In a sport better known for rampant conformity and uptight, juiced-up jocks, Bill "Spaceman" Lee reigned as the thinking—and toking—man's favorite ballplayer, one who threw a variety of strikes from the mound and plenty of verbal darts at the front office. He championed health food, yoga and transcendental meditation years before they became fashionable and even appeared on the cover of HIGH TIMES in 1980, much to the chagrin of then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
Bill recently traveled to Cuba, a trip documented in the fascinating film Spaceman in Cuba. What results is an intimate portrait of a unique man whose quirky irreverence is tempered by a true love of baseball in its purest form. A left-hander, Bill pitched for the Boston Red Sox (1969-1978) and the Montreal Expos (1979-1982). He won 17 games in three straight seasons and finished with a career record of 119-90 and a lifetime earned run average of 3.62. Baseball's stoniest southpaw, now 60 years old, sat down with HIGH TIMES 27 years later for a free-flowing, free-ranging interview filled with laughter, word association and the genius that is pure "Spaceman.
Tell me about your recent travels to Cuba.
It's an amazing place! They do so much with so little, and you can find a game of baseball anywhere. We could pull our bus over by a field and have a game going within minutes. And they play ball for all the right reasons. Check out the movie [Spaceman in Cuba]. It puts some perspective on the game, and we have a great time over there every time we go.
There's a persistent rumor that you smoked weed with George W. Bush when he was with the Texas Rangers baseball organization.
Oh yeah, but it was way before that. He was a kid. This was when his dad was the head of the CIA or the ambassador to China or something, with his wife there—the one that looks like George Washington.
I'm almost sure it was at a fund-raiser for Senator [Edward] Brooke, the black Republican Senator that ran in the off year. I think it was '72. We were underneath the Tyrannosaurus rex at the Museum of Science, and I had it in the stroller. I twisted up a doobie, and George W. -- who I didn't know from Adam -- was walking around too, so I gave him a couple of tokes. I found out shortly thereafter it was him -- he was a big baseball fan and going to Harvard at the time, I believe. [Editor's note: Bush took a transfer from the Texas Air National Guard to the Alabama Air National Guard in 1972 to work on a Republican Senate campaign, and in 1974 he obtained permission to end his six-year service obligation six months early to attend Harvard Business School.]
What were you smoking that day?
Oh, we had Thai stick, we had Acapulco Gold -- I'm from California, so it was always cheap. The Thai stuff that came from Vietnam was wrapped on the sticks with the big red hairs -- you couldn't beat that with a stick!
It's always been good, but there was a time everything got bad -- some time in the '80s. You'd get stuff that washed up on the beach and was moldy. Now it's all hydroponic, and people drive it up to your house in Beverly Hills with limos. The whole pot trade has changed; it's gotten to be an elitist thing. In the old days, you just put it in your "tuck and roll" and drove it over the border from Mexico. The rest is history.
The fans in Montreal used to throw little balls of foil at me as I was walking off the field. It took a while, but eventually I figured out there were balls of hash inside. One time I threw a really great game and walked away with more than six grams!
Vermont is fairly well known for its greenery as well.
Yeah, well, they call it the Green Mountain State, and I'm telling you -- it's hard to have a plane flying over looking for something green, because everything's green! It's not like Kansas, where you're going to see a plant in the middle of a cornfield. In Vermont, you can have nice shaded areas where you grow your natural ginseng, your "American ginseng" -- the soul cleanser -- and you can have four plants growing with no hassles as long as it's for personal or medical use.
Vermont's a great state like that -- I mean, they'll come down on people that are assholes and people that are doing the wrong thing or trying to make too big a profit, but if you're just taking care of your fellow farmer, they don't bug you. If you think you're doing something wrong, that's the problem -- don't think you're doing anything wrong, and be nice to the police and the people at the airport. They can sense your guilt. Like that shoe-bomber guy Reid—he walks over to the flight attendant and goes, "Anybody got a light?" [Laughter] Not to make light of terrorism or anything else like that -- but, um... we started it.
Any reflections on playing for the Boston Red Sox? You became known as a "Yankee Killer" for your pitching prowess against their dreaded rivals.
Oh yeah! They still love me, and I love them. It's a good thing and a bad thing. I can go to Boston anytime -- I'm well received and I can't buy a drink. It's tough being me, 'cause I don't say no, and it can take a toll. I love hanging with the fans, but trying to be the last man standing can make your head feel heavy, and it starts pressing on your neck and lower back. Next thing you know, you're getting puffy and you can't play ball.
What I look forward to is playing ball and, if I hit a home run in any given year, I have to play another year -- and I hit four last year [in his 60-years-and-over league]. I want to win. I hate to lose, so after this interview, I'm checking in to the Betty Ford Clinic. [Laughter]
No, not really! You can detox on your own without any crutches. I believe in taking care of yourself. Sweat daily!
Let's get back to the pot. Do you have any favorites that are around these days?
I don't smoke that much. Whatever I smoked last night is my favorite. It's like a dog when he wakes up: "Oh, that's my favorite meal!" or "That's my favorite walk!" I'm like that dog -- easily pleased. I like pot that you can take one hit, put it down, and go for the whole day and do what you have to do -- break a sweat, have two beers, fix a good meal and not even think about it.
See, a true Rastafarian and a Zen Buddhist are the same. I'm trying to blend those two cultures and societies in a matrix that comes together. All I have to do is recall and I'm there: "Oh yeah, remember that pot -- the one that left me in the elevator in Cleveland with the door closing on me? Wow, that was good shit!"
You traveled widely while you were playing. What cities in the US had the best pot?
All of them. All of the above. Was it Des Moines, Decatur, Detroit or Da Sister's Place? Everybody's the same; they're all out there. I meet people, and I'm low-tech -- I don't have a cell phone and all that stuff. So I meet people, and you make eye contact, and it's like, "Oh yeah!" Everything's flowing, and that's life -- that's the way it should be.
They call me "The Spaceman," but I'm really down to earth -- I think. I have my days. I don't hear as well as I used to, but you can't blame that on marijuana. I gotta blame that on high altitudes and Led Zeppelin -- they were good musicians. [Laughter]
You have to remember, one of the last times Phish played was in Vermont. Right out at the end of our road. There were wookie corpses strewn about from Hardwick to North Troy! It was like, "Wow! That's the way it should be!" And the Dead? Their last two concerts were up on the Quebec border. Fabulous! I mean, they were terrible, but it was a fabulous meeting place for all the Deadheads. I'm not a huge Grateful Dead fan, but I sure like their entourage! [Laughter]
Got any recommendations for our readers?
Keep it as natural as possible. As far as hydroponics goes, don't use the chemical additives. Try to live an organic life. Make brownies. Also, kill all the males!
So you wouldn't advise growing from clones?
Oh, never -- I'm a farmer and an organic guy. We plant seeds. Hell, in Vermont, you never know where it's gonna pop up. There's stuff growing out on the side of the roads. It's natural. There's hemp clothes. I know some guys in Quebec that have a hemp farm. I always ask, "After you're done making the clothes and rope, what do you do with the tops?" He says, "Bill, that's low-quality stuff." I realize that, but still….
Back to growing -- just be gentle on the Earth. Tread lightly on the planet.
How did you get a beer named after you? (Magic Hat's Spaceman Ale.)
I threw strikes! [Laughter]
Me being the Spaceman and them being Magic Hat, I guess. They already have their Number 9 beer, which is Ted Williams' number. We're both Californians and both a bit rebellious. I'm flattered and honored that Magic Hat Brewery would do that. It's a great little Vermont company. Think globally, drink locally!
You appeared on the cover of HIGH TIMES in 1980 and always spoke candidly about drug use throughout Major League Baseball. Do you think your outspokenness with the press hurt your career?
It definitely affected me as far as getting along with upper management and everything else, but "To thine own self be true," right? Always speak what you believe to be the truth. By doing that, you may tread on a few people's feet, but... fuck 'em. You can't please everybody. I believe in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem and the Epimenides Paradox, which I used in the Pete Rose trial, by the way. I use a lot of mathematical terms that justify the things I say. I think I'd be a good court lawyer. Actually, Johnnie Cochran told me that. He said, "Bill, you can be on my team anytime." And I am on his team. I'm on Dershowitz's team. I play on an even field and rub out the borders. Alleviate global warming. Sell your SUVs.
Any parting statements for our readership?
I think that if you all pool together and write me in as your candidate for president of the United States, we'll have a hell of a party.
Famous Spaceman Quotes from the Past
On the sanctity of baseball: "My first edicts if I were Commissioner of Baseball would be to get rid of the designated hitter, bring back the 25-man roster, get rid of Astroturf, maintain smaller ballparks and revamp quality old ballparks. I'd outlaw video instant replays. I'd outlaw mascots. I'd put organic foods in the stands. I would make cold, pasteurized beer mandatory from small breweries located near the ballparks -- no giant multinational breweries. I would bring back warm, roasted peanuts. Just the smell of grass and those warm, roasted peanuts should be enough to make people come to the park. I would just try to reduce it to an organic game, the way it used to be."
On his pregame habits: "I told [reporters] that I sprinkled marijuana on my organic buckwheat pancakes, and then when I ran my five miles to the ballpark, it made me impervious to the bus fumes. That's when [Baseball Commissioner] Bowie Kuhn took me off his Christmas list."
On pitching perspective: "I think about the cosmic snowball theory. A few million years from now, the sun will burn out and lose its gravitational pull. The Earth will turn into a giant snowball and be hurled through space. When that happens, it won't matter if I get this guy out."
On drug testing: "The other day, they asked me about mandatory drug testing. I said I believed in drug testing a long time ago. All through the '60s, I tested everything."
On smoking pot: "Something was definitely happening to me. My brain would start clicking into another dimension or time warp. It was as if everything was in 3-D, and I could visually grasp all three sides at once. Aside from that, I didn't get much of a buzz."
Check out spacemanincuba.com for more info on Bill Lee and the Spaceman in Cuba documentary.