sports-talk host] Mitch Melnick — he’s the number one in all Canada. It’s about everything and anything, mostly music and baseball. He’s been to 600 Bob Dylan shows. I saw Dylan in 1965, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

Music is big in the locker room.

Except no one [in my day] had personal Walkmans. Nowadays everyone’s got buds in their ears, a bunch of zombies walking around. I played “Switched on Bach.” I played a lot of avant-garde stuff. I remember I turned Warren Cromartie onto Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, Weather Report… a lot of Miles Davis. John Milner said I was the only white guy allowed on the back of the bus. Gary Carter, “The Kid,” believed everything I said. That’s why I was elected player rep. I’m responsible for more millionaires in baseball — me, Marvin [Miller], Dick Moss, and, actually, Joe Torre. We took it from the owners and gave it to the players. Torre, he’s the guy who fouled the ball off of Carlton Fisk’s left testicle and introduced Quaaludes into the Red Sox clubhouse [laughs].

The movie covers a crappy period in your career, when the Expos dumped you.

Worst two weeks of my life. Even worse, they’re having me get divorced at the same time. Chronologically, it’s not true. They’re piling it on. Shoulda been a 15-yard penalty for Brett Rapkin.

At what point did he tell you he wanted to make a feature film?

I don’t remember him saying that. I never knew he was gonna do it. Then he wrote a script, and I rejected it. It was kind of sappy. This one is a lot better. It’s funnier, more upbeat. He brought in Ron Shelton [Bull Durham; White Men Can’t Jump].

You once did a presidential campaign appearance in Boston and Hunter S. Thompson was supposed to come.

He didn’t show up. He really never responded, so we ad hoc put him on the ticket. I said, no one knows more about vice than Hunter Thompson, so he’s the vice president. It’s funny, we were probably politically opposite. He was kind of an anarchist, gun-toting… I’m more of a socialist than a libertarian. I believe in the underdog. More Eugene Debs: “If there’s a class lesser than I, I’m with him. If there’s a man incarcerated, I’m not free.” I’m more that type of guy.

How’s the governor’s race going?

The governor’s race is just gonna go as it goes. I’m there to basically poke holes in all their agendas. The problem with the world these people are in, the politicians are the experts, and experts don’t get things done. I come from outside the box. You can’t tear down the walls from the inside.

How did Eric Gagne become a producer on the film?

He’s the main money man. I taught him to play back in the ‘80s, in Montreal. I coached Matty Stairs, Rheal Cormier, a bunch of guys. [Gagne’s] record will probably never be beat, most consecutive saves. He was a great competitor. I basically teach change-ups. I’m a junker. If you get a guy with a big body who can learn junk from me, then you got a complete pitcher. I threw a complete game, two unearned runs, in 90-degree heat yesterday. I almost laid down and died after that. The mayor of Burlington, Miro Weinberger, is my catcher. I’ve won three [senior league] championships with him behind home plate. I’ve probably won — let’s see, ‘88-‘98-’08, 130 games in the senior league, I won 119 in the bigs — probably up around 800 wins. Pretty good for an old guy.

I heard Duhamel on the radio the other day. He seems totally invested in making this little movie work.

He was the freaking quarterback at North Dakota State! [Actually, Minot State.] His father played fast-pitch softball — our paths probably crossed. My aunt [Annabelle Lee] is in the Hall of Fame. She threw a perfect game underhand and a no-hitter overhand. You ought to see our slot – our arm angles were identical, like Mutt and Jeff.

So you sat through the film?

Yeah, uncomfortably, in Montreal. It was funny, cute. I loved the ending, which has me pitching in San Rafael, kissing the ground. It doesn’t make me look like I’m on a prayer rug. Well, I am on a prayer rug. It’s called a ball field.