"The Fans Would Throw Little Tinfoils Of Hash At Me": A 1980 Interview With Bill "Spaceman" Lee, Baseball's Stoner Evangelist

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The folks at The Golden Sombrero alerted us to this wonderful piece of baseball history: a 1980 High Times interview with pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee in which Lee holds forth on drugs, Bowie Kuhn, race, reincarnation, drugs, drug use, drug abuse, which drugs Expos fans threw to him in tribute, eating out Linda Ronstadt, drugs, steroids, and Bambi. We've reprinted Ken Kelly's entire interview below, with High Times's permission. For a follow-up, check out the magazine's interview with Lee in 2007.

Bill Lee is not your typical left-handed fastball superstar pitcher. The only thing typical about him is that he's an atypical jock: His heroes are not Babe Ruth or Sandy Koufax, but Albert Einstein and Kurt Vonnegut. Since his debut with the Boston Red Sox in 1968, the press has had a field day trying to pin down the personality of the 32-year-old, gangly iconoclast. He set something of a mark at Boston with a tongue that was almost as quick as his redoubtable fastball. And an acid tongue, at that.


Acid in more ways than one—his psychedelic-Zen vernacular quickly earned him the sobriquet "Spaceman." He is liable, in the course of one meandering sentence, to cover everything from duck hunting to the state of affairs on one of Jupiter's moons. His wry wit is often self-directed—although it also finds a myriad of other targets, particularly the pooh-bahs of baseball management. Although he set a Boston pitching record for three consecutive 17-game-winning seasons, in 1979 he was summarily banished to the National League, with the then-lowly Montreal Expos. This because he was quoted as calling Red Sox manager Don Zimmer "a gerbil." "Actually, I never said he was a gerbil," Lee told High Times interviewer Ken Kelley. "But he does have those puffy cheeks that gerbils use to stock food in. And he waddles a lot."

While such pronouncements do little to endear him to his victims, to his legions of fans and his teammates he is something of a folk hero. In his first year at Montreal, he kindled an excitement that nearly led the Expos to a pennant. ("This year we'll be in the World Series. Last year was just a dry run.")


A change of geography did nothing to quiet his notoriety. Barely had spring training begun with his new team than he was admitting to a sportswriter that he had "used" marijuana. Bowie Kuhn, commissioner of baseball, levied a $250 fine against him (to be paid to the charity of his choice), and the headlines over that and Lee's subsequent lawsuits against Kuhn raged for most of the season. Sports columnists across the country railed against Lee, accusing him of turning young kids into dope addicts with a fervor that must have had Harry Anslinger doing handsprings in his grave.

Lee is nothing if not eminently quotable—as he proves in this candid High Times interview. He freely expounds on his use of drugs—and the rest of society's, including athletes'—as well as philosophy, religion, racism and The Meaning of Life.

High Times: So let's begin with a discussion of drugs.

Lee: Whatever's cool.

High Times: Let's rehash, so to speak, your dispute with Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of baseball, over your "using" pot.


Lee: I was approached in spring training at Daytona Beach last year. A writer comes up to me, out of nowhere, and says, "I've always been afraid to ask, but people have been saying there was a problem with drugs in baseball." And I said, "Definitely. Players have been abusing caffeine, nicotine and alcohol way too long." I was very low-key, monotone, and the guy says, "No, I was talking about marijuana." "Oh, yeah," I said, "I've been using marijuana since 1968." I didn't use the word smoke.

The media jumped on it. They said, Smoke, smoke, smoke. So pretty soon Kuhn sends down this guy he'd hired from Nixon's Operation Intercept. He wanted to know if what I'd been quoted as saying was true. I said, No, I never said I smoked it. You can ingest THC other ways as long as it gets into your system and provides the beneficial ingredients. I told him I sprinkled it on organic buckwheat pancakes before I went on my daily five-mile jog. I said it made me impervious to gas fumes.


High Times: The guy fell for that?


Lee: Yeah. He says. "I think Bowie will like that answer." Then Bowie fines me $250. The ACLU thought it was a good issue—constitutional and all. So I'm launching a civil suit against Kuhn for defamation of character and I'll make some money on that and I'll give it to the antinukers. Anyway, I paid the fine. Actually, I paid $251, one dollar over, to an Alaskan mission run by a friend of mine. Because I figured if I gave it to Bowie it would end up in the Nixon campaign fund.

High Times: What would happen if Bowie Kuhn levied a $250 fine against every player in baseball who smoked dope?


Lee: He'd be a rich man.

High Times: So it's safe to assume that lots of ballplayers smoke it?

Lee: Who doesn't? Smoking's a way to let you down slowly from a ballgame. It also makes you use less of the resources around. It makes people better in the way they act towards society. Everybody's nicer. It's hard to be mean when you're stoned. It's made players a lot less alcoholic.


High Times: Does smoking dope help you overcome muscle stiffness?

Lee: Yeah, because it forces me to stretch, to run, forces me to get going. Tells you that you're human, that time is marching on and that you're getting older and have to defy gravity. It's nature's alarm clock, gravity. It reminds us we're all mortal.


In my case, it enables me to transfer energy: I have good communication with certain muscles and I'm able to bypass the nervous system and exercise at the right speed at the right time. I jiggle a lot, loosen up. But really it hasn't affected me one way or the other before a game, psychologically, because when it comes down to the actual contest, the object is to cut your head off and let your body do the work. Free your mind and your ass will follow.

The thing about drugs is that they should never even be discussed. Know why?

High Times: Why?

Lee: Because it's like brushing your teeth. Do you talk about brushing your teeth?


High Times: With the dentist once a year.

Lee: Exactly. All drugs are just a mood elevator for a short period of time. You can't let them defeat you.


High Times: Speaking of mood elevators, let's talk about cocaine for a minute. Some people have a rule about it: Never buy it, but never turn it down.

Lee: That's a great rule. I like that. Good point. I like that theory. Cocaine—some ballplayers grind it up with Cheerios for breakfast. Gotta keep it on the up and up, though—as long as he can do his job, and it's an ally of his instead of an adversary, it sure beats coffee. [Laughs.]


High Times: One newspaper columnist, after Kuhn levied the fine against you, said, "It makes you wonder what Bowie did before he took up stuffing shirts for a living."

Lee: Some people clean the laundry; some people do the laundry. Doing the laundry means not really understanding the concepts that are involved. That's Bowie.


High Times: Another columnist, Dick Young, from the New York Daily News, said that you have the right to the First Amendment, but that because you "advocate" pot, every kid in America will run out and use it.

Lee: I don't advocate it for anybody until he's got the educational background to learn how to deal with it. Once you've learned how to cooperate with the planet, you can do anything you want, as long as you don't lose perspective. Dick Young is also an alarmist. And a bad writer.


Look, the only reason kids look to ballplayers as role models is because their parents make them do it—and television. The parents haven't learned to separate the person from the job that he does. Actually, I don't think anything I say affects kids at all. They're smart enough to figure out what they want to do on their own.

High Times: Now that you live a lot of the year in Montreal, tell us this: Is pot as big in Canada as it is in the United States?


Lee: No, not enough sunlight. It's more hash there. It's easier to transport. It's used freely, and the police realize it's not a problem and that it tempers the alcohol conduct and makes people more nonviolent. When I first came to Montreal, the fans would throw little tinfoils of hash at me. It was nice. It was kind of like the hats going to the matador. Bravo, good game.

High Times: Good shit?

Lee: Oh, yeah, always. It was the same thing as the older guys putting a beer in your pocket. Very nice atmosphere. Very friendly gestures. I love Montreal fans. French fans temper their emotions better than, say, Boston fans. Not so negative, not so heartbroken. Boston fans are probably the most heartbroken fans, year after year. They try too hard. A watched pot doesn't boil. Montreal fans are more tolerant of mistakes.


High Times: You now live in Oregon. It's known that, come the rain, psychedelic mushrooms sprout a lot there.

Lee: Oh, yeah, just like trees. They're not that potent, though. You have to have the chemical process, really, to synthesize them out. I like them because they cause a periodical cleaning out of the system. Roto-Rooter type of thing. They do that for me. I also go on a fast at the drop of a hat to clean me out, off season. But mushrooms are kind of like a psychedelic enema. I think probably High Times readers do the same thing.


High Times: Who do you think High Times readers are?

Lee: True botanists at heart. Connoisseurs. Is that a good answer? You really wanna know? They're yoga masters. They're able to stare and visualize the concept of the flower, and through that visualization transform those things into the energy of THC and get high without even necessarily having to smoke it. There.


High Times: Let's talk for a moment about the drugs that are sanctioned—indeed, virtually mandatory—in organized sports, such as novocaine, cortisone, the steroids—

Lee: It's all rotgut. Your kidneys produce enough cortisone. As far as the management is concerned, the short-term goals outweigh the long-term ones. Novocaine and steroids, especially. It's ironic that Bowie Kuhn gets upset about pot when, every day, ballplayers are being shot up with drugs that actually destroy players' systems. He's thinking short-term. He's not taking into consideration, for instance, that steroids are congenital and that the people who take them are passing on heart failure to their offspring that will make them die at a much earlier age because of inability to absorb cholesterol. He's thinking, "This guy is more of a burden, costs more on society in the long run based on our insurance ..." It's strange, isn't it?


High Times: So you're saying that baseball management is abusing drugs, in effect?

Lee: Yeah. Because they create the system whereby the ballplayer knows that if he does good, he's gonna get x number of dollars and then he can worry about it later. Overachieving at a faster rate. It's the same thing as marginal buying on the stock market, which created the crash of 1929.


High Times: Did management ever get you to take drugs you didn't want to take?

Lee: Kind of, but I had the ability to regulate them myself, and not take as much as they suggested. I knew it was harmful for me to take cortisones, but it was something I had to use because of my arm injury with the Red Sox. I was very lucky that the Red Sox gave me two years to come back from my injury. They had to give me the space to try and heal. But they don't have to do that with everybody. I was lucky I had so many established years in so they couldn't do that—boom boom boom. I had three 17-game-winning seasons in a row with the Red Sox, which was a record in consistency for Boston pitchers. I was a worthy investment.


High Times: You've already mentioned liquor, nicotine and caffeine as harmful drugs. What else, in your opinion, are the most harmful drugs in America?

Lee: All are bad if you don't neutralize them with another one. It's the things that are not able to be metabolized. The pharmacists know when they're cheating a little bit, when they're crossing over too much, cutting off natural connections in the body. We're all put together by charges and by molecular arrangement, and when you tamper with the natural ones, you're up the creek. The harmful ones—steroids, amphetamines. Anything that affects genetic body patterns, and any drug that becomes addictive. It's like a black hole. It'll suck you in. Heroin. They're not all bad, really, if you can control them, if you have the ability not to become addicted to them, but to use them, as [Carlos] Castaneda says, as an ally.


High Times: From what you say, it sounds like management treats a player as a commodity rather than a person.

Lee: A commodity first, a person second. They wink out of "commodity" once in a while, but when it comes down to the books at the end of the month, you slip into what Bob Seger calls "a number to the telephone company."


High Times: You once said that to make it in baseball you have to be an asshole. Why is that?

Lee: Nice guys get treated with less respect.

High Times: Is that why nice guys can't be managers?

Lee: They never give you any positive reinforcement. Or seldom.

High Times: You also once said that all managers are .220 hitters and that's why they hate pitchers so much.


I mean, what's the difference between Ted Kennedy and Jerry Brown? As far as I'm concerned, eating out Linda Ronstadt would be just as bad as Chappaquiddick.

Lee: Not all of them are. Ted Williams hit .406. Of course he was a lousy manager. I want to say this, though. I believe in clinical and physical psychology. You have two hemispheres in your brain—a left and a right side. The left side controls the right side of your body and the right controls the left half. It's a fact. Therefore, left-handers are the only people in their right minds. Does that sum it up?


High Times: Since you're a left-hander, it certainly seems a convenient outlook.

Lee: Whatever. What do I know?

High Times: What do you consider your most significant accomplishment?

Lee: Probably making people smile. Taking their minds off things that aren't going well. Give them something to work from. Kind of a premise—


High Times: Who would you like to meet that you haven't met yet?

Lee: Everybody's so close in this day and age that you don't have to meet people to know them. I'd like to meet Sarah Miles. [Laughs.] I've never met any real actors.


High Times: You've met Reggie Jackson.

Lee: Bad actors don't count.

High Times: Ever eat a Reggie bar?

Lee: No way! He's turning to cancer in minors. Weakening their bodies by giving them sugar.


High Times: What do you think about Reggie's arch rival, Billy Martin?

Lee: He's a misguided person. I visited China a couple of years back and their philosophy of athletics is totally different from ours. I loved it. They extend their hand to the guy that didn't do as well. It's a nonhumiliating thing. Friendship first, competition second. That's my basic philosophy of athletics. One time when I was a kid I asked my dad, "How come all the good guys always get screwed?" And he said, "It's because of the jerks who run it."


High Times: The people who run baseball are jerks?

Lee: Uneducated ones, at that. Nincompoops. But you know what? Baseball is a great way to get paid for playing a child's game. That sounds cold, doesn't it?


High Times: Sounds like cold cash.

Lee: I think the game could be a lot more fun if the fans could have more say in it. The game should be incorporated into electronics in each game so that fans could play against kind of a giant computerized Pong game. That way you're playing two games. One you're watching, one you're playing.


High Times: Let's talk about politics for a moment.

Lee: I believe in a bumper sticker I saw. It said, "Don't vote. It only encourages them." Don't vote for president. Don't vote for a supreme being. Vote for everything else. I mean, what's the difference between Ted Kennedy and Jerry Brown? As far as I'm concerned, eating out Linda Ronstadt would be just as bad as Chappaquiddick. Oops. You can't use that. Because I'd do it too.


High Times: Sorry, it's on the record. Seriously, though, you were born in Belmont, Massachusetts, headquarters of the John Birch Society, and in fact you used to be pretty conservative politically, no?

Lee: I'm a modern conservative. I believe in recycling your trash. i'm a radical left-wing conservative.


High Times: Meaning?

Lee: I don't believe in political systems the way they stand. I believe in interrelations, like Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé Indians. He was the most sage, the best fighter, the best defensive in staying out of jams. He was as good a general as Robert E. Lee because his basic premise was survival for his people and causes. I think we've got to communalize. I know it sounds like the '60s, but the '80s are gonna need that again. Barter systems, sharing in foods, community property, victory gardens. You can't have a self-consuming system the way it is now, because it's a closed system, and it destroys everything else around it.


You know who said it best? Walt Disney. When Bambi's mother said, "Beware, Bambi, there's evil out here in the forest. Fire." Bambi says, "Fire, what do you mean?" Bambi's mother says, "The evil is man." Whooah! Freaked me out as a kid—first TV show I ever saw. Look, the earth can keep replenishing and adapt if you treat it right. You can't poison the atmosphere because you have to burn more coal. The balance of nature is a very fine thing. Your main priority is not energy, it's balancing your systems on planet earth. That's where my politics are at.

High Times: Who would you like to see as president?


Lee: Bucky Fuller. I believe in a world club. I work for antinuke stuff—the Clamshell Alliance, the Abalone Alliance. I don't believe in nuclear plants at all, in any way, shape or form. What kind of container can you make that will never let the rot seep out into the atmosphere? I go and speak for those groups any time they ask. I say, "Hey, I don't know jack shit. I just have these few beliefs." I like to fish and because of acid rain, the salmon can't spawn anymore. I think the planet is shaped by its poles and the fragile ecologies will die first and it will cause a chain reaction, and everything will die and we'll all be huddled in one part of the globe fighting off this monster green plague that comes down.

High Times: You think of yourself as a proselytizer, somewhere, don't you?

Lee: Look, I'm not right on everything. But I try and speak as a disciple of people who do know stuff, like Einstein and Chief Joseph. I don't believe in experts. Experts know nothing. I believe in "imperts"—people of one field who branch out into other fields and who know the right way to use all our knowledge. What's the alternative—just drop the bombs and we'll all sit around with shit-eating grins on our face and nobody says anything?


High Times: Because of your outspokenness, as well as your pitching, and your public image, you're something of a superstar in Montreal. Is that a hard thing to deal with?

Lee: Shit, I don't even think about it. I look in the mirror every morning and say, Who the fuck is this guy? I don't let the folk-hero part catch up with me. I keep myself separate from my image. A lot of rock bands get so fucked up because they start believing their own press. The rule is this: Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.


High Times: Religion seems to be a big part of sports these days, and baseball is no exception. Particularly among the born-agains. It's like, "I didn't hit that home run, God did."

Lee: Yeah, and so who struck you out the last time at bat? Me. I don't want to go to heaven. Heaven's a place where all these guys are playing harps and flying around. I don't even like to fly on airplanes. I like to keep my feet on the ground. I do believe in an afterlife, though. I believe that you come back as whatever you've abused in the previous life. But you'd be happy, you know? If you're a dope smoker, you might come back as a tree, and get processed into a Zig Zag or something. You'll be a wrapper. Maybe a tree's whole goal in life is to get smoked. I hope I come back as grain in the field and get turned into some of the finest Dortmunder Union beer in Germany. And that then Pelé will drink me. [Laughs.]


High Times: What about the so-called new consciousness?

Lee: You mean like Esalen and est and stuff? They're too specific. For everyone that tries to be as good as he can be, he tries too hard in one area and he totally fucks up in another so bad that he's just a complete mess. It's all closed minds, that stuff.


High Times: Is there still much prevalent racism in baseball?

Lee: On most levels it's just a joke. The contracts take care of that. But on management [ownership] levels, it's known that there are certain teams that don't have many black players. We sure didn't have many at Boston. And Calvin Griffith, the owner of the Minnesota Twins, virtually drove Rod Carew out of his town. He said something like, "There are more lakes than blacks in Minnesota." A lot of the older owners are totally racist. They're fools. Look at who won the World Series last year. The Pittsburgh Pirates are at least half black.


High Times: So, in summation, what's the meaning of life?

Lee: Play to win and always adhere to the law of averages. The strange may occur. But just because things may happen and the sun comes up and gravity pulls on you and you age, resist age and stay healthy and go easy into the future. And keep laughing, and be kind to people on the way up because you're gonna see them again on the way down. Actually, I don't know what that means. English is not my trump card. That's why I get quoted a lot like Casey Stengel. I walk the tightrope between the two worlds. Between the oral and the doing, which I think are contradictory worlds.


High Times: How do you resolve the contradictions?

Lee: Do 'em both. There's a time and a place for everything. And keep your mouth shut at all times.


Republished with permission from High Times. Be sure to read the magazine's 2007 follow-up with the Spaceman.