Saturday, February 13, 2016

Exhibition performance was Bob Lee's big break

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.

For eight seasons Bob Lee had pitched his way up the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor league ladder. The 6'3", 225-pound righthander (his nicknames included "Horse," "Moose" and "Man Mountain") had signed as a free agent out of Bellflower High School in California in 1956.

After just one game against big league competition in 1963, however, his ticket was punched for the major leagues . . . though not with Pittsburgh. Two years later he was on the mound in the All-Star Game.

Lee had pitched for the Pirates' organization in virtually every Class C minor league west of the Mississippi. While he usually struck out about one batter per inning, he also allowed a lot of hits and gave up more than a few walks. From 1956-1962 he had an ERA of 4.28 and never had a winning season.

In 1960 he was converted to a relief pitcher and moved up to Class A ball in Savannah. His record was only 3-5 but his ERA dropped to 2.23. He made it up to AAA with the Pirates' International League team at Columbus in 1961, but spent most the year in Class A Asheville and had a 6-6 season.

Lee stuck in AAA for 1962, with Dallas-Ft. Worth in the American Association. He was 2-10 with an ERA of 4.68.

Something clicked for Lee in 1963, though. Back in Class A with Batavia he was returned to a starter's role and led the New York-Pennsylvania League with a 20-2 record and an ERA of 1.70. He struck out 240 (third-best) in 185 innings, walking 47.

At the end of July, Lee had a 15-2 record and had won 14 straight decisions when Pittsburgh called on him to start an exhibition game in Cleveland on Aug.1. On Aug. 15 he extended his win streak to 15 straight with a 10-inning 7-4 win, striking out 13.

Before a crowd of 34,487 in cavernous Municipal Stadium, Lee pitched a complete-game, winning 7-1 on six hits. He wowed the scouts by striking out 16 Indians while walking just two. He contributed two doubles with the bat.

"I was lucky with such a performance against a big league team," Lee told Pittsburgh baseball writer Les Biederman in the Aug. 17, 1963, Sporting News. "I had a good fastball and depended on it a great deal. My curve wasn't as good as it has been and I had trouble with my change-up, a fork ball."

Lee had driven himself the 225 miles between Batavia and Cleveland for the exhibition game, and made the drive back right after the game. After toiling so long in the low minors, he must have felt pretty good on the drive back.

In the Sept. 28, 1963, issue, The Sporting News reported that Lee had been purchased "conditionally" by the L.A. Angels from Batavia. The Angels had some familiarity with Lee's mound work. They had a partial working agreement with the Dallas-Ft. Worth Rangers in 1962 when Lee pitched there. Whatever the conditions of the sale were, they must have been met because Lee opened the 1964 season with the Angels.

He made a relief appearance in the Angels' second game of the season, at Washington. He struck out two of the three Senators batters he faced.

Lee was used mostly in relief with Los Angeles in 1964. He appeared in 64 games, starting five and closing out 39. He had a 6-5 record with 19 saves. He struck out 111 in 137 innings. His 1.51 ERA was tops on the Angels' staff.

The following season, Lee was named too the AL All-Star team. At the break he had a 6-4 won-lost record and 14 saves. He did not appear in the 6-5 loss to the NL. He finished the 1965 season with a 9-7 record. He didn't get a start in his 69 appearances, closing out 50 games and earning 23 saves. His 1.92 ERA was again team-best.

After a 5-4 season for California in 1966, Lee was traded to the Dodgers. He relieved in four games for them in 1967 before being sold to Cincinnati, where his record was 3-3 with three saves in 27 appearances. Lee ended his pro career with the Reds in 1968. His record that season in 44 appearances was 2-4 with three saves and a 5.15 ERA.

Bob Lee's major league totals in five seasons was a record of 25-23 with 64 saves in 269 games. He struck out 315 in 492 innings and had a career ERA of 2.71.

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