clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #45 Bill Lee

Profile by BCB reader Gregory

He never called his manager a "gerbil", sprinkled marijuana on his cornflakes, or discussed Greek mythology during a World Series interview. But this Bill Lee, nicknamed "the General", won fifty more games, pitched in more World Series contests, and had a lower career earned run average than the more famous "Spaceman" who shared his name.

A lifelong resident of Plaquemine, Louisiana, Bill Lee was a big (6'3", 195) pitcher for his era who had a devastating curveball and a fastball that he kept well-disguised with a signature high leg kick. After Lee spent two seasons pitching for Louisiana State University, Cardinals boss Branch Rickey signed him to a minor-league contract in 1929. Lee worked his way up the ladder in the huge St. Louis farm system, amassing a 71-31 record in four seasons as a Cardinals minor-leaguer. But when presented with a choice to use either Lee or fellow rookie Paul "Daffy" Dean in his starting rotation in the spring of 1934, Rickey opted to keep Dean (who was four years younger than Lee and the brother of the Cardinals' star pitcher, Dizzy Dean) and to sell Lee to the Cubs for $25,000.

The deal paid immediate dividends for the Cubs. On May 7, 1934, in his first major league appearance, Lee shut out the Phillies, 2-0. No Cubs pitcher after him would record a shutout in a major-league debut until Jeff Pico did it in 1988. Lee would go on to have a modestly successful 13-14, 3.40 rookie campaign for the third-place Cubs. He really came into his own the following season, however, as his sparkling 20-6 record earned him the best winning percentage (.769) in the major leagues. The Cubs raced to the 1935 NL pennant on the back of a 21-game winning streak, in which Lee won four games, and it was Lee who won the pennant-clinching game with a 6-2 victory over Dizzy Dean and the Cardinals. Lee also recorded a 2.96 ERA, good for fifth in the senior circuit.

In the 1935 World Series Lee held Detroit to one run through seven innings in Game Three, but lost the lead when the Tigers roughed him up for four runs in the eighth. The Tigers took the game in extra innings. Two days later in Game Five, Lee relieved a struggling Lon Warneke in the seventh and saved a 3-1 Cubs win. However, the Cubs lost the decisive Game Six the next day.

The General would go on to pitch 200+ innings in each of his first seven campaigns (out of nine such seasons for his career), and became known as one of the National League's most reliable workhorses. He won 18 games in 1936, led the league in shutouts with four, and posted the sixth-best ERA in the league (3.31).

1938 would become the best year of his career; he posted a 22-9 record, leading the league in wins and leading it again in winning percentage, and his 2.66 ERA and nine shutouts topped the NL leaderboard as well. He finished second in the voting for the National League's Most Valuable Player award behind Cincinnati catcher Ernie "the Schnozz" Lombardi, and he was the mainstay of the pitching staff of yet another Cubs pennant winner. Lee made his first All-Star appearance that July, blanking the American League for three innings. During that remarkable 1938 season Lee had stretches where he was positively untouchable; he rattled off a 32-inning scoreless streak that included four shutouts, and then after giving up a run (driven in by a pitcher, of all people) he would go on to record 14 more scoreless innings. In the September pennant drive, with the Pirates, Giants, and Reds all nipping at the heels of the Cubs, Lee accumulated another long scoreless streak of 37 1/3 innings that again included four shutouts.

Unfortunately, the postseason went south as usual for the Cubs, as the Yankees swept them in four in the World Series. Lee did his part for the North Siders, though; although he lost Games One and Four, he held DiMaggio, Gehrig, Dickey & Co. to only three earned runs in 11 innings pitched.

Lee won 19 games in 1939, but it was to be his last campaign as a dominant pitcher. His eyesight began to fail him in 1940, making it difficult for him to see the catcher's signs or pitch with confidence. He slumped to 9-17, 5.03 that year, and after two subsequent mediocre seasons and part of a third he was dealt to the Phillies for catcher Mickey Livingston. He had begun wearing glasses in 1942, something that was seldom done in those days by an athlete, but his eyes continued to degenerate and his arm was beginning to wear out as well. He did manage to hit two home runs on the seventh anniversary of his debut shutout, and the large number of major leaguers who went on active military duty during World War II meant that Lee was able to extend his career longer than it otherwise might have lasted. He won ten games apiece for the Phillies in 1944 and the Braves in 1946, and he finished his career in a Cubs uniform in 1947. He only pitched 24 innings that season and was clearly spent, so when the season ended he went back to Plaquemine for good. He had surgery to repair the detached retinas in both of his eyes, but by then his eyesight was irretrievably damaged and he went blind shortly thereafter. He died in Plaquemine in 1977, his place secure as the premier pitcher for the Cubs during the last era in which they dominated the National League.

Bill Lee's career stats at