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by Editor Rick Cabral

Leron Lee

The Godfather of Gaijin

Lance-Leron
Leron Lee shows off his batting stance and for Valcomm News' Lance Armstrong.
Photo © Rick Cabral 2012.


Trivia Question # 1
: Which Sacramento area ballplayer’s life was the basis for the motion picture, Mr. Baseball?

Trivia Question # 2: Who was the first area player to be selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball Draft?

Surprisingly, a Grant High School player is the correct answer to both trivia questions.

The distance between major leaguer to the leading gaijin in Japanese baseball is the Leron Lee story, a fascinating tale that begins in Del Paso Heights in the early 1960s.



I  n many ways, May 1966 represents a high watermark in Sacramento baseball history. At the time, two high school players garnered headlines as the best in the area: Pat Fall, the fireballin’ right handed pitcher from McClatchy and Leron Lee, the left-handed slugger from Grant High.

A three-time varsity starter at Grant High Lee twice made All-City, hitting .425 in 1965 as a junior, and .457 in his senior season. Also a top running back, Lee already had offers from 35 colleges (all but one to play football), but scouts who showed up at McClatchy High on May 17 knew he was destined for the diamond.

In that game between Metro League rivals, Fall had managed to retire Lee the first two times up. And with the Lions in the lead and two strikes on the dangerous hitter, Fall shook off his catcher and served up one of the loudest shots ever recorded in area high school history when the powerful Pacer slugged the pitch into deep right field. Grantland Johnson, a future politician, remembers it vividly as he was standing on second base, watching the ball sail overhead like a NASA space satellite.

Lee was nearly home when the ball had bounced over the neighbor’s fence, forcing the umpires to convene near the plate. Since McClatchy’s field was not enclosed, when Lee’s long drive bounced over the wooden boundary far off in right field, the umpires weren’t sure what to call it. Fall recalls telling the base umpire, “Are you kidding—you gotta give him a home run!”

with the Lions in the lead and two strikes on the dangerous hitter, Fall shook off his catcher and served up one of the loudest shots ever recorded in area high school history

 

Instead, home plate umpire Joe Duarte awarded Lee a ground-rule double to the shock and chagrin of all in attendance, including a flock of scouts. But his name was etched in local baseball lore forever. According to Lee, the St. Louis Cardinals had come out to scout the pitcher, but on draft day they took him 7th overall, making Leron Lee the first first-round major league baseball draft selection ever from Sacramento (To read the story about Lee’s shot at McClatchy, visit Time Travelin’ 1966).

Lee+Fall
Leron Lee and Pat Fall reunited for the first time since that historic shot in 1966 at McClatchy. Lee and Fall were inducted in the 2012 Class of the La Salle Club Baseball Hall of Fame. Photo © Rick Cabral 2012.

He learned of it on Grant High’s graduation day when a classmate came up with the Sacramento Union announcing the Cardinals had made Lee their first pick. Like many of today’s draftees, he didn’t sign right away, but for a different reason. Cardinals’ scout Bill Sales believed Lee was playing hardball by holding out. Instead, Lee didn’t want to leave his American Legion team, Haggin-Grant. “We had a monster team. It was off the charts,” he recalls, although they failed to clinch the Sacramento area on the last day.

“The level of baseball in Sacramento at that time, when we were playing high school and Legion,” Lee recalls, “we were playing (the equivalent of) high-minor league baseball here.”

Lee eventually signed a contract that included a $48,000 bonus. The following spring the Cardinals assigned him to Single-A Modesto in the California League. There he played for future Hall of Fame manager, Sparky Anderson.

Early on, roving hitting instructor Joe Medwick tried to change Lee into a switch hitter and his stroke suffered. His mother Jewel Lee confronted Anderson. “Why don’t you let him hit like he did in high school?” she asked. “He can hit lefties and righties just fine that way.” Sparky listened well and Lee went on a tear, finishing the season hitting .297 with 22 home runs, 67 RBI and a .522 slugging percentage. He earned Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in the California League, becoming just the second player to claim both honors in the same season.

“(Leron) was one of the outstanding hitters in the California League,” recalls Harry Dunlop, who managed the San Jose Bees (California Angels affiliate) in 1967. Dunlop’s Bees defeated Lee’s Modesto Reds in the California League championship game that year. “You could see (Lee) was going to be a real good major league hitter. He could really swing the bat,” remembers Dunlop.

Over the next two years, the Cardinals advanced Lee one level per season. His minor league journey, however, wasn’t without problems.

At his home ballpark in Little Rock (Double-A Arkansas Travelers), Lee experienced blatant racism that shocked the 20-year-old. “I’d never faced anything like that before,” he says. “We never had any of that at Grant.” The organization dispatched a veteran black player to help him through the transition, and Lee told the Cardinals he wouldn’t go back to Arkansas the following year. Instead they promoted him to Triple-A Tulsa where he produced with .303/17 HR/96 RBI.

On September 5, 1969 Lee made his major league debut, striking out in his first at bat (“Yeah, but I was swinging hard,” he laughs today). In 1970, he made the Cardinals roster and earned spot starts throughout the season on that veteran, playoff-laden ballclub that still heard the cheers ringing in their ears from a 7-game World Series championship against Boston in 1967, followed by a 7-game loss to Detroit in the ’68 series. Lee maintains his starts often came against the league’s top pitchers when a veteran outfielder asked for a day off.

Click through to view a photo of Lee in the batting cage during the Cardinals’ spring training 1969

On June 11, 1971, the Cards traded Lee, who was hitting .179 in just 28 at-bats,  with Fred Norman to the  San Diego Padres for  pitcher  Al Santorini.  By end of the season, Lee earned 256 at-bats with the Padres, raising his average to .264.

In the off-season, the 23-year-old Lee was surprised to learn that he’d been elected player representative by his Padres teammates. It was an honor he could have done without, as the major leaguers voted that spring to hold the first-ever player’s strike, effectively canceling the first two weeks of the season. Not to mention generating bad feelings between the fans and the players.

Lee contends ownership eventually took it out on the player reps. “Look where they were that year or next year, you’ll see most of them had disappeared to the minor leagues or Mexico somewhere.”

In 1972 at San Diego, Lee had his best year as a pro, hitting .300 with 12 home runs and 47 RBI, the sole big league season where he exceeded 400 trips to the plate. Also, that year on July 4, he broke up a no-hit bid by New York Mets star pitcher Tom Seaver with a single in the ninth inning.

 

perry
Gaylord Perry, Indians

The following year, Lee played in more games but had fewer at-bats, and his average slumped to .237. In spring 1975 he was claimed off waivers by Cleveland, where he played one season platooning in the outfield or coming off the bench.

In the Cleveland clubhouse one day, Lee made a discovery. He sat entranced as he watched Indians’ pitcher Gaylord Perry (who threw a no-hitter for the Giants in 1968) applying various petroleum products all over his body. “Grease, oil everywhere, all the way down,” Lee says with a laugh. “There’s not a single spot on his body, so when he goes down, he’s got some. Every place on his body is oily.” Lee realized why he’d never been able to hit Perry who was known for throwing the best “spitter” of that time period.

After the season, Cleveland talked about sending Lee to Mexico. Instead, he signed with the Dodgers in 1975 and after agreeing to a pinch-hitting role played sparingly. His locker was next to Dusty Baker’s. Another Sacramentan on the team was Jerry Royster.

To start the 1976 season the Dodgers needed to make a roster move and General Manager Al Campanis told Lee they were sending him to Mexico, just for a couple of weeks. The veteran asked if they couldn’t instead send him down to Triple- A Albuquerque, but Campanis insisted he would call for Lee in no time.

“I had some promises, but they had their fingers crossed behind their backs,” he says with a wry smile. “They were lyin.’”

Lee went to Mexico and the two weeks turned into four months just as he feared. “They thought for sure that I would quit.” He joined the team in Los Angeles in late September and was called on to pinch hit late in the game on September 25 against Cincinnati's Gary Nolan of Oroville. Lee struck out.

“(Lee) was a great ballplayer,” Nolan recalls. “I remember he was like a bull. Strong, had a lot of power.”

On October 3, 1976 Lee pinch hit in the bottom of the eighth inning against San Diego and singled in his final major league at-bat. Tom Lasorda had taken over as Dodgers manager just three days before.

Leron_Dodgers

Lee believes he was banished to Mexico as a form of retribution by major league baseball ownership, still penalizing those 1972 player reps who participated in that first player strike. “I’m out,” Lee says in that unusual present-day baseball speak to relate his status following the 1976 season.

Not all player reps, however, suffered for their service.

Jim Barr , San Francisco’s starting pitcher and player rep in 1972, remained with the team through 1978, setting team records that still stand today. Barr didn’t experience the retribution Lee alludes to, but he was aware of it.

“I even heard stories…that certain organizations felt ‘If (a guy’s) going to be a player rep, whether you caused trouble or not, we’re going to make it hard for him,’” Barr recalls in backing Lee’s contention. “How much of it happened, I don’t know. But we did hear stories that that was a possibility.” (Barr, along with Lee and Fall, was inducted in the 2012 Class of the La Salle Club Baseball Hall of Fame. Click through to read his story.)

The Dodgers released Leron Lee after 1976. “This is how bad it was,” he relates. “Willie Mays asked me ‘How did they waive you out of the league?’ Everybody knows me as one of the best hitters in the National League.”

He argues that his batting average (.250) and less impressive power numbers over eight seasons (31 HR and 152 RBI) were due to inconsistent playing time and spot starts against some of the best arms in the majors.

Current Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball last year addressed a similar situation. “If you get PT, what players call your ‘playing time,’ you get your rhythm. If you get your rhythm, you get your timing. If you get your timing, you get your hits. It’s simple,” Valentine said, seeming to support Lee.

In 1977, Lee was sitting at home with his father Leon Senior strategizing which new franchise to target (Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners were entering the American League) when former Dodger Jim Lefebvre called to invite Leron to join him in on the Lotte Orions of the Nippon Professional Baseball (commonly known as the Japanese League).

Seemed the Orions needed a second gaijin, or foreign player, on their team. Plus, the money was better. Nearly four times as much as Lee ever made in the major leagues.


Before coming to Japan, Lee was made aware of two important aspects: cultural differences between
American and Japanese society, and “junk” offerings featured by Japanese pitchers.

Lefebvre, his gaijin teammate, knew something about acclimation and expectations in Japan.

When he arrived six years prior, fellow gaijin George Altman alerted Lefebvre that the Japanese media were waiting to interview him about the statement Lefebvre expected to win the league’s triple-crown. “I never said that,” the former Dodger Rookie of the Year retorted. “Well, they think you did,” Altman said, indicating the rumor apparently originated with their Lotte manager. At the press conference, Lefebvre announced that “I’m a winning player. I’m not here to win a Triple Crown, I’m here to win a championship.” He backed it up by getting 17 GW hits in second half of his first year.  But his manager hounded him throughout his tenure, just as he did six other foreign players over three years (including Bill McNulty who played for the Sacramento Solons in the mid-70s).  

Lefebvre met with Lee and provided an orientation about the foreign culture and differences in Japanese playing style, especially in training. Japanese coaches, he told Lee, embrace a militaristic, regimented routine similar to army boot camp based on a strenuous running program, which he called “absolutely ridiculous.” He warned Lee not to fall out, as the Japanese would “… look at you like you don’t have the fighting spirit.” Lefebvre told Lee to signal him if he couldn’t go any longer, so the American coach could arrange a needed break. 

Lee quickly realized the Orions manager “was crazy” as advertised.  Spring training lasted two months and went from 7:30 a.m. to 5 at night. With Lefebvre’s assistance, he made it easily. “He blended in, got along because he’s a good guy and great teammate,” Lefebvre says. “He’s a very bright guy.” 

Lee tried to learn the language by watching Samaurai movies, but praised his interpreter, Toyo Kunimitsu, for helping integrate him into the culture. 

He also affirmed Japanese pitchers were off-speed specialists. “They do throw more breaking balls,” he said. “But it’s not junk; it’s great pitching.” 

In his first season, at age 29, Lee led the Japanese League in home runs (34) and RBI (109), and made the “Best Nine,” the equivalent of Major League Baseball’s All-Star team.  

Lefebvre notes that Lee came within a few percentage points of winning the Triple Crown that year and achieving all the financial incentives in his contract. “It was amazing. He put on a show that was unbelievable.” 

The following season Lefebvre retired, and Lee invited younger brother Leon to join him on the Orions. The Lee brothers struck fear in Japanese opponents for a decade.

Lee_Brothers_Orions
Leron and Leon Lee on the Lotte Orions.

Leron prided himself on avoiding the “Ugly American” syndrome exemplified by some former major leaguers. Author Robert Whiting, who contrasted Japanese and American baseball in his second book You Gotta Have Wa, quoted one baseball writer as saying: There’s nothing bad you can say about (the Lee brothers). They do good in the games. They never argue with the umpires. They never throw their bats. And they’re always polite to the fans. They even like each other. There must be something wrong with them.

Whiting, who would frequently talk with Leron over a beer throughout the years, said it was not unusual for American players to complain behind closed doors over their treatment by the Japanese baseball establishment due to: high expectations (Americans were brought in for their power), wider strike zones than for their Japanese counterparts, and zero tolerance for emotional outbursts directed toward authority figures (i.e. umpires and coaches).

Lee was no exception. He had good right to complain in 1979, he says, recalling that by his count four legitimate home runs were ruled foul just to hold down the American’s power numbers. “My manager didn’t even argue it,” he says with resigned disbelief.

Whiting noted in his book that Lee also was disappointed at a lack of endorsement deals that typically went to successful white American players, another instance of deep-ceded racism toward African Americans, even in Asia. Also, Lotte was one of the least successful teams with low attendance and consequently fewer commercial deals.

“But I never let them see that (frustration) on the field,” Lee notes, a trait he acquired in his days at Grant, where teammates learned to ignore inclement weather or crummy field conditions while concentrating on their play. In many ways, however, Lee was the model gaijin, staying focused on—and excelling at— playing the game the right way.

Asked to explain why his hitting blossomed in Japan, Lee rejects in a calm voice it was ever dormant. “The thing that changed, I became an everyday player. I was always a good hitter. The ball always came to my bat. Magic!” he says, slapping his hands together to simulate the sound of bat on ball.

He also maintains the unofficial larger strike zone for American players made him a better hitter. “I was forced to. If I hadn’t (expanded my strike zone), I would have been gone in a year or two. And I wouldn’t have hit .320 (career average).

“We (Americans) couldn’t just sit there bitchin’ about things that weren’t going to change unless we made it better.”

After becoming established in Japan (he married Vicquie, a Japanese woman in 1982, with whom he has two grown children), Lee helped other American players acclimate to the culture and differences in style of baseball. For this, Warren Cromartie dubbed him “The Godfather of Gaijin,” a badge he wears proudly.

When former Dodgers’ star Reggie Smith came over to Japan, he called Leron. “I was told I’m supposed to meet with you.” After Lee gave him the overview, Smith admitted it sounded crazy. “Yes, but it’s doable,” Lee assured him.

 

Leron went on to make the Best Nine three more times (1980, 1984-85). His lifetime.320 batting average is first overall in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) history for players with a minimum 4000 at-bats, while his .542 slugging percentage ranks sixth all-time (Ichiro Suzuki, who played nine seasons in the NPB, batted.363 in 3619 ABs and would easily have been first all-time had he not moved to the major leagues). Among gaijin, Lee is still ranked among the top five with 283 home runs (4th), 2,674 total bases (3rd) and 912 RBI (4th).

“He had a phenomenal career over there and he’s very well accepted. And extremely successful,” reflects Lefebvre, his former mentor. “He was a great ambassador for baseball.” 

Brother Leon also enjoyed a long, productive career in Japan. His .308 career batting average over 10 years places him ninth all-time for players with a minimum 4000 at-bats. Leon is the father of major leaguer Derrek Lee, who retired this year after a long, illustrative big league career.

The Lee brothers’ performance—both on and off the field—changed how the Japanese League establishment selected foreign players, Leron remarks with pride.

He also reveals he enjoyed hitting off-speed pitches, a valuable lesson he’d learned from former Indians’ star Larry Doby, the second African American to play in the major leagues. Doby taught Lee that hitting a curve ball is actually easier than a fastball because the hitter has more reaction time to barrel the ball. Young players are conditioned by fathers and coaches to avoid the curve, Lee theorizes. “You were trained mentally not to hit the breaking ball.”

Doby was one of many great hitters Lee talked with about hitting during his professional career.

Hank Aaron, for instance, taught him to hit “the inside of the baseball,” while former Cubs star Billy Williams shared his philosophy that when he could hit 400 balls on a line in spring training batting practice he knew he was ready to begin the season.  Sadaharu Oh, the all-time home run leader of any league, counseled Lee to begin eating and writing with his non-dominant hand. The goal? “To hit with both sides of your brain.”

Eventually author Whiting involved Lee in a deal that had the potential to far outshine any missed commercial opportunities.

Hollywood film producer  Robert Newmyer  (Sex, Lies, and Videotape) wanted to shoot a movie that showed the clash of cultures in a baseball motif. Several screenplays were developed based largely on passages from Whiting’s book You Gotta Have Wa which featured ample material on Leron Lee. Consequently, the main character was loosely based on Leron’s experience.

Initially, both Leron and Leon Lee served as consultants on the project. Eventually, Universal Studios changed directors, and in the process the main character became a Caucasian athlete, played by Tom Selleck in the movie, Mr. Baseball (1992). At least they retained African American actor Dennis Haysbert to play the role of his sidekick.

Lee, now 64, continues to work in baseball as an affiliate scout for the Atlanta Braves and maintains business interests in Japan, traveling frequently overseas throughout the year.

Looking back over his career, Lee realizes he was fortunate and subscribes to the old-school baseball philosophy, If you love the game, you’ve got to respect it.

“I was lucky to have played it 22 years. I still love it and I still respect it.”

Words of wisdom from The Godfather of Gaijin.

Note: To read a companion piece on his brother Leon Lee, visit Spotlight July 2013

Uploaded 07/22/12
Updated 08/27/12

All contents © Rick Cabral 2012

 

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