Leon Lee in his Academy hat
Photo © Rick Cabral 2013
At the age 60, Leon Lee is doing what he loves most: having fun on a baseball diamond.
Today, however, it no longer involves competition. Instead, it’s seen in the form of guidance and instruction on the synthetic turf of the Mather Field Baseball complex, where Lee and his cohorts run The Academy. There he shares the wisdom garnered from four decades playing, coaching and scouting baseball all across the world.
The name Leon Lee is well known in Sacramento baseball circles and for various reasons: he’s the father of retired major leaguer Derrek Lee; the younger brother of Leron Lee, Sacramento's first-ever first-round draft pick; and was a cog in some of the greatest high school and American Legion teams ever to play on the sandlots of Sacramento.
He was also a star in the Nippon Professional Baseball League (also known as Japanese Baseball) and a key contributor to the film, Mr. Baseball starring Tom Selleck.
The La Salle Club this spring honored Leon Lee with induction into its Baseball Hall of Fame, featuring all of the greats from the Sacramento area.
Sacramento Bee sportswriter Joe Davidson, who has known Lee for more than 20 years, says “When you’re talking about Leon Lee, you’re talking about one of the golden guys in this business.”
Born and raised in Sacramento’s Del Paso Heights, as a young boy, Leon Lee followed in the footsteps of his father Leon Senior and older brothers Leron and Tommy on the baseball diamond. Senior always encouraged Leon to “play up” as a youth, and helped develop his raw tools. At Grant Little League, Lee was known as a big bopper and pitcher. During the 1965 Little League All-Stars, he pitched a perfect game against West Sacramento Little League. In the District tourney, Grant lost to Novato, one win away from going to the Western Regionals in San Bernadino, which is the steppingstone to Williamsport.
As a 15-year-old on Grant Senior Little League, however, he made it to World Series in Gary, Indiana. In the second game, Leon’s pitching and batting propelled Grant SLL to the semi-finals, when he went four-for-four with three doubles and four RBI in an 8-2 win. But they lost the next two games and placed third in the nation. Leon and teammate Taylor Duncan were named to the all-tournament SLL team.
By the time they made the Grant High varsity the “super sophs” Duncan and Lee found themselves on a ballclub laden with talent that lost its first game to San Juan High, won the North Metro League and steamrolled their way through the Capital Valley Conference Invitational to face Cordova High in the championship.
On the Lancers was sophomore Larry Wolfe, who would later go on to play four seasons in the majors. Although he hadn’t pitched all year, coach Max Miller’s staff was depleted, so Wolfe was pressed into pitching duty that evening. One look at the Grant team, and Wolfe admits he was overwhelmed. “I thought, ‘Man, this is like an All-Star Team!’ It was hard to believe you could get a group of kids so talented.”
Lee, he remembers, hit a long home run at Renfree Field as the Pacers trounced Cordova 13-1 to claim the Capital Valley Conference Invitational. They were voted the number one team in the area with a 17-2 record and retroactively Cal-Hi Sports selected Grant as the 1971 State Team of the Year (incorrectly listing the team’s record as 16-1).
Grant’s senior shortstop Hank Garcia and pitcher Tony Rodriguez were selected 1st team All-City, while third baseman Taylor Duncan made 2nd Team in both newspapers.
That summer the Haggin-Grant American Legion team—a mix of Grant’s All-Stars and Notre Del Rio players—won the area District title and went all the way to the state finals in Yountville.
In the first game against a team from West Covina, Leon Lee won it for H-G on a walk-off home run in the 10th inning. They lost the next game 3-2. In game three, Haggin-Grant was losing 2-1 in the eighth inning when Lee launched another home run to tie the game against Gardena Valley. That contest also went into extra innings, and in the 11th, Gardena poured in four runs to take it 6-2, sending the Sacramento team home for the summer.
But Lee had etched his name forever in the memories of those who saw the 16-year-old slugger perform at the ballpark in Yountville. Still, he recalls, almost every time he made the newspapers the line always went “Leon Lee, younger brother of Leron Lee, selected 7th overall in the draft by the St. Louis Cardinals…” The notoriety and celebrity of being the younger brother of a pro prospect was something of a blessing and a curse, as Leon had just begun to demonstrate his own future pro potential while playing for teams in high school, American Legion, the men’s Night League and National Division of the Winter League.
Leon’s journey was in lockstep with best friend, Taylor Duncan. They went everywhere and did everything together, Lee remembers. Taylor, he says now with fondness, was a “happy-go-lucky guy. We used to buy our clothes at the same store” and came out dressed like identical twins.
For fun, the two played a made-up game of “lemon ball.” They would bring home from the grocery store those plastic lemon juice containers, drain the liquid and use the object as a kind of Whiffle ball.
Since Leon Lee Senior was a plumber, plywood remnants were always around the house. Once they found the right size, it became their backstop/strike zone, which they hauled around to the playground. At Grant High School, they played “lemon ball” in front of the ticket booth by the football stadium and the tennis courts fence served as the home run barrier.
They used a bat that been cut vertically in half to give it a flat surface. Anything hit on the ground between the lines was a base hit, and over the fence was a home run. “We’d play that for hours and hours,” Lee recalls with a smile. With a little practice, the pitcher could make the lemon ball “sink or cut and if the ball landed anywhere on the board it was a strike…It was a great game.”
(Leon tells the "lemon ball" story with great enjoyment. Click "Play")
Grant junior varsity coach Frank Calcagno took over the Pacers varsity program from Jim Ramey and inherited a load of talent, many of the players he'd coached in Senior Babe Ruth. Lee recalls Calcagno allowed his players the freedom to simply play while learning the game. For example, Duncan, who batted in front of Lee, often would signal that he was about to steal by giving a quick tug on his pants. “Then I knew he was running, and I would never swing,” Lee says. “I needed to drive in runs with men in scoring position.”
At the end of the season, Grant again won the North Metro title, led by Duncan and Lee who hit .400 and .404 respectively as each made the Sacramento Bee All-Metro team.
As an illustration of his dexterity and power, Lee impressed at the 1970 American Legion Area tournament in Redding. With Haggin-Grant leading 9-3 in the ninth inning, Duncan dared Lee to hit left-handed in his next at bat, even though he wasn’t a switch hitter. With two men on base, Leon responded by smashing a three-run homer—left-handed—estimated at 370 feet as H-G beat Redding 12-3.
This old newspaper photo shows Larry Wolfe, Elk Grove Legion second baseman, preparing to put the tag on Haggin-Grant's Leon Lee.
Now in their '60s, the two have partnered in The Academy
along with Ed Cervantes.
The following fall both turned out for football in their senior season, where Lee earned All-Metro honors as a linebacker for Grant High. He also played on the Pacers basketball team.
In spring, the 1971 Grant baseball team again was primed with pro prospects. Leading the way was Duncan and his sidekick, Leon Lee, the RBI machine, who played second and third base and became the team’s frontline starter. The Pacers also had Tony Pepper (who looked like Willie McCovey) at first base batting behind Lee, with Johnny Green behind the plate.
Again, Grant claimed the North Metro title, but in the playoffs, they were ousted by Bella Vista 10-4 as Lee lost his first game of the season, finishing with an 8-1 record. Taylor Duncan led all area hitters with a .514 average with Lee right behind batting .508 with four home runs and 32 RBI.
Sacramento Bee-KFBK All-Metro team featured Leon Lee as the central attraction. This group features three first-round draft picks: Taylor Duncan, Mike Ondina (1972), Joel Bishop (1972). Also on the team was Larry Wolfe of Cordova High.
Again, the Twin Thumpers made All-Metro and expectations were high they would be two of the first local prospects taken in the 1971 draft. Being the brother of a first-rounder, and a potent run-producer, Lee reasoned he was going to be drafted in the top rounds.
But scouts were dubious of Leon Lee’s position on the diamond. With his lack of speed, he didn’t project as a second or third baseman, and he surely wasn’t going to make his money on the mound. Says coach Calcagno “They (scouts) didn’t feel he was quick enough, fast enough, and he didn’t have a (specific) position. He played all over the place, except the outfield. I think that hurt his status a little bit. They all knew he could hit, however.”
Ron King, a long-time scout and former crosschecker for the Pirates and Dodgers, always believed Lee should have been a catcher. “He had mammoth hands, he could really throw and hit for power. I always thought he would have been a helluva catcher,” said the former professional backstop with the Cleveland organization.
King remembers a championship winter league game when Julius coach “Doc” Oliver asked Lee to catch. On the hill that day was Steve Finch, a future 2nd Round Pick out of Cordova High. “With Finch, the ball was really alive,” King recalls. “Lee caught him that day and never dropped a ball. I thought with those hands, and that arm, he could make it (to the majors) easily as a catcher.”
Apparently, the Chicago White Sox agreed.
In 1971, they owned the first pick in the draft and a few days before the big day, someone from Sox management called Leon and asked 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. He expected to be drafted very high anyway and didn’t see himself squatting behind the dish for a living. By basically telling them “no,” Lee committed what he calls “…probably the biggest mistake I ever made in my life.”
With the first pick in the draft, the White Sox selected Danny Goodwin, a 17-year-old catcher from Illinois. Although that phone call may have been a negotiating ploy by the Sox, Lee believes he botched the chance at being the number one selection in the 1971 draft.
On June 8th, Leon and a number of his Grant teammates hung out at a local home to await the draft day 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 taken Charles “Tony” Pepper, the Pacer’s first baseman, with their second round selection.
Dread began to set in for Lee. He figured Pepper didn’t put up nearly the numbers Lee had. But Pepper had an established position—first base—which Lee didn’t have.
It got worse.
When the ninth round rolled around, Grant’s catcher Johnny Green was notified the Padres had selected him. Lee wondered if his name would ever be called. Not long after, the Cardinals picked him 206th overall* but by then Lee “felt dejected” by these circumstances.
But he had an option to play college football at the University of Tulsa, and was prepared to take them up on their scholarship offer.
Meantime, at the Duncan household Taylor posed for a publicity photo holding a bat, with his mom standing behind him holding a mitt and his father in front pretending to throw a pitch. Asked by Sacramento Bee sports reporter Ben Bodding if he had set a minimum bonus, Duncan replied, “I plan to let them negotiate and see what they will offer me. I will talk it over with my parents. A college education must be included,” Taylor said.
“School is the priority, then baseball,” interjected his father, according to sportswriter Bodding. Taylor held off signing with the Braves so that he could play in the North-South All-Star game later that month in Anaheim.
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 clincher came when Leon 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 (decided to sign).”
Ironically, three days after the draft on June 11, the Cardinals traded Leron to the San Diego Padres. If Leon was leaning toward signing with St. Louis, he definitely put it on hold and notified Tulsa he was thinking seriously of playing football. In the North-South All-Star game in Anaheim on June 25 Lee he hit an impressive home run and the Cardinals increased their original bonus offer to $16,500. Lee finally signed with his brother’s former team on Tuesday, June 29, 1971, according to the Sacramento Bee.
Taylor also signed, but for 1st Round money: $50,000. Duncan played a few games on the Braves’ Rookie League team, and in 1972 was assigned to Greenwood, a Single-A club in the Western Carolinas League, where he batted .279. There, he broke his ankle sliding into second base and never fully recovered from the injury. He played a handful of games with the Cardinals in 1977 (Leon’s last year in the organization) and one season with the Athletics in 1978.
St. Louis Cardinals
When he reported to camp the Cardinals organization immediately tried to change Leon Lee’s batting stroke. Joe “Ducky” Medwick, who spent most of his 17 years in the majors with St. Louis, and Harry “the Hat” Walker, were the hitting instructors who taught what Leon calls “the old time way” of hitting off the front foot and going to the opposite field. Leon had a hard time adjusting and as a result the power for which he was known didn’t show. He admits to being confused and frustrated at the time. “I was more of a drive-type hitter,” but the Cardinals’ instructors wanted him to adapt to their system (Note: Leron also reported the organization changed his swing early on and only after he reverted back to his old style did the numbers follow).
By 1974, Leon began to figure things out. He started the season at Single-A Modesto and over 74 games hit .299 with 10 home runs and 58 RBI. The Cardinals promoted him to Double-A for a couple weeks, then moved him up to the Triple-A Tulsa in the American Association. In 23 games, Lee hit .333. In the AAA playoffs against Indianapolis, Lee says he hit nearly .500 and the Oilers won the series in seven games. Word spread through organized ball Lee was a top prospect and St. Louis fielded trade inquiries.
The following spring, he was again assigned to Tulsa and Lee envisioned being on track to the majors. In 31 games, he hit .313, but with little production to show for it. Manager Ken Boyer—the St. Louis great from the Cardinals World Championship teams of the 60s—told Lee he was being sent down to the Texas League. The two already had a strained relationship and then Boyer widened the gulf when he said, “If we were in the majors, I’d have to tell you the reason (for being sent down). But since we’re not, I don’t have to tell you a Goddamn thing.”
Back in Little Rock, Arkansas, Leon remembered stories of racism passed on by Leron, who played for that club a few years earlier. The younger Lee managed to avoid such painful incidents at a time when America was working through the civil rights transition.
One night in Shreveport after a game, Lee and a pair teammates went out to eat. They came upon a little roadside diner and bar with a neon sign advertising, Hamburgers. Leon started to walk in. His two teammates, both natives of the south stood outside, aghast. One said “Leon, you can’t go in there. Are you crazy?”
Lee replied, “’Sign says Hamburgers. Man, we’re hungry.’” He ventured inside and remembers everything became real quiet (at the site of three African Americans). Leon addressed the bartender, “’Sir, your sign outside says Hamburgers. We’re with the Little Rock ballclub. We’re just looking for something to eat.’”
A guy at the pool table yelled out, “’We were out at the baseball game tonight. So, that was you boys who beat our Pelicans!’” Next thing they knew, the ballplayers were served the food and talking baseball with the patrons. “Once they got to know us, that was a huge barrier broken,” Lee remarks. Over a round of beers, he and his teammates promised to leave tickets for their new friends the following night. This was a different outcome than the southern-born teammates envisioned when Lee went in to eat in a white establishment.
Meantime, Leon worked hard at improving his production. His batting average remained a solid .333 and he drove in 29 runs in 22 games. Then he broke his hand and returned home to recover in Sacramento. This setback allowed him to spend time with his wife Pam, who was pregnant. Lee used that time to attend Lamaze classes and happily applied the training during the birth of their first child, Derrek Leon Lee (September 6, 1975).
In 1976, Lee once again rejoined the Tulsa Oilers and hoped this time he could crack the major-league ceiling. But the feud with manager Boyer resumed and eventually he found himself on the bench. Lee wasn’t completely surprised, as he had watched several African American teammates disappear from the team through trades, demotions or resignation.
Long-time Cardinals employee
Reporters asked Lee why he was not playing? Did he have an injury? He replied honestly he didn’t know why Boyer had sent him to the bench. Frustrated and angry with Boyer’s heavy-handed ways, Lee sought refuge in the bullpen rather than wasting away in the dugout near the skipper.
One weekend, Leon Senior came out to watch his son play at Tulsa. As an unwritten courtesy in baseball, when a manager learns that family has traveled to the ballpark, often the player is inserted in to the lineup on that day. Lee informed Boyer his father was in the stands. The manager ripped down the lineup card, scratched out a player’s name and scribbled in Lee’s. Leon thought to himself, “At least he’s got a little bit of heart.”
Just before the players prepared to take the field, Boyer reversed himself and scratched Lee from the lineup without a word. “If I had done something to deserve this, I would admit it,” Lee says, flummoxed even today at the thought.
Meantime, Leon Senior was happy chatting away with former great Satchel Paige, who liked to hunker near the Oilers bullpen down the left field line. Leon arrived in the bullpen and told them what had just happened. Paige advised the young player to keep his cool. “’There’s some history there,’” Paige observed about Boyer. “’Got to watch out. But stick with it. Don’t let him stop you.’”
Around the fifth inning, Boyer whistled down to Lee to get ready to play first base. Leon got loose in the bullpen, and at the break ran across the field to take his position at first. Near the bag, he was met by the team’s first baseman, who was equally confused. From the top dugout step Boyer yelled at Lee, “’Get your ass off the field!’”
Smoldering, Lee trudged back to the bullpen, “…with my father and everyone in the stands watching. It was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life,” he says shaking his head today. “I have to admit, (Boyer) was one of the very few guys I go deep in the word and say hated.”
Lee gathered his gear in the clubhouse and dressed without a shower. After the game, teammate Mike Easler found him sitting by the entrance and asked Leon what happened?
“’That’s it! I’m gonna whomp him and then I’m going home.’” Lee told him. Easler and a couple of other players grabbed Lee and dragged him into the trainer’s room to prevent the assault. “Pretty much saved my career right there.” Boyer walked in, peered into the trainer’s room and went about his business.
Outside, Leon met his father and told him he was quitting. “’I can’t take it anymore.’”
His father counseled him, “’If you quit, the game’s going to go on. They’re going to put a person in your place. The game is going to move forward. You’re not going to solve anything. The only person you’re going to hurt is yourself.’ Great advice,” Lee says.
Not knowing the proper protocol for resolving the crisis, Leon called the St. Louis front office and ended up speaking with Jim Bayens, the Cardinals Director of Player Development and Scouting. He pooh-poohed Leon’s concerns, saying “’That’s Kenny. We just let him do what he wants to do.’ I had no recourse and I begged him to trade me.”
Bayens responded “’We’re not in the practice of trading our top prospects.’”
Leon knew that spring training 1977 was a make or break year for him. It marked his seventh season in minor league ball and the fourth at the Cardinals’ Triple-A Tulsa. By contrast, Leron—a first round pick—made it to the majors after this third year, and he’d gone through the same stops Leon had just completed.
The double knock against Leon ever since draft day still haunted him: lack of speed and a defined position. He could do little about the former, but the Cardinals decided to try him at catcher, and he was excited about the opportunity.
Before a spring training game against the Cincinnati Reds, Johnny Bench gave Leon some advice on catching. “’Everything in is in your feet,’” Bench told him. “’Get yourself in position, your shoulder lined up with second base, and let it go.’” Bench also noted, “’Remember: (As the catcher) you control the tempo of the game.’”
When the Cardinals broke camp, they surprised Lee by sending him down to Double-A Little Rock. They reasoned they needed a catcher on that roster, and sweetened the deal by increasing his salary. While there, Lee caught the bulk of the games. “One thing I had was a very strong arm and a really high rate of throwing guys out. I told the radio announcer, ‘I have a motto, ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal.’”
In Little Rock, Lee played with another minor league journeyman whom he remembered from American Legion ball back home. Scott Boras, also 24 and a graduate of Elk Grove High, was finishing his fourth year in the minors. Unlike Lee, Boras knew that due to a knee injury he was never going to make it as a player. After that season, he obtained a doctor of pharmacy degree from University of the Pacific, then five years later a law degree from UOP’s McGeorge School of Law. As a practicing attorney, Boras was asked to represent some of his former teammates and eventually became one of the biggest sports agents specializing in baseball.
At the end of the ’77 season, Lee’s aspirations of a major league career were dashed when the Cardinals dispatched a letter informing him they had sold his contract to a Japanese team. “They said I didn’t hit enough home runs or drive in enough runs that was conducive for a .300 hitter,” Leon recalls from memory. “All I needed was an opportunity. I was right there.”
The downside meant leaving organized ball. The upside was that the Cardinals had sold Leon Lee to the Lotte Orions, where in 1977 brother Leron had established himself as a star of the Nippon Professional Baseball League. Upon hearing the news, Leron told Sacramento Union writer Jim Jenkins “Actually, this will be the first chance I’ve had to see my brother play.”
Leon packed his bags and prepared for a new life with just one regret. “If I had it to do over again, I would have gone all the way back and signed that deal with the White Sox and I would have caught the rest of my career. Because I absolutely loved it.”
At 29, Leron Lee made the adjustment to Japanese culture and the baseball world by leading the NPB or Japanese League in home runs (34), runs batted in (109) and nearly won the batting title, while earning a selection on the “Best Nine,” the equivalent of the major league’s All-Star team. Unlike most American ex-big leaguers who came to play in Japan, Lee was at the height of his physical talents and put it all on display.
When brother Leon arrived one year later as the second gaijin or foreigner on the Lotte Orions, the spotlight was even brighter. The Japanese media besieged the Lee brothers, who were billed as the twin towers of power, a trait lacking in the average Japanese ballplayer.
Leon and Leron Lee
Two for the Show
Author Robert Whiting, during an interview last year in preparation for a Spotlight feature on Leron Lee, said “What the Japanese wanted from American-born players was power, more than anything else, since they already could hit for average.” Whiting is a noted author on Japanese culture and baseball.
The Japan move didn’t come as a complete surprise, as Lotte had expressed interest in Leon the prior year. Leron had told his coach Jim Lefebvre, an ex-big leaguer and the other gaijin on Lotte’s team, that his brother was getting buried in the Cardinals organization. They saw the possibilities of promoting “two brothers playing on the same team.” Lefebvre flew over and met with Leon in Little Rock in 1977, made the Cardinals an offer, but it was rejected.
“At the time, I was a little bit flattered the Cardinals didn’t want to let me go,” Leon says. He thought the switch to catcher might be his ticket to the big leagues after all. Despite the fact Cardinals’ starting catcher Ted Simmons was only 27, Leon would have accepted a backup role—anything to make the major leagues.
While the standard minor league contract buyout was $25,000, Lotte shelled out a lot more. Lee received $65,000 with incentives to make $100K.
Anyone who had gone through the process concedes the transition in Japan was a difficult one, not just the differences in style of play, but also dealing with the culture: language, customs and food. In camp, Leon learned that the Japanese trained with a ferocity and dedication not known back home. The teams scheduled long practices with meetings followed at night. In the hotel, he watched teammates practice what is called “shadow pitching and swinging”.
“I thought it was absolutely crazy. It’s more like a religion,” he remembers. “They’re obsessed.”
Leon was fortunate to have his older brother as his guide. But that doesn’t mean he took everything as gospel.
Practice in Japan included long endurance runs, the kind better suited to a football training camp. As the Japanese players ran continuously, Leron advised his brother to do like him and stop. But Leon persisted in trying to keep up with his Japanese counterparts, who chanted “one, two, three, four” in cadence in their native language. Leron sidled up and said again, “’Leon, the longer you run, they’re going to keep running. They’re not going to stop (until you do).’”
“Finally, I bailed out and they went one more time and stopped. They weren’t going to let the American outlast them,” smiles Leon Lee at the well-learned lesson.
That first season Leon dropped 22 pounds. “I was in great shape. Never felt better in my life.” He finished third in hitting, and drew the same attention garnered by his brother the prior year. The Lee Brothers had become a force in Japan.
One aspect to the Japanese game Leon quickly learned was the difference in the umpire’s strike zones. The foreign players—considered to have the advantage because of their size and major league experience—were forced to accept a much wider strike zone than their Japanese counterparts. “I thought it was extremely exciting and (believed I could) beat it,” Leon recalls. “My brother could show his anger every now and then and would challenge some of the umpire calls. Me…I would just sorta adapt.”
One umpire took the time to explain the rationale behind the Japanese umpires’ prejudiced zone for foreigners. The umpire Hiroka showed Lee by positioning a baseball far outside the 17-inch zone of home plate. “’This is a Leon strike,’” he told the younger Lee.
“No,” Leon politely disagreed, moving the ball back over the white part. “Only if it passes over the plate.”
The umpire smiled and said, “’No, if Japanese pitchers have to throw the ball over the plate to you, 80-percent of the time you would hit a home run. In Japan, we have to keep the balance.’
“So from that point,” Leon explains, “I never thought they were trying to cheat me.” He made a practice of not going out of the zone until he had two strikes. “Which definitely affected my hitting.” Lee says people who didn’t know Japanese baseball intimately couldn’t understand this concept of provincial balance. “People say you couldn’t hit it on the black (part of the plate). For me and my brother,” Leon laughs now, “…on the black was like down the middle.”
While posting high averages along with big power numbers, Leon also added an important element to his game: discipline. Midway through his Japanese career, he realized that he hadn’t given 100-percent of his potential to the Cardinals. “What I learned in Japan was I (hadn’t been) working hard enough in the minor leagues. It was on me.” Leon admits.
“Now, I blame myself. I saw what St. Louis saw, that I was taking things for granted, doing good enough and getting considerations (for promotion).
In Japanese baseball, that kind of honest evaluation by a foreign player is rare. But the Lees were different. They played the game hard, produced results and seldom, if ever, were publicly insubordinate like some over-the-hill, ex-big leaguers who earned the stereotype of Ugly American. “Me and my brother were (almost) considered ambassadors,” Lee says.
The media told Leon he had a Japanese heart. “They felt safe with me. I got along with Japanese culture.”
Around this time, Jim Lefebvre again called Leon, this time from his post as head of minor league operations with the San Francisco Giants. The two discussed the possibility of Leon returning to organized ball with a shot at making the Giants’, but that opportunity fell through. Then in 1983—after five years in Japan—Lotte traded Leon to the Yokohama Taiyo Whales, where he played three years. He finished out his final two years in Japan with the Yakult Swallows.
Leon Lee commemorative cards from Japan baseball.
Lee’s best year was 1980, when he batted .340 with 41 home runs and 116 RBI in 128 games. His batting average was second only to his brother’s in the Pacific League. Leon was twice selected “Best Nine” in 1980 and 1986.
In his 10-year career in Japan, Leon Lee hit .308 with 268 home runs and 884 runs batted in for a .530 slugging percentage. While he came close to matching Leron’s power numbers (283 HR and 912 RBI) with one less year, no one has ever topped Leron Lee’s lifetime .320 average, the highest ever in NPB history for a batter with a minimum 4000 at bats.
American author Robert Whiting had written about the culture clash of Japanese baseball and American ex-big leaguers in The Chrysanthemum and the Bat: The Game Japanese Play. The work, released in 1977, attracted interest from Universal Pictures film producer Robert Newmyer who was developing a Tom Selleck vehicle featuring an ex-big leaguer who plays in the Japanese League. Universal was interested in the rights to Whiting’s book, but their $25,000 offer was rejected.
In that work, and his follow up book You Gotta Have Wa, the Lee brothers received coverage about their style of play and ability to adapt to Japanese life, and therefore were well known to journalists and others familiar with the sport in Asia. Consequently, various script ideas had been floated about, including one based on Jim Lefebvre’s time in Japan titled “Fighting Spirit.” Since he wasn’t involved, Whiting says he recommended both Leron and Leon Lee to serve as consultants on the film.
One day a Universal Pictures producer approached Lee in the clubhouse to ask if he would read a script titled Tokyo Diamond. The script depicted the many differences between Japanese and American cultures and baseball styles through the eyes of a prima donna, spoiled loutish American ex-MLB player and presented it in a campy, defamatory manner, according to Lee.
Leon read the work and told the producer he wasn’t into Japan bashing. “I felt it made them look like idiots,” he says today. The producer asked him for suggestions, and from that original conversation, Leon became a consultant on the film. Two years later, as Leon Lee had finished his playing career in Japan and the picture was ready to shoot, he served as a technical advisor, extending his stay in Asia.
Matsushita Electronic (now Panasonic), purchased MCA/Universal and fired everyone on the project and began over. They hired Australian director Fred Schepisi, who had little to no knowledge about the sport of baseball, according to Robert Whiting. By this point, the movie title changed to Mr. Baseball and featured an African American sidekick to Selleck played by actor Dennis Haysbert (Major League films I-III and Allstate commercials). This character was thought to be modeled after an amalgam of Leron and Leon Lee and other black players of the time in Japan.
Leon says he was instrumental in casting many of the Japanese ballplayers for the film.
Also, as technical advisor he assisted by providing baseball instruction to Selleck and Haysbert and helped stage on-field scenes.
According to Doug Claybourne, producer on Mr. Baseball, “Leon made a substantial contribution by working with the baseball side and consulting with an Austrailian director on an American pastime.”
The final shooting script borrowed heavily from Whiting’s two books, prompting his publisher MacMillan & Sons to file copyright infringement. They settled for $75,000, two-thirds of which went to the author, who was not credited. Leon Lee was given a credit for playing the character Lyle Massey, but not for his technical advisory role, a fact which Whiting decries.
After the shoot ended Lee remembers Selleck praised him, “Leon, you’re the one who (really) directed this movie.” (Mr. Selleck’s publicity representative declined to make her client available for this story).
After production ended on Mr. Baseball, Lee was invited by Montreal General Manager Kevin Malone to return to the Pacific Rim on a part-time basis to scout for the Expos and work with them in spring training.
From that post, the Expos asked Lee to be their hitting instructor in 1989, and soon after the Atlanta Braves wanted to hire him to manage a Braves minor league team. But he turned them both down because he had been apart from his family for too long.
“ But to be honest, if I had it to do all over again I would (have accepted). Had I had aspirations of being a MLB manager, those would have been the steps to take.” Bobby Dews, his manager at Modesto, thought Lee’s ability to handle players would have made him an ideal major league managerial candidate.
As promised, he moved his family to Sacramento where he started the International Baseball Academy of California (IBAC) to tutor young players on the fundamentals of baseball and assist in guiding them into future careers.
One of the finest prospects Leon ever had the pleasure of working with was his son, Derrek Lee, who attended El Camino High and played for Leon’s old coach, Frank Calcagno.
Starting in 1992, Lee played many years in the Sacramento Men’s Senior Baseball League and made several trips as a member of the Sacramento Stars in the MSBL World Series in Arizona. He was inducted as a charter member of the SMSBL Hall of Fame in 2007.
But when the Cubs came calling in 1997, Lee couldn’t resist and accepted the post as Chicago’s Pacific Rim Coordinator. It involved many trips to Japan, Taiwan and Korea. “At the time, it was rare to have a full-time coordinator (in Asia),” Lee explains. He held the position through 2002.
The following year, he returned to Japan and NPB to be the batting coach of the Orix Blue Waves (Ichiro Suzuki's team from 1992 to 2000 before beginning his major league career in Seattle). Ten days into the season, Lee was asked to join a meeting in the team president’s hotel room before the game—sans team manager. The club was firing its manager for being too tyrannical with his players. “(The team) got off to a bad start. It was like a mutiny on the player’s side.”
Lee was assigned the Blue Waves manager post. The owner assured Lee he would return the following season as manager with the right to select his own coaching staff and have a full spring to prepare the team.
Although the Orix offense performed well, the team 6.00+ERA led to its downfall. Starting pitchers were on the disabled list, and those who were healthy didn’t get the job done. Leon phoned Dusty Baker in the middle of the season seeking advice. The team finished a dismal 41-76-3 and in the offseason, Orix hired a new general manager, who then hired a Japanese manager. They did, however, ask Lee to return as hitting instructor, but he turned it down.
Looking at the managing style of his hometown friends Dusty Baker and Jerry Manuel, Lee realized “I had an ability to develop great rapport with players. Building the trust factor, the signal of a good baseball manager in the big leagues. It’s all about managing people. Containing egos, creating chemistry in the clubhouse, empowering your players to make them feel like they have ownership,” he says today. “Looking back, it’s the one thing in my career I regret, not putting myself in a position to manage.”
The year 2004 began with a personal tragedy when Lee learned that his long-time friend Taylor Duncan had died suddenly of a stroke at his home in Asheville, North Carolina. Leon and Pam were planning to visit him on their trip to Atlanta to visit their daughter, Rae. They didn’t arrive in time. “I don't think Duncan ever realized how good he really was," Lee told Mark McDermott of the Sacramento Bee. "Duncan made coming to the ballpark fun and the players around him better.”
After an opportunity fell through to be the Seattle Mariners hitting instructor, Lee’s hopes were brightened when he signed with the New York Mets to manage their short season rookie club, Brooklyn Cyclones (New York-Penn League). During the interview, he was told this position could eventually lead to the Mets managing post.
Leon spent spring training in the Mets camp. After the parent club went north for the season he then stayed behind with the Cyclones players for extended spring in Port St. Lucie. There an incident occurred before Lee ever had the chance to manage one game. And it ruined his managerial aspirations forever.
To read that story, go to Sidebar: The St. Lucie Hotel Incident.
This year, Leon Lee and two long-time friends who are former professional ballplayers started a new youth instructional camp called The Academy. Lee and his two partners—Larry Wolfe and Eddie Cervantes—formed the International Baseball Group to serve as an umbrella organization to provide fundamental baseball instruction to youths 10-21, but also to assist in the growing realm of international baseball.
Wolfe, the former star at Cordova High and Sacramento City College, enjoyed a four-year career in the major leagues with the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox followed by one year in Japan. After his pro career ended, Wolfe coached local high school baseball for 15 years. Cervantes prepped at Hiram Johnson and was signed in 1971 out of Sacramento City College by the Baltimore Orioles. He played seven seasons in the minors, and eight more in the Mexican Professional League. Cervantes is currently the head baseball coach at Inderkum High.
This summer marks the first Summer Baseball Academy for the trio. Almost 80 kids are enrolled in the program, practicing at the Mather Field baseball diamonds. The program runs from May 25 thru August 25 and the cost is $300 per month, affordable compared to some local travel ball programs. An Autumn Baseball Academy will follow.
For Lee, The Academy offers an alternative to the current trend of travel ball, with its emphasis on playing games against other teams, by teaching skills that were fundamental in his developmental era, the 1960s.
Leon Lee instructing the fundamentals of hitting during a round of batting practice at The Academy.
“In our days, we were allowed to play,” he says. “Coaches didn’t call pitches or give lots of signs. Coaches today are dominating the game and it’s starting to show up at the pro level. Some of the most exciting players had the instincts and we’re missing that now,” Lee observes.
The Academy is structured with practice in the morning and intrasquad games in the afternoons. “We’ve given them a recipe to figure it out for themselves. Learn how to think for yourself on the field. Make a mistake? No problem, make it a learning lesson,” Lee counsels about his teaching style.
He admits this retro approach is unique to the players. “A lot of our kids are having a real tough time with that. ‘Cause they’re waiting for someone to tell them (what they did wrong).” Leon explains “There’s no penalty for making mistakes out here, guys.
“You have to take ownership for your game. A strikeout is going to happen. Look at the positive side: what they can do, not what they can’t do.”
At the plate, he sees kids “swinging not to miss, instead of swinging to hit.” His advice, let it rip. Develop your natural swing to get the most out of it. “Swing hard. Trust yourself. Let it go, then we’ll work with it.”
While Lee works with the oldest group, Cervantes and Wolfe, and other instructors in the program, work with younger age groups, providing hands-on training by some of the foremost figures in the area.
Personal instruction is a staple at The Academy, as coaches Ed Cervantes (left) and Leon Lee talk with a young player at the Mather Field complex.
“Our main purpose is to recreate that old feeling of bringing baseball back to that level (once known) in Sacramento,” Lee says. He’s working with former MLB scout Howard Bowens along with Phil Swimley, the former head coach of UC Davis, in arranging to refurbish Renfree Field, once the pride and center of Sacramento baseball.
In addition, through his international baseball contacts, Leon is working through major league baseball to bring Japanese teams to play spring training games in the Cactus League in Phoenix. He’s also trying to develop an international series that would bring teams from Asia and Central and South America to play American teams at Raley Field comparable to USA Baseball 21U.
That’s a tall order for anyone, even Leon Lee, who recently has been limited by some health problems.
Health and Beyond
A few years ago Lee felt a burning in his chest, but put it off. In October 2011 he finally went in to get examined. The doctor found his large left artery was 99 percent blocked and scheduled him for quadruple bypass surgery. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as during surgery they found a large tumor in his chest. It was removed and later found to be benign.
Then four months later, Lee passed out and had no heartbeat. In the ambulance, medics tried to keep him conscious but he couldn’t move his limbs or talk, despite hearing everything going on around him. This episode was related to an overdosing of a heart medication, and once he was taken off the drug, he felt fine again.
Finally this spring, he had another spell. After throwing five hours of batting practice at The Academy, he felt a different kind of burning like his sternum area was on fire. As a result from over-exertion on the ballfield he had inflamed the chest area related to the previous surgery. Leon was told to take it easy.
But you will still find him out nearly every day at Mather Field throwing batting practice and sharing his love of the game.
Joe Davidson, the Bee’s prep baseball writer, grew to know Lee when his son Derrek was developing into a first-round pick at El Camino in 1993. “(Leon’s) always easy to talk to, he’s always got great stories. There isn’t anybody that has anything bad to say about him.
“He knows the game inside and out—from a global point. And he just radiates a great feeling. He is great for baseball and great for this city, too.”
You could say Leon Lee is Sacramento’s “Mr. Baseball.”
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* MLB lists him at 198th overall, but Baseball-Reference.com shows him 206th.
The unusual discrepancy owes to the fact that a minor league team--Bend Warriors--was given the pick ahead of the Chicago White Sox from Rounds 4-10. MLB.com doesn't include these picks in the 1971 draft.
Sidebar: The St. Lucie Hotel Incident
Note: Writers Mark McDermott and Clay Sigg contributed to this report.