Bill “Spaceman” Lee ranks as one of the biggest flakes ever to hurl the horsehide. A left-handed pitcher for the Red Sox from 1969-78, he sorely vexed manager Don Zimmer. Lee called him “the Gerbil.” Lee wrote a book about his fellow wingnuts called Baseball Eccentrics: A Definitive Look at the Most Entertaining, Outrageous and Unforgettable Characters in the Game.
In it, he wrote, “Baseball is the most eccentric of games. In order to play it well, you have to grasp that fact.”
For more than a century, Boston big leaguers have had a penchant for behavior as weird as Manny being Manny – Ramirez, that is, disappearing into the Green Monster to take a bathroom break in 2008.
Take Ted Williams, who also played left field for the Red Sox. He used to practice his swing in the outfield, occasionally letting fly balls drop while he perfected his swing. That was just Ted being Ted.
Boston Baseball Eccentrics
Jimmy Piersall, the wild man from Waterbury, Conn., played with Williams in the Red Sox outfield. Piersall was committed to Danvers State Hospital after his 1952 rookie season. He had fought with umpires, squealed like a pig in the outfield and stole the game ball from the pitcher’s mound. He wrote a book about his ordeal, Fear Strikes Out, which was made into a movie. The movie made him famous. He later said going nuts was the best thing that happened to him.
Lee certainly grasped the concept. He once told reporters he sprinkled marijuana on his pancakes in the morning because it immunized him from the bus fumes he inhaled while jogging to Fenway Park. Lee won 17 games three seasons in a row, with help from a pitch he called the “eephus.” He claimed he beat Yankees pitcher Catfish Hunter after drinking four beers.
His teammate, Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd, did him one better: He said he once smoked crack before taking the mound. Boyd would later form a team that barnstormed the country, called the Oil Can Boyd All-Stars. Lee pitched for the team in 2009.
By then, Bill Lee had given up politics. In 1988, he ran for president on the Rhinoceros Party ticket with the slogan, “No Guns. No Butter. Both can kill.”
Alcohol fueled the bizarre off-field behavior of Rabbit Maranville, the 5’5” shortstop for the Miracle Braves in 1914. A native of Springfield, Mass., Maranville once dove into a hotel fountain and emerged with a goldfish between his teeth. He was arrested in Japan for marching in a military parade wearing a stolen uniform. Maranville once broke his leg at home plate and then argued with the umpire about the call before passing out. On the field he mimicked umpires, danced on the base paths and let fly balls hit him on the chest before catching them at his waist.
No Love for Mrs. Yawkey
Mickey McDermott also had trouble with the grape. His high school class voted him the most likely to be found dead in a hotel room. A right-handed pitcher with the Red Sox, his record was 69 wins, 69 losses and 19 DUIs. A tremendous athlete, he played semipro ball against adults when he was 13. In 1944, McDermott tried to sign with the Red Sox when he was 15. His father altered his birth certificate to make him seem older.
Joe Cronin, the team’s general manager, caught on and made a deal with McDermott’s father. For $5,000 and two truckloads of Ballantine beer, Cronin signed Mickey to a Red Sox contract. In the off-season he worked as a lounge singer in the Catskills. His career with the Red Sox ended in 1953 when he swore loudly outside of Fenway Park – in front of owner Tom Yawkey’s wife Jean. The Red Sox quickly traded him to the basement-dwelling Washington Senators.
Others had problems with Mrs. Yawkey, notably relief pitcher Sparky Lyle. Lyle, a prankster, liked to show up at games with a fake cast on his arm just to annoy his manager. It worked. He also had an odd hobby of sitting on birthday cakes. When Mrs. Tom Yawkey learned he had dropped his trousers and sat on her husband’s birthday cake, she insisted he be traded. The 1971 Sparky Lyle for Danny Cater trade was one of the worst in Red Sox history.
When catcher Bernie Carbo came up with the Red Sox in 1977, he was welcomed by Tom Yawkey, dressed in brown pants, shirts and shoes. Yawkey asked him if there was anything he needed. Carbo mistook his identity and asked him to get a couple of Fenway Franks.
Bill Carrigan earned his nickname: Rough. A big, stocky catcher, he played for the Red Sox between 1906 and 1916, much of that time as a manager. He fined pitchers who didn’t knock down batters when he told them to. He retired and returned to his hometown of Lewiston, Maine, where he made a fortune in real estate and banking. In 1927, he returned to baseball, but was disappointed that the game had gotten too nice. He thought the other owners worried too much about the players getting arrested.
Carrigan came from an era when ballplayers left the farms, the factories and the immigrant ships to play baseball. Charles ‘Old Hoss’ Radbourn, who worked as a butcher and a railroad brakeman before playing baseball. Radbourn has the distinction of being the first person ever to give the finger in a photograph. In 1882 he pitched 17-1/2 scoreless innings for the Providence Grays and then hit a walk-off home run to win the game. In 1884 he won 59 games. His arm was so sore a friend had to dress him. He played for the Boston Beaneaters from 1886-89 and then for a year with the Boston Reds. But his career was cut short in 1897 by complications from syphilis. He bought a pool hall and, after losing an eye in a hunting accident, became a recluse and died at 42.
Baseball Eccentrics on the Mound
Cuban-born Luis Tiant qualifies as an eccentric on the basis of his pitching delivery alone. Lee said the mother of the Dionne quintuplets didn’t go through as many contractions as Tiant did before her delivery. Tiant, beloved by fans and teammates, played for the Red Sox from 1971-78. He nicknamed his teammate Carl Yastzremski “Polacko” and Carlton Fisk “Frankenstein.” Sportswriter Red Smith wrote he looked like “Pancho Villa after a tough night of burning and looting.” Tiant thought he looked pretty good. He would come out of the shower naked with a cigar between his teeth, look in the mirror and call himself a “good-lookeen sonofabeech.”
The great pitcher Satchel Paige was nutty enough in his own way to have played for the Red Sox. He never did, but he played against them, and lost. That experience prompted him to issue the warning, “When you’re playing the Red Sox, put your trust in the good Lord.”
And finally, there was the Rem Dawg. May he rest in peace.
This story updated in 2022.
Images: Bill Lee By Craig Michaud at en.wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17868456.