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1971

 

Draft Day Blues Nearly Turned Leon Lee to Tulsa U

Leon Lee 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 “‚Ķprobably 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 McCovey.  

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 offer. 

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 bonus: $16,500. 

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 decade. 

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 2003. 

 

Uploaded 6/5/13
Updated 6/7/13

Content © Rick Cabral 2013

 

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