Friday, February 8, 2013

#500 - Lee May

If anyone can bring us back to the simple joy of baseball, it’s this guy. Lee May, an original Big Red Machine member gets one of those action shots in which Topps liked to inform us how fallible baseball players were. I want to say his swing and a miss is taken at Riverfront since that right field dimension is right, but I believe all the dimension markings at Riverfront were in yellow, so I may be wrong. Regardless, the shot does give us the chance to see the frame that generated all of Lee’s power. ’73 was the second year of Lee’s three-year stay in Houston and despite the less favorable Astrodome dimensions he still brought the big power. The Dome shaved about ten homers per season from his home run totals but he found other ways to get in the runs. He put up a then club record 21-game hitting streak during the year and gets rewarded with a big milestone number from Topps. The card guys taketh away and the card guys giveth.

Lee May grew up with his younger brother Carlos in Birmingham, Alabama. In ’77 when Topps did those brother cards they said that Lee and Carlos used to go to the ballfield with their mom, who used to pitch to them, field grounders, and shag flies. That image used to make me smile (seeing my mom do any of those things would have been a trip). Lee was signed out of Parker High by Cincinnati in ’61 but only got in a few games in D ball that summer because he was already playing industrial league ball. In ’62 at that level he hit ten homers and in ’63 in A ball moved up to 18 with 80 RBI’s. Lee was also a pretty good fielder and his only real demerit was a strikeout tally that ran to about one every six at bats. That would never really go away, but as he climbed through the minors his numbers got progressively better: in ’64 he hit .303 with 25 homers and 110 RBI’s in Double A; and in ’65 .321 with 34 dingers and 103 RBI’s in Triple A. That year he made his debut for the Reds in a game and in ’66 he hit very well up top before spending most of the season back in Triple A where he hit .310 with 16 homers and 78 RBI’s in an abbreviated season.

When May came up in ’67 to stay first base had recently been shared by Gordy Coleman, a power hitter who pretty much just ran out of gas, and Tony Perez and Deron Johnson, who both could also play third. Coleman was done by the time ’67 got rolling, Perez pretty much took over third from Johnson, and Deron and Lee took turns at first base. Lee also worked a bunch in the outfield, but he was much better defensively at first. Still, he showed enough power flashes to get TSN’s Rookie of the Year in the NL. Tom Seaver won the official award but Lee did also make the Topps team. In ’68 he spent a lot less time in the outfield and his stats showed a complete ignorance of the sophomore jinx or the dominance by pitchers that year. In ’69 he had his biggest offensive year, receiving his first All-Star nod, and in ’70 he, Perez, and Johnny Bench officially christened The Machine by combining for 119 homers and 371 RBI’s. Lee got his first whiff of post-season action and while he had a mediocre playoff he was about the only Red that remembered his stroke against Baltimore in the Series. In ’71 his numbers made him team mvp and brought him back to the All-Star game in an otherwise disappointing year. After that season he went to Houston with Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart for Joe Morgan, Jack Billingham, Ed Armbrister, Denis Menke, and Cesar Geronimo.

Houston was a tough place to be a power guy but May did an excellent job in the RBI department though the homer tallies went south. In ’72 he helped get Houston off to a great start and the team finished with the best record in its history. In ’73 the team posted its second-best record but by ’74 it became apparent the team wasn’t going to be able to keep up with Cincinnati and LA through power. So even though Lee hit 24 out and put up 85 RBI’s he was traded after that year to Baltimore for Enos Cabell and Rob Andrews. His homer totals remained relatively light compared to his Cincy years but he got the RBI totals back up. In ’75 he drove in 99 on 20 homers and in ’76 he led the AL with 109 RBI’s on 25 dingers. That second year he DH’d a bit as Tony Muser got some starts at first. In ’77 Lee hit 27 out with 99 RBI’s and in ’78 he had 25 homers but the RBI total slipped to 80 since he was now hitting behind Eddie Murray, who both cleared the basepaths a bit more than Lee was used to and exchanged positions with him, making Lee a full-time DH. In ’79 Lee’s plate time decreased by 100 at bats and his totals fell to 19 homers and 69 RBI’s. He got some playoff work against California but almost none in the Series since that year was an off one for the DH. In ’80 he was part of a revolving door at DH, splitting time pretty evenly with Terry Crowley and Benny Ayala. In ’81 he moved on to Kansas City as a free agent and for the next two seasons hit over .300 in some pinch and DH work. When he was done after the ’82 season Lee had a .267 average with 354 homers, and 1,244 RBI’s. In the post-season he hit ,263 with two homers and eleven RBI’s in 13 games.

May moved into coaching shortly after his career ended. In ’83 he returned to Baltimore where he coached in spring training and then did some roving work during the season. He then sandwiched two stints with Kansas City (’84-’86 and ’92-’94) around time back in Cincinnati (’88-’89). From ’95 to ’99 he coached back in Baltimore and from 2000 to 2002 with Tampa. He was inducted into the Cincinnati hall of fame in 2006 and has done some community work on behalf of the Reds. His son Lee May Jr. was drafted by the Mets in ’86 and worked his way up to Triple A but was a light hitter with lots of speed but little power. He is now a coach.

Lee gets a tie for the shortest name in the set. Career-wise defensively he is 67th in putouts, 66th in assists, 55th in fielding percentage, and 47th in double plays for first basemen. In that last category he also led his league in ’69, ’72, and ’75.

These two nearly played together at KC in the early Eighties:

1. May and Jim Palmer ’75 to ’80 Orioles;
2. Palmer and Andy Etchebarren ’65 to ’75 Orioles;
3. Etchebarren and Rusty Torres ’76 to ’77 Angels.