While looking up information on Julio Gotay for today’s “This Date” article, I saw a Pittsburgh Pirates related headline in the August 2,1963 issue of The Washington Report that caught my eye. It read, “Pirate farmhand strikes out 16 as Bucs beat Tribe in exhibition game”. As usual when I’m doing research for columns, I can be easily distracted by other baseball stories on the page, this one I had to read.
The story starts off with a simple question, “Who is Bob Lee?”. I didn’t have an answer. As much as I read about the history of the Pirates while writing here and long before that, I don’t ever remember seeing a Bob Lee in the stats section of any Pirates team.
In front of a huge crowd for an exhibition game, 34,487 people came to see the Pirates take on the Indians in Cleveland. Pittsburgh won 7-1 with Lee allowing six hits and two walks in his complete game victory. The only run he allowed was a solo homer from Tito Francona, but Tito was a strikeout victim twice on the night. Major league regulars, Willie Kirkland and Jerry Kindall each struck out three times on the day. Lee wasn’t piling these stats up against minor leaguers. Roberto Clemente collected three hits and two RBI’s in the game, while Donn Clendenon and Jerry Lynch each hit homers. Had it been an actual regular season game, Lee’s strikeout total would’ve set the team record for most in a game.
I did finally realize who Lee was once I read up on him but only because I’ve collected baseball cards for as long as I can remember, especially ones older than I am and Lee has a common theme in all of his Topps cards, with him looking off into the distance as his picture was taken. He never played for the Pirates though, and this article got me wondering about him.
He signed with Pittsburgh in 1956 and for eight years he toured the minor leagues for them, trying to make it to the majors. He played for a team from Douglas, Arizona for the first half of his first year, before moving to Billings, Montana for the rest of the season. He had stops along the way in San Jose, Dubuque, Grand Forks, Asheville, Columbus and Batavia.
His spotlight moment came during his best season, but it is hard to believe it led to the Pirates giving up on him shortly thereafter. At the time of his August 1st masterpiece against the Indians, he was 15-2, with 13 consecutive victories. Not only did he shutdown the Indians that day, he went on to win five more games without a loss. Assuming it was the only exhibition game he pitched for the Pirates, he won 19 consecutive decisions. He finished that season going 20-2 for Batavia, although it should come with a disclaimer that he was pitching in the New York-Penn League, where his oldest teammate was two years younger than him and many were at least five years younger.
When Lee pitched briefly in AA during that 1963 season, he had a 6.75 ERA in five relief appearances. If you take out that 20-2 record from his eight year minor league totals, he was left with a 39-56 record. So it is easy to see why the Pirates gave up on him, despite the seemingly odd timing. It however turned out to be a bad decision short term, as the mid-60’s Pirates certainly could’ve used the stats that he put up during his first three seasons in the majors with the Angels. From 1964 until 1966, Lee had a 1.99 ERA in 194 games, winning 20 times, saving 58 victories and pitching a total of 370 innings.
He finished his career with two more subpar seasons in the National League before retiring. For three years though, he was a strong relief pitcher in the majors and for one day in the Pirates system, he dominated a major league team, leaving 34,487 fans in Cleveland, and even more Pirates fans reading the paper the next morning, to wonder “Who is Bob Lee?”