Tuesday, August 1, 2017
Lee May, 1943-2017
That was true. Lee May was never a big name. But he was, for a time, a big hitter.
Lee Andrew May was born on March 23, 1943 in Birmingham, Alabama. He was offered a scholarship to play football at the University of Nebraska, which had no racial segregation at the time. But the Cincinnati Reds offered him a $12,000 signing bonus. This was in 1961, so this would be worth about $98,000 in today's money. So, bye-bye, Lincoln; hello, Cincinnati.
He was called up to the Reds on September 1, 1965, and made his major league debut that day, in the 1st game of a doubleheader at Crosley Field. In the bottom of the 9th, he was sent in to pinch-hit for Gordy Coleman, and grounded out. He did, however, move baserunner Marty Keough (father of future MLB pitcher Matt Keough) over to 2nd base, and this was followed by a triple by Tommy Helms that tied the game, and a single by Tommy Harper that won it, 7-6 over the Milwaukee Braves. The Reds also won the 2nd game, 2-0, but May did not play in it.
By 1967, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound May was the starting 1st baseman for the Reds, wearing Number 23 and hitting the ball all over the place, earning the nickname The Big Bopper, also the nickname of J.P. Richardson, the disc jockey-turned-singer who had a couple of hit records and then died in the same plane crash as Buddy Holly in 1959.
In 1969, May hit 38 home runs and had 110 RBIs. He made the All-Star Team, for the 1st of 3 times. In 1970, he helped the Reds win the Pennant, and hit 2 home runs with 8 RBIs in the World Series, but they lost to the Baltimore Orioles, largely thanks to the hitting and especially the fielding of 3rd baseman Brooks Robinson.
In Game 2, May hit a scorching line drive down the left field line on the newly-installed artificial turf of the newly-opened Riverfront Stadium. But Robinson, who'd never played on the plastic stuff before, backhanded it, and threw May out. (May could hit, but he wasn't much of a runner, having stolen only 1 base that season, and 39 in his career.) In Game 4, he hit a home run at Memorial Stadium that gave the Reds their only win in the Series.
Tony Perez was the Reds' 3rd baseman at this time, but he wasn't a very good 3rd baseman. So on November 29, 1971, the Reds traded May, Helms and Jimmy Stewart (obviously, not the actor of the same name) to the Houston Astros for Ed Ambrister, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, Denis Menke, and, most importantly, All-Star 2nd baseman Joe Morgan.
Essentially, they chose Big Doggie (Perez) over the Big Bopper (May). And they moved Perez to 1st, and Pete Rose from the outfield to 3rd. This trade turned the Big Red Machine from a team with 1 Pennant to a team with 4 Pennants and 2 World Series wins, and made both Morgan and Perez Hall-of-Famers.
May didn't hit as well in the Astrodome -- hardly anybody hit well there as Astro and Cincinnati native Jimmy Wynn could tell you -- but he did hit, making his 3rd and last All-Star Team in 1972, topping 100 RBIs again in 1973. Also in 1973, he had a 3-home run game, collected his 1,000th career hit, and had a 21-game hitting streak, a club record at the time.
After the 1974 season, the Astros traded him to the Orioles. Manager Earl Weaver and/or general manager Frank Cashen (later to rebuild the Mets) may have seen something in that 1970 World Series, because they were willing to trade Enos Cabell to get him (and Cabell may still be the best 3rd baseman in Astro history).
It was a good move, although May switched from his longtime Number 23, then held by pitcher Grant Jackson, to 14. In 1976, May led the American League with 109 RBIs. The Orioles had reached the postseason 6 times in 9 years from 1966 to 1974, but tailed off. May was not a reason why, but he was a big reason why they bounced back, winning the Pennant in 1979 and finishing 2nd in 1976, '77 and '80. By 1977, he was the team's main designated hitter, as Eddie Murray was now the 1st baseman.
But he didn't hit well in the 1979 postseason, going 1-for-8 in the AL Championship Series against the California Angels and 0-for-2 as a pinch-hitter in the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, which the Orioles lost. The 1979 season was his last as a productive player, and after 1980, he was traded to the Kansas City Royals, with whom he closed his career in 1982.
In 1984, Nick Acocella and Donald Dewey published The Book of Baseball Lineups. It was full of quirky lineups. You know: Best lineup ever by team (sometimes broken down by city), best players whose names started with the individual letters of the alphabet, best players by ethnicity, best players who became emergency pitchers, best players who had been traded for Willie Montanez, things like that.
At the end of the book, the authors wrote, "Honorable Mention to Lee May, whose 354 home runs make him the player with the most who didn't make any of these lists."
Those 354 dingers were among his 2,031 career hits, and he had a .267 lifetime batting average and a 116 career OPS+. He struck out a lot, but he is 1 of 11 MLB players to have 100 RBIs in a season for 3 different teams.
The others, in chronological order, are: Rogers Hornsby, Goose Goslin, Al Simmons, Vic Wertz, Rocky Colavito, Orlando Cepeda, Dick Allen, Reggie Jackson, Joe Carter and Alex Rodriguez. That's 5 guys in the Hall (Hornsby, Goslin, Simmons, Cepeda and Jackson), 3 others who perhaps should be (Colavito, Allen and Carter), 1 who would be if not for the cloud over him (and might end up in it, anyway, A-Rod), and Wertz, a really good power hitter who is, like May, unfortunately remembered most for a ball he hit hard that was superbly defended -- in his case, a ball he hit about 460 feet that was caught (by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series).
Both the Reds and the Orioles elected him to their team Halls of Fame, and he was also elected to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. He is 1 of 57 baseball players in it, including 13 Hall-of-Famers, including Hank Aaron, Satchel Paige and Ozzie Smith. New York baseball legends in it include Joe Sewell, Virgil Trucks and Jimmy Key of the Yankees; Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones of the 1969 Mets; 1940s Brooklyn Dodger Fred Walker, a.k.a. Dixie and "The People's Cherce"; and Willie Mays of the Giants (and Mets).
After his retirement, Lee May remained in the Royals' organization, and was their hitting instructor when they reached the Playoffs in 1984 and won the World Series in 1985, finally getting the ring that was denied him at both the beginning and the end of the 1970s.
Lee married a woman named Terrye, and they had 3 children and 9 grandchildren. Their son, Lee May Jr., played in the Mets' organization from 1986 to 1993, and is now the hitting instructor for the Greenville Drive, a Boston Red Sox farm team in South Carolina. His son, Jacob May, is now a rookie outfielder for the White Sox.
Lee May died this past Saturday, July 29, 2017, in Cincinnati, at the age of 74. The cause of death has not yet been announced, but I hadn't heard about him having a long-term illness.