Off to the Minors…
The following year was 1955 and Lee was assigned by the Braves to their minor league affiliate to the Corpus Christi Clippers in the Big State League. The Clippers played in Corpus Christi for just four years, from 1954-1957 but several future major league stars played there.
“Don Leppert was my catcher,” Lee stated. After catching Lee at Corpus Christi, Leppert went on to catch in the majors for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Washington Senators. His major league career lasted only three years, but he hit a homerun in his first major league at bat. He would later go on to manage the Kenosha Twins.
Lee said the minors at that time were very different than nowadays. “I was in way over my head,” he modestly states. “Many of the guys I was playing with and competing against already had two or three years in the minors. There was really no pitching coaches of any kind. I just threw hard. If I threw strikes, it worked. I had a lot to learn.”
Lee ended his first season in the minors at Corpus Christi with two wins and six losses. His first win was a game where the Clippers blasted their opponents 21-3. Also on the team that year was Ed Charles, who would later play with future Kenosha Twins Manager Duffy Dyer.
The following spring Lee was assigned to the Eau Claire Braves in the Northern League. While in Eau Claire, Bob developed some control problems. He only pitched in three games there. There he met Bob Uecker, who remains his friend to this day.
In May of that year he was assigned to the Wellsville Braves where he went 5-4 with an ERA of .556. It was there, he says, that he really started to “become a pitcher.” He was introduced to Al Monchak, who took him under his wing and started to show him the mechanics. “Al had a lot of confidence in me,” Bob said. “I spent hours and hours working on my mechanics with him in the bullpen.
Monchak was a shortstop who played briefly for the Philadelphia Phillies in the major leagues. He spent many years as first base coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Monchak’s confidence in Lee really showed when the coach slated Lee as the starting pitcher for Wellsville in the championship game in 1956. “I pitched the best game of my career to that point,” Lee said. “I shut them out and had 17 strikeouts.” Not too bad for a kid from the small town of Kenosha. Lee estimates he was throwing in the 92-93 mph range at that time.
The following year (1957) Lee was assigned to the Evansville, Indiana Braves. There he met Manager Bob Coleman, a prototypical elder statesman who had major league experience. Lee went 3-0 to start the season that year, pitching a one hitter in the first game where he walked ten batters and struck out nine in 10 innings. Lee remembers Coleman criticizing him for walking too many batters.
Evansville went on to repeat for the league title that year with an 81-49 record. Lee wasn’t there at the end of the year though. After his 3-0 start, in May of that year he was quickly moved back up to the Eau Claire Braves.
He went 9-7 with Eau Claire for the remainder of 1957 with a 5.63 ERA. Joining him in both Evansville and now back at Eau Claire was his good friend Bob Uecker.
Both Lee and Uecker were named to the Northern League All Star team in 1957. Lee pitched one inning in the game.
Lee also spent some spring training time in Jacksonville in 1957. “One of the biggest disappointments of my professional career happened while I was in Jacksonville,” Lee said. “I was scheduled to start a spring training game against the New York Yankees! Much to my disappointment, that game was rained out.”
When the 1958 season rolled around, Lee was assigned to the Braves affiliate in Cedar Rapids, IA. It was there that he started to notice arm problems. “I felt a twitch in my left shoulder in early spring training,” he said. “It started to bother me more as time went on and, unfortunately, it started to affect my pitching.”
“I was back with Al Monchak there, which made me feel better.” But soon thereafter Lee was put on the disabled list and sent back to Eau Claire for treatment. “I was on the DL most of 1958 with my arm problems and didn’t pitch much until late in the season. I was getting treatments for my shoulder at an Eau Claire hospital.”
“My shoulder never came back,” he laments. “In the spring of 1959 I went to spring training, but my arm was in rough shape. They had to let me go.” Lee finished his minor league pitching with a career record of 20 wins and 23 losses spanning four years. He had a career minor ERA of 4.65.
Lee had been married following his outstanding 1957 season and he was becoming more aware of his responsibilities at home outside of playing baseball. He did make a one game comeback in 1959 when he pitched for the Kenosha Chiefs semi-pro team against Satchel Paige and the Cuban All Stars at Simmons Field in Kenosha. “I loaded up on aspirin. That’s the last time I threw hard. After that game, I knew my arm was dead.”
“I am very blessed and thankful that I had a chance as a young man to play baseball and have a shot at making the big leagues,” Lee said. “My injury may have cut my career short, but baseball is still in my blood. I love the game.”