Draft Day Blues Nearly Turned Leon Lee
to Tulsa U
remembers the day he was drafted with disappointment.
The Grant High prep star was projected to be a top draft pick, along with
teammate Taylor Duncan. As sophomore, both had played on Grant’s 17-2 team that was
later selected as the “State Team of the Year” for 1969 by Cal-Hi Sports.
And in 1971 as seniors they led the area in hitting (Duncan .514, Lee at .508)
and took Grant to the city playoffs.
Lee was always known as the younger brother of St. Louis Cardinals pro Leron
Lee who was the first Sacramento area product to be selected in the first round of the MLB
draft (7th overall by St. Louis).
In his senior season, Leon remembers posting a 10-1 pitching mark for the
Pacers to go with that gaudy batting average. And when he didn’t pitch he played second base.
Although scouts weren’t sure of his future position, they knew he didn’t project as a
moundsman, and had reservations about him being a keystone infielder.
In 1971, the Chicago White Sox had the first pick in the draft. They called
Lee to ask if he could catch. “Of course I can catch,” he told them knowing his total
experience consisted of a few winter league games. “If we draft you in the first round, will
you agree to catch?” Lee balked, saying he didn’t see the benefit, since he already believed
he was going to be drafted in the first round. By basically telling them “no,” Lee committed
what he calls “…probably the biggest mistake I ever made in my life.”
When the draft came, Lee and a number of his Grant teammates met at a local
home to await the news. Taylor Duncan was called right away by the Braves, who took him with
the 10th pick overall. Not long after, the Giants called saying they had selected
Charles “Tony” Pepper, the Pacer’s first baseman who everyone said looked like Willie
Dread began to set in for Lee. Pepper didn’t put up nearly the numbers he had.
But teams knew him by one position—first base—which turned out to be a detriment for Lee, the
pitcher slash infielder.
It got worse.
When the ninth round rolled around, Grant’s catcher Johnny Green heard his
name called by the Padres. Not long after, the Cardinals called but by then Leon Lee “felt
dejected” by these circumstances.
But he had an option to play college—football. Lee called the University of
Tulsa, which drafted him as a linebacker, and told them he would accept their scholarship
That summer Leron and his friend Cardinals catcher Ted Simmons bugged Leon to
sign the St. Louis contract, advising him “Don’t worry about what round it was. Sign so you
can start playing pro ball.”
The capper came when Leon Lee Senior intervened. “My father, who hadn’t really
said a whole lot said, ‘You know, it would be really nice to see you playing with your
brother.’ And I kinda just melted and (agreed to terms).”
The Cardinals were happy to increase their original bonus offer after seeing
Lee hit a monster home run that summer in the North-South All-Star game in Anaheim. His
Lee played seven minor league seasons in the Cardinals system, hitting .280
for average, but never reached the big leagues. The irony: they converted him to catcher his
last year in Double-AA.
Further irony: the Cardinals sold his contract in 1977 to the Lotte Orions of
the Japanese Professional League where Leon was united professionally for the first time with
his brother, Leron Lee. The two went on to star in the Japanese League for a
And the rest is history.
Final note: Leon Lee went through the draft process with his son Derrek, who
in 1993 was selected by the San Diego Padres in the first round and played professionally for
15 seasons, winning a world series ring with the Florida Marlins in