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Lee May Bio

Often referred to as the Big Bopper, Lee May was one of the most consistent power hitters of his generation.  The hulking first baseman hit more than 20 home runs and knocked in more than 80 runs for 11 straight seasons from 1968 to 1978, surpassing 30 homers and 100 runs batted in three times each.  A key member of Cincinnati’s 1970 pennant-winning squad, May also made significant contributions to the Houston Astros and Baltimore Orioles during a lengthy career in which he established himself as one of only 11 players to drive in 100 runs for three different teams (the others being Rogers Hornsby, Al Simmons, Goose Goslin, Vic Wertz, Rocky Colavito, Orlando Cepeda, Dick Allen, Reggie Jackson, Joe Carter, and Alex Rodriguez).  Yet, despite his many accomplishments, May always seemed to be considered expendable by the teams for which he played. 

Early career 

Born in Birmingham, Alabama on March 23, 1943, Lee Andrew May made an early impression on Cincinnati scout Jimmy Bragan, who saw the 13-year-old youngster playing for the first time on the Alabama sandlots.  Impressed immediately with May’s strength at the plate, Bragan followed the teenager for four years, finally signing him to an amateur free agent contract after he graduated from Parker High School in 1961.  May spent the next six years in the minor leagues, with the young first baseman’s path to the big leagues being blocked first by Gordy Coleman, and, later, by Tony Perez and Deron Johnson.  May appeared briefly with the Reds in both 1965 and 1966, but he joined them for good in 1967, after they moved Perez to third base to make room at first for the promising young slugger at the conclusion of the 1966 campaign.  Sharing playing time with Johnson, May hit 12 homers, drove in 57 runs, and batted .265, in just over 400 official at-bats.    

Years in Cincinnati

The Reds traded Johnson to Atlanta prior to the start of the 1968 season, leaving the first base job open for May.  Making the most of his opportunity, the 6’3”, 220 pound slugger hit 22 home runs, knocked in 80 runs, and batted .290.  May increased his offensive production significantly the following year, placing among the National League leaders with 38 homers and 110 runs batted in, while also finishing near the top of the league rankings with 142 strikeouts. 

Cincinnati captured the National League pennant in 1970, with May serving as one of the team’s primary offensive threats.  Batting fifth in the Reds’ powerful lineup, behind Pete Rose, Bobby Tolan, Tony Perez, and Johnny Bench, the right-handed hitting May slugged 34 homers and knocked in 94 runs.  Although the Reds subsequently lost the World Series to Baltimore in five games, May was one of the team’s few bright spots, batting .389, driving in eight runs, and hitting two home runs, including a game-winning three-run blast in Game Four that gave the Reds their only victory.

Cincinnati failed to repeat as National League champions the following year, but May had one of his finest seasons, finishing among the league leaders with 39 home runs and 98 runs batted in, while also scoring 85 runs and batting .278.  The slugging first baseman’s outstanding campaign earned him the second of three trips to the All-Star Game.

Houston years

Cincinnati’s inability to capture the National League pennant in 1971 convinced team management that it needed to make a major move during the following off-season.  To that end, the Reds traded May, second baseman Tommy Helms, and veteran utility man Jimmy Stewart to the Astros for second baseman Joe Morgan, infielder Denis Menke, centerfielder Cesar Geronimo, outfielder Ed Armbrister, and pitcher Jack Billingham.  Although May and Helms subsequently played well for Houston, the deal turned out to be an excellent one for the Reds, with whom Morgan developed into one of the finest all-around players in the game.  The move also enabled Cincinnati to move Tony Perez back to his more natural position of first base, replacing him at third base with the more mobile Menke.   

Even though the Reds received quite a bit in return for May, he felt extremely disconsolate after learning of the trade.  He later recalled, “That might have been the worst point of my life in baseball. I had never played with anybody but the Reds.  We had gelled together and all of a sudden I got traded, kicked out of the house.  It took a while to get over it.” 

May added, “It's like you're born into a family -- you get up there in age, you leave home, but you're always part of the family.  So I guess I'll always be a Red at heart.”

Despite spending the next three years playing in the Astrodome, a noted pitcher’s park, May compiled outstanding numbers during his time in Houston.  After hitting 29 home runs, driving in 98 runs, batting .284, and scoring a career-high 87 runs in his first year with the Astros, May totaled 52 homers and 190 RBIs the next two seasons, finishing second in the National League with 105 RBIs in 1973.  However, with Bob Watson waiting in the wings to play first base for the Astros, Houston dealt May to the Baltimore Orioles at the conclusion of the 1974 campaign. 

American League years

May spent the next six years in Baltimore, teaming up at different times with sluggers Reggie Jackson, Ken Singleton, and Eddie Murray in the middle of the Orioles’ batting order.  May averaged 24 home runs and 97 runs batted in from 1975 to 1978, leading the American League with 109 RBIs in 1976.  The emergence of Murray relegated May to DH duties in 1979, a year in which Baltimore captured the league championship.  May made little impact during the postseason, batting just .143 against California in the ALCS, before making only two pinch-hit appearances against Pittsburgh in the World Series, which was played under National League rules (that is, without the use of a DH).  After platooning at the DH spot for the Orioles in 1980, May signed as a free agent with the Kansas City Royals at the end of the year.  He spent his final two seasons in Kansas City, seeing extremely limited action as a part-time DH and back-up first baseman.  The 39-year-old May retired at the conclusion of the 1982 campaign with 354 career home runs, 1,244 runs batted in, a .267 batting average, and 1,570 strikeouts.  In addition to his three All-Star selections, May finished in the top 10 in the league MVP balloting twice.           

After retiring from the game as an active player, May became a coach for the Royals, finally winning the world championship that eluded him throughout his playing days as a member of manager Dick Howser’s coaching staff in 1985.

 

 
 

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Tagged:
1970 World Series, All-Star, Baltimore Orioles, Bob Watson, Cesar Geronimo, Cincinnati Reds, Denis Menke, Deron Johnson, Eddie Murray, Gordy Coleman, Houston Astros, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Kansas City Royals, Ken Singleton, Lee May, Reggie Jackson, Tommy Helms, Tony Perez

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