by Will Albrecht
Born June 24, 1903 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Jim Lee was one of the best defensive second basemen in the NBL. He was discovered by Buffalo’s head scout as a 24-year-old playing for the Utica Mohawks of the independent New York Association and invited to Spring Training in 1929. With Skeeter Shriver already traded to Brooklyn for an unready Spider Baird, the job at second base was Jim’s to lose. Lee made an immediate impact, leading the team in average, on-base percent, and slugging that first year. But the team was still struggling, going 71-87 and finishing 4th in the NBL East 28 games behind Brooklyn.
It was during his rookie campaign that Jolly Jim got his nickname. According to Buffalo bench coach Lafayette Sneed, Jim was the “single least expressive guy I’ve ever shared a clubhouse with. The only time I ever saw him smile was if a runner was on first. It's like he knew when a double play was coming. He would start grinning like a fool before the ball was even in his glove.”
The 1930 season was the Beavers first playoff appearance since 1888, but Lee would have to wait to make his postseason debut. On August 14 he tore a back muscle and missed the remainder of the season. In 1932 Lee took the Beavers back to the postseason. He once again led the team in average, on-base, and slugging but a strained groin kept him out of the series against Chicago. His first playoff at-bat came in 1935. Lee was at his best, he had 9 hits, 4 walks, and 8 runs. Jim started all seven games, but Pittsburgh came out on top.
Lee kept the Beavers competitive through the first half of the 1930s, but the team was having trouble keeping up. 1938 was Lee’s best statistical season, he once again led the team in battings rates and posted an 11.8 Zone Rating, but the team finished seventeen games behind New York. For four more years Jolly Jim remained the top player on what was at best a mediocre team. All that would change in 1943 when New York’s John Warlick left to serve in World War Two. Lee was traded to the high octane New York Knickerbockers to keep the keystone warm.
As a 39-year-old Lee struggled to stay healthy with the Knicks, but he was ready when it counted most. In the championship series against St. Louis he had 8 hits in 26 at-bats. In game six he was injured and had to watch game 7 from the dugout as his new teammates won the Knicks’ third championship in as many years.
Now that he finally had a ring, and standing on the threshold of forty, Jolly Jim was ready to retire. But the Knicks tapped him to mentor his replacement, Gene Cummings. Lee had lost a step, but was still a capable defender on a team full of quality infield defense. The Knicks dominated the NBL that year, going 101-57, 25 games ahead of the second place Baltimore Lords, 14 games ahead of their October opponents the Chicago Traders. Lee was once again healthy for the World Series, but only saw action as a pinch hitter, walking once.
Jolly Jim Lee retired at the end of the 1944 season. He has 2400 hits and a +126.2 Zone Rating. Lee was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1951 and his jersey number 25 was retired by Buffalo in 1953.