The world was different back in 1970, when Topps issued their gray-bordered love-it-or-hate-it classic.

Back then, for example, Bill Lee was just another fresh-faced kid on this 1970 Topps rookie card after 20 games of long relief in 1969 that produced a 1-3 record with a 4.50 ERA.

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Fairly ho-hum stuff, especially when you consider that the Red Sox finished third out of six teams in the first-ever rendition of the old American League East.

But if you looked a little deeper, you’d start to get the idea that maybe this kid was something special after all.

All you had to do was turn over that baseball card of his:

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There you’d have seen that the Red Sox signed him as an amateur free agent in 1968 out of USC and that he somehow made the jump the majors by the next summer. If you look at his Baseball Reference page now, you find the odds were maybe even a bit more dire — the Sox picked him in the 22nd round of the 1968 June MLB Draft.

After posting ERAs of 1.58 and 2.06 at Single-A and Double-A respectively, though, Lee landed in Fenway to help the struggling ‘69 Red Sox in June of 1969, and he never looked back.

Never stopped talking, either.

Lee had something to say about every topic, a theory about everything, an opinion on how things ought to be. And, a lot of times, his stream of consciousness was downright confusing to the mere mortals around him.

During an interview in December of 1972, a reporter asked Red Sox infielder John Kennedy to comment on the moonwalk happening right then, by NASA astronaut Eugene Cernan.

Part of Kennedy’s reply was that, “we have a spaceman of our own.”

And the moniker stuck — Lee would forever be Spaceman.

Whether he leaned into the nickname, or whether Kennedy had captured the essence of his teammate, Lee’s eccentricity became legendary over the next decade, especially once the Red Sox crashed into the national spotlight again during a storied 1975 season that nearly ended their World Series drought.

But the funny thing is, for all his quirkiness, the Sox likely wouldn’t have made it as far as they did that summer without Lee and his 17-9 record and 260 innings pitched, which tied Luis Tiant for most frames on the team. And, though Lee’s 3.95 ERA wasn’t sparkling, it tied Rick Wise for best in the rotation (though Roger Moret posted a 3.60 mark over 16 starts and 20 relief appearances).

In December of 1978, Boston traded Lee to the Montreal Expos for Stan Papi, and the Spaceman took his act international for four seasons before he staged a one-game walkout to protest the Expos’ release of Rodney Scott.

Montreal then let go of Lee, too, to make the divorce permanent, and he was done in the Majors.

But he wasn’t done being Bill Lee, or playing professional baseball.

Nope, it was on to the Senior Professional Baseball Association and then to a run for President under the Rhinoceros Party after a move to Vermont, and then to writing books.

And plenty more, all done with that Spaceman flair, even if the man himself doesn’t really love the sobriquet.

Who would have ever thought so much fun could be wrapped up in those gray 1970 Topps borders, huh?


Hobby Wow!

Want a tangible piece of Spaceman’s pitching career? Try this one on for size:

That’s a St. Petersburg Pelicans jacket from Lee’s time in the Senior Professional Baseball Association.

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1970 Topps Baseball Cards: # 440 Bill Mazeroski (HOF)

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1970 Topps Baseball Cards #297-660

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