Thursday, November 20, 2014

Card #132: Lee May


Who Can It Be Now?
Lee Andrew May was born on March 23, 1943, in Birmingham, Alabama. He was born into a working-class family. His father Tommy made mattresses and springs, and his mother Mildred plucked and washed chickens in a poultry house. Shortly after Lee's brother Carlos was born, however, Lee's parents divorced and he, his mother, and his brother moved in with their grandmother. 

Lee was a three-sport star (baseball, football, and basketball) at A. H. Parker High School in Birmingham. Parker is a nearly all-black school -- so much so that when a white girl called Crystal Wadsworth graduated in 2007, she became the first-ever white student to graduate from the school and only the second non-black student to do so (a Latino student graduated in 2006). 

May was offered a football scholarship to play fullback at the University of Nebraska. It would have been a tough move in many respects for May. After all, staying close to home was not an option for football.  After all, it took the SEC until 1966 to integrate (when Kentucky was the first SEC school to sign an African-American athlete to a scholarship), even if Alabama played against an integrated Penn State squad in 1959 in the Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia.

Instead, he chose baseball. As he put it in an interview, "the Reds offered me money and I felt I had a better chance in baseball.  Plus, I felt I'd have a longer career in baseball . . .  and it was safer."  Coming out of high school in 1961, May graduated before the onset of the draft and as a result was signed as an amateur free agent by the Reds.

He was assigned to Class D Tampa by the Reds in 1961. His manager there, former pitcher Johnny Vander Meer, converted him to first base from the outfield. He played only 26 games that season and came back for a second year in 1962. That winter, he set off for Venezuela and Puerto Rico to play winter ball. Again, as Lee put it in his SABR Biography: "They paid you better in Puerto Rico and Venezuela than your own club paid you. ... I made $350 a month in my first year in the minors and $1,500 a month in Venezuela that same winter."

After those two years in Tampa, May moved up to Rocky Mount in the Single-A Carolina League in 1963. He started hitting for more power as he filled out and grew into manhood. That power carried over into Double-A at Macon -- 25 homers at the age of 21 -- and in Triple-A in San Diego in 1965. Indeed, in San Diego, his hitting was outstanding: 34 HR, 103 RBI, .321/.355/.586 with 32 doubles thrown in for good measure. That year earned him a cup of coffee in 1965 and his first ever major league appearance in a game against the Milwaukee Braves.

In 1966, he made the team out of spring training. But, buried behind fellow youngster Tony Perez and veteran Gordy Coleman on a mediocre Reds team, he was relegated to pinch hitting a few times without a hit between April 16 and May 7 and found himself back in Triple-A -- this time in Buffalo -- as a result.  But, after 1966, he would never play in the minor leagues again.

On making the team in 1967, May still had the problem of being difficult to slot into a defensive position. He played 80 games at first that year along with 33 games in LF and 16 games in RF. Meanwhile, to make room for May and fellow first baseman Deron Johnson, the Reds moved Tony Perez to third base. May hit okay -- not great -- in 1967. He was slightly under the league average at OPS+ and walked just 19 times in 472 plate appearances. That lack of walking is probably the biggest knock that can be leveled at May over his career. Even so, The Sporting News named May as its Rookie of the Year.

Still, the Reds of the late 1960s were a team that hung around the upper levels of the National League and, in 1969, the National League West without ever getting over the hump. May was an All-Star for the first of three times in his career in 1969, and he hit a ton that year -- 38 HR, 110 RBI (his career high), and slashing at .290/.337/.469.

After the 1969 season and despite coming off an 89-73 season, the Reds let manager Dave Bristol join the Milwaukee Brewers organization to be that team's first manager in Milwaukee. In his place, the Reds hired an unknown for his first major league managing job at the age of 36: Sparky Anderson. All Anderson did was manage the team to 102 wins and a World Series loss to the Baltimore Orioles. May put up good power numbers again -- 34 HR, 94 RBI, 34 2Bs -- but his OBP fell below .300, which made him a barely above-average player despite all the taters.

Coming off that year, the Reds made few changes. May started at first, Perez at third -- just as they had the previous year. Yet, the results did not follow. The Reds went from 102 wins to 79 wins, so GM Bob Howsam decided to make some major changes -- one of which was to trade Lee May in a blockbuster deal to the Houston Astros. It was a risky move -- May was an All-Star again and finished the season 9th in the NL in 1971 in Offensive WAR (5.1), 4th in SLG (.532), 9th in OBP (.864), and 3rd in HR (39).

But the Reds got the better end of the deal. The Astros obtained May along with 2B Tommy Helms and utilityman Jimmy Stewart in exchange for OF Ed Armbrister, P Jack Billingham, OF Cesar Geronimo, 3B Denis Menke, and future HOF 2B (and completely obnoxious announcer) Joe Morgan. 

May stayed in Houston for just three years. He was an All-Star in 1972 at the age of 29 while leading the NL in strikeouts at 145; he also had his career high in walks in this season with 52 in 647 plate appearances (12 of those were intentional, however). Perhaps the cavernous Astrodome took away a few HRs, as he went from hitting over 30 HR a year to topping out at 29 that same year. May watched as his former teammates -- bolstered by the trade -- became the Big Red Machine while May's Astros finished 3rd, 4th, and 4th behind the Reds.

At the end of the 1974 season, May found himself on the move again. The Orioles needed to add power to their team, so they traded for the man nicknamed "The Big Bopper of Birmingham". In exchange, the Astros got IF Rob Andrews and OF-3B-1B Enos Cabell. May put up one final big season in 1976, leading the AL in RBI with 109. Still, his OBP was only .312, again reflecting his hacktastic approach at the plate. 

May's move to the Orioles provided his second missed opportunity for a World Series ring in 1979, since his Orioles could not close out Willie Stargell's "Family." May only hit one time in that series as Earl Weaver went with switch-hitting future HOF Eddie Murray at first base.

May turned 37 just before Opening Day in 1980. His reflexes slowing were accompanied by Weaver giving May next to zero playing time in the field that season. May played the field in just 7 games that season overall, and 61 of his 78 appearances were as the DH.  

On the clear downslope of a long career, May signed a two-year contract with the Kansas City Royals in December of 1980. He made just 68 appearances and tallied only 165 plate appearances over the two years of that contract. At the end of the 1982 season, May's career came to an end. He finished his career with 354 HR (which is currently 87th all time), 1244 RBI (134th all time), and a slash line of .267/.313/.459 in 8219 plate appearances. 

It is safe to say that he would not have been an NFL player for that length of time as a fullback.

Mustache Check: Yes, the Big Bopper of Birmingham has a big hairy lip here.

Family Ties
Lee's brother Carlos May played OF and 1B for the Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees, and California Angels between 1968 and 1977.  

Lee's son Lee May, Jr. was the first round selection of the New York Mets in the 1986 June Draft with the 21st pick overall. Unfortunately for Lee Jr., he was one of just 9 players out of the 28 selected who did not make it to the major leagues from that first round. 

Lee's grandson Jacob May was drafted twice for baseball. He was selected the first time in the 39th round of the 2010 June Draft out of high school. Jacob then attended Coastal Carolina University and blossomed. He became the Chicago White Sox 3rd round selection in the 2013  June Draft with the 91st pick overall. Jacob hit .258/.326/.395 at High-A Winston-Salem in the Carolina League at the age of 22 (he was about a year younger than the league average). He's a speedster, stealing 37 bases in 45 attempts last year.

Trivial Pursuit/Freeze-Frame
Though he never appeared on the show Cheers according to IMDB, May supposedly crushed a ball off Sam Malone -- the former fictional Boston pitcher portrayed by Ted Danson -- entirely out of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
As a kid, Lee May was an Oriole to me. It was always strange seeing cards for guys like him on other teams to me as a 7-year-old, because my brain was trying to work out how those guys used to play on other teams than the one they were on currently.

May served a few teams as a coach after his career ended. He was the Kansas City Royals hitting coach from 1984 to 1986, a job which allowed him finally to be on the winning side of a World Series in 1985. 

After a year away from the majors in 1986, he was the Cincinnati Reds first base coach in 1988 and 1989 under Pete Rose and, later, his old pal and former Reds and Astros teammate Tommy Helms. Indeed, for his time as a player and as a coach, May was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 2006. 

He was let go as a coach by the Reds after the 1989 season under the Marge Schott regime. If you're not familiar with Schott, she was a piece of work. She was a chain-smoking widow who made her money taking over her late husband's car dealership. She had a Saint Bernard called Schottzie which ran around on the field at Riverfront Stadium before Reds games. She once got upset when a sold-out opening day Reds game was cancelled because one of the umpires had a heart attack and died on the field.


Then add in this; Schott was a female, 1980s version of Donald Sterling -- perhaps with more venom that only going back 25 years in this country can add. From all indications, Schott was a racist, apparently making anti-Semitic comments and calling black players her "million-dollar (moron's word from the 1940s for black person)".  As one writer from the Cincinnati Enquirer put it recently in the context of the Sterling episode, "Marge didn't limit her ugliness to blacks. She spread it like buckshot. Schott offended everyone from scouts to Jews, gays to blacks. The litany of her indiscretions was comprehensive and impressive."

Anyway, May was under the misguided impression that he and Schott had an agreement that May would be kept on after the 1989 season. When he found out that that was not the case, he said, "If baseball is coming to the way this lady is doing things, I don't want any part of it."

He ended up back in Kansas City under his former Royals teammate Hal McRae as the hitting coach from 1992 to 1994. Then, when McRae was the manager with the Tampa Bay Rays in a terrible 2002 season, May served as the first base coach. As far as I can tell, that was the end of his baseball coaching career. Of course, he was 60 years old at that point, so you can't really blame him for hanging up his spikes.

He also, apparently, had an "Afro hair replacement" done by a guy called Jim Kreuz in Toledo in the 1970s. The fun things you can find in local newspapers.

In any event, May is 71 now. As of 2011, he was working with the Reds doing PR and, otherwise, was enjoying his retirement and his 8 grandchildren.

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