RIP to Bob Lee, an All-Star pitcher who was one of the best relievers in baseball at the onset of his career. He died on March 25, 2020 in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., at the age of 82. His wife of 38 years, Kay, was by his side. Lee played for the Los Angeles/California Angels (1964-66), Los Angeles Dodgers (1967) and Cincinnati Reds (1967-68).
Robert Dean Lee was born on Ottumwa, Iowa, on April 15, 1937. He went to high school at Bellflower, Calif., and he joined the Marines after graduating. He left the Marines to pursue his dream of playing baseball, his obituary noted. He started his pro ball career with the Pittsburgh Pirates in Billings, Mont., in 1956.
Looking at Lee’s earliest years in the minors, it’s hard to imagine that he would have any kind of a major-league career, much less become an All-Star. His first few seasons were a struggle. That first season of 1956 saw him log a 5.52 ERA in 13 games between Billings and Douglas, Ariz. The next two seasons, mostly as a starter for Class-C San Jose/Las Vegas, Lee went a combined 21-24 as a starter with a 4.50 ERA and 231 walks in 376 innings pitched.
Lee saw his first real success in the minors in 1960 with the Savannah Pirates of the Sally League. He appeared in 30 games, all but one of which were relief outings, and he ended up with a fine 2.23 ERA and a 3-5 record. He fanned 76 batters in 76-2/3 innings. After that, he had a couple of average years in the minors. Lee’s entire future changed in 1963, thanks to an otherworldly season as a starter for the Batavia Pirates of the Class-A New York-Penn League.
After a few ineffective outings with the Asheville Tourists to start ’63, the Pirates gave Lee a choice: be demoted to Batavia for a reduced salary or be released. Lee went to Batavia and proceeded to go 20-2 with a 1.70 ERA. At one point, he put together a 15-game winning streak and was selected as the New York-Penn League’s Best Pitcher. He also hit .273 at the plate. Lee demonstrated he was ready for the major leagues when the Pirates called him up to start an exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians on August 1. He struck out 16 Indian batters in 7-1 complete game win. Lee allowed just 6 hits, with a Tito Francona solo homer being the only extra-base hit. He also hit 2 doubles in the game. Pittsburgh didn’t bring him to the majors after that dominating performance, but the Angels bought his contract in September and invited him to their 1964 spring training.
Lee won his first MLB game as a starter on April 29, throwing 7 innings of 1-hit ball against the Senators for a 5-1 victory. He found his home in the bullpen, though, and the fireballing right-hander soon became considered one of the best relievers in the American League. In 64 appearances (5 of which were starts), he worked 137 innings and fanned 111 hitters. He won 6 games, lost 5 and picked up 19 saves. His ERA of 1.51 even bested teammate Dean Chance‘s 1.65 mark, and Chance was the AL Cy Young Award winner that season. Chance led the AL in the category only because Lee didn’t throw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, and there’s quite an explanation about why he didn’t get those innings. Lee’s season ended on September 11 when he broke his hand while fighting with a heckler in Boston. The story at the time was that Lee took a swing at someone by the visitors bullpen at Fenway Park and hit a metal railing instead. Lee told a more complete version to the Los Angeles Times the following January.
According to Lee, three sailors were yelling at the Angels bat-boys before the game. Lee came to the boys’ defense and told off the hecklers. The trio made their way to the Angels pen and started bothering Lee during the game.
“I finally couldn’t take it any longer. I yelled back,” Lee said. “Then, one of them started to climb over the fence and took a swing at me.”
And as for the part about Lee punching the railing? “That’s not quite right,” he replied. “I broke the hand when I hit the guy on the top of the head.”
That incident aside, 1964 was pretty much a dream season for Lee. He chalked up his success to the use of a second pitch besides the fastball. “I’m throwing the slider again, he told columnist Bob Terrell of the Asheville Citizen-Times. “The Pirate wouldn’t let me use it, but when I got away from their loving care, I began to throw it and it’s helped me get where I am.”
He also pointed out that the Angels defense, particularly the middle infield combo of Jim Fregosi and Bobby Knoop, was the best he’d ever played with. “It’s a lot easier to pitch if you don’t have to worry about ground balls going through,” he added.
Lee earned his only All-Star nomination in 1965, though he didn’t appear in the All-Star Game. He saved a career-high 23 games that season, while winning 9 games in 69 relief appearances. He struck out 89 hitters and finished the season with a 1.92 ERA. He picked up a save on May 22 and recorded his first major-league hit. It was a home run off Sox pitcher Eddie Fisher, and Lee was so stunned that he halted at third base and shook hands with coach Salty Parker before resuming his home run trot.
Lee’s ERA rose to 2.74 in 1966, but he still won 5 games and saved 16 more. For the third year in a row, he threw more than 100 innings out of the pen. His strikeout totals dropped to 46, but his walks per 9 innings dropped to 2.7. Still, it was a frustrating season. It got off to a noteworthy start when Lee hit a batting practice home run in the Angels’ first workout at Angels Stadium, making him the first player to clear the fences at that park. But he struggled early, lost the closer role to Minnie Rojas and at one point was removed from the game in the 9th inning by manager Bill Rigney after getting into a jam. Lee was so upset that he ripped off his jersey before walking into the dugout.
On December 15, the Angels traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers for lefty starter Nick Willhite. The Dodgers plan was for Lee to replace Bob Miller in the bullpen so that Miller could replace the recently retired Sandy Koufax in the starting rotation. Lee, though, had plans to win the starting role himself. Los Angeles, though, was a bad experience. The team put him on a crash diet to get him from 262 pounds to 240. (Lee said his ideal pitching weight was 255 pounds.) He appeared in just 4 regular-season games with the Dodgers, ending with a 5.40 ERA in 6-2/3 innings, before the Cincinnati Reds purchased his contract. The Reds didn’t seem to care about his weight, and Lee appeared in 27 games and ended up with a 3-3 record and 4.44 ERA in 27 games.
Lee’s last season in professional baseball was in 1968. He had 44 appearances, with 3 saves, but with a 5.15 ERA. His strikeout totals fell to 34 in 64-2/3 innings, and he walked 37 batters. He and the Reds parted ways after the season.
In Lee’s 5 seasons in the major leagues. he appeared in 269 games, all but 7 of which were starts. He had a 25-23 record with 64 saves and a 2.71 ERA (and an ERA+ of 124). He fanned 315 hitters and walked 196 in 492 innings.
For more information: Legacy.com obituary