It was Senior Editor Peter Carry's idea. For a striking photograph of Bill Lee, the subject of Curry Kirkpatrick's story starting on page 58, why not pose the Boston Red Sox' eccentric southpaw wearing a propeller beanie, as he once did on the playing field? And since Lee is called the Spaceman, why not further outfit him in an astronaut's suit? The scheme was preposterous, outlandish and bizarre, so Lee naturally went for it. But executing it proved unexpectedly difficult.
The first problem was to find a propeller beanie. Lee's 3-year-old son Andy had dismantled the one Dad wore at Fenway Park before a game two years ago and Photographer Heinz Kluetmeier and Associate Picture Editor Laurel Frankel couldn't find any Boston or New York stores that carried propeller beanies. At one novelty-goods company, an employee asked Frankel, "Could you use Mickey Mouse ears?" Growing concerned, Kluetmeier affixed a pinwheel to the top of a baseball cap. If worse came to worst, the bill could be removed and Lee could wear Kluetmeier's homemade beanie.
Meanwhile, Frankel kept calling. "Oh, you mean the Atomic Whirler," a voice at the other end of the phone finally said. "How many of them do you want? And what color?" Frankel was speaking to a woman at New York's Benay-Albee Novelty, Inc., which had introduced the pinwheel beanie in 1948 after president Benjamin Molin had noticed a pinwheel display next to a hat display at a carnival. Within a year, the company sold nearly four million Atomic Whirlers—and a craze was born. Benay-Albee still manufactures 100,000 Atomic Whirlers a year, one of which Frankel shipped to Kluetmeier in Milwaukee, where the Red Sox were playing the Brewers.
The search for a space suit was progressing apace. Kluetmeier checked out costume shops in Milwaukee but, he says, "All the suits looked seedy. For Bill Lee I felt we needed something elegant." Again coming to the rescue, Frankel decided to try to borrow a genuine space suit. She called NASA headquarters in Washington, which referred her to a NASA office in Houston, which referred her to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Within an hour Frankel was told that NASA would be happy to lend us an astronaut's suit, providing that SI, not the U.S. taxpayer, pay shipping and insurance charges.
August 6, 1978
The next morning a NASA training suit valued at $3,895.08 arrived in Milwaukee, and Kluetmeier and Lee drove to County Stadium. "We were like a couple of kids unpacking that box," says Kluetmeier. "It was like Christmas." With bewildered stadium employees looking on, the fully costumed Spaceman went into his wind-up and Kluetmeier snapped away. It was a happy ending to an experience that proved three things, only two of which will surprise anybody: 1) Boston may be Beantown but it is not Beanietown; 2) the U.S. Government is not always inefficient and profligate; and 3) Bill Lee is game for anything.