Bill Lee comes from a baseball family. His grandfather was a star for the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League, and his father was the first to play catch with him at the family’s home in Burbank, Calif.
When he stands on the mound, though — which he still does as a 69-year-old in the Vermont Senior Baseball League — he is the spitting image, he said, of his aunt.
More than 70 years ago in Kenosha, Wis., Annabelle Lee took the mound for the Minneapolis Millerettes in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League armed with four pitches and an array of junk. The screwball, Bill Lee said, was her signature, and for nine innings in 1944 the lefty befuddled the Kenosha Comets.
There were only five perfect games during the 11-year history of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and Annabelle Lee, the 5-foot-2 aunt of future MLB All-Star Bill Lee, owned the first.
“I’m a big version of her,” said Lee, who stands at 6 feet, 3 inches and was an All-Star for the Red Sox in 1973. “That’s all I am.”
Annabelle Lee, who died in 2008, made her final appearance with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) in 1950 when her nephew was 4 and then she returned to California, where she started playing catch with Bill. By the time Bill Lee was a 10-year-old Little League pitcher, he was mixing a four-pitch arsenal he learned from his aunt and used to overcome a lack of velocity on his fastball.
He owes, at least in part, his 13-year Major League career to the AAGPBL, which will celebrate its 73-year reunion today through Saturday in Sarasota. Lee will be in attendance as the keynote speaker at a gala Saturday at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota.
Lee has spoken to the AAGPBL before. Two years ago he spoke at a reunion in Albuquerque, N.M., and in 1988 he went to Cooperstown, N.Y., with about 150 former AAGPBL players when an exhibit to memorialize the league was opened at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
“He loves those old ladies,” said Sue Zipay, a former player who helped bring the reunion to Sarasota in conjunction with her role as a founder of the Women’s Sports Museum.
Lee doesn’t necessarily think of them as “ladies.”
Lee, who earned the nickname “Spaceman” during his playing days, was just as famous for his countercultural and progressive stances during his playing days as he was for his success on the mound, which stems from his life around strong female figures.
They're all in my fraternity. They're all players. I don't see them as ladies. I see them as players. I am gender-neutral.
Bill Lee, former MLB All-Star pitcher
His mother and grandmother ran a family farm in Oakdale, Calif. Annabelle taught him to pitch while his father attended night classes. His nickname isn’t always “Spaceman” anymore. His family now sometimes calls him by his grandmother’s name, Imogen, because he now practices some of her hobbies, such as flower arranging.
“All the women in my life have been tremendously strong,” Lee said, “and that’s why I’m that way.”
But Lee needed Annabelle more than any of them. His father was a right-hander, and there are photos of Bill throwing with his right arm as his father tried to teach him. Annabelle was the first person to give Bill a left-handed glove, which he still uses now.
Lee wore Annabelle’s old glove for most of his most recent season in the Vermont Senior League until he committed an error with it in the quarterfinals Sept. 11.
Two weeks later, Lee hurled 12 innings in the championship game Sept. 25 to help the Burlington Cardinals win the league championship.
“She got 1/3 of the victories,” Lee said.
In the 25 years since “A League of Their Own” brought the AAGPBL into the mainstream — Lee said Annabelle was a partial inspiration for Kit Keller, played by Lori Petty, in the film — Lee has maintained his connection with the league and watched as others have come to accept women’s athletics like he did more than half a century ago.
He knows Bradenton and Sarasota well, too, having run fantasy camps in the area until 2014. The culture, he feels, is perfectly suited to honor not just the AAGPBL, but women’s sports in general. A women’s sports museum or hall of fame has been coming for a long time, so he’s happy to do his part to help push it over the top in Sarasota.
“I think it’s inevitable,” Lee said. “It’s a destination place and it would be perfect to have a nice, small, little beautiful museum there to show all professional sports, especially baseball because Sarasota is a baseball town.”
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League is holding its 73rd reunion in Sarasota through Saturday. These events are open to the public:
Saturday, Oct. 22
Casino day, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Gala, 6-10 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 23
AAGPBL players autograph signing, 3-5:30 p.m.
Casino day and autograph session are $20 each.
Women’s Sports Museum gala tickets available in advance through womenssportsmuseum.org.
What: Fundraiser for Women’s Sports Museum
When: Saturday, 6 p.m. (cocktails), 7 p.m. (dinner and program)
Where: Hyatt Regency Sarasota Ballroom
Tickets: $150 and up