Lee May: Home run hitter of the early Big Red Machine


Lee May

Lee May, with Johnny Bench and Tony Perez, was one of the sluggers of the late 1960s-early 1970s Cincinnati teams which inspired the Big Red Machine nickname, but the Reds only lived up to it in the postseason after May was traded. May died this week at age 74. May was nicknamed the Big Bopper because he hit home runs — 354 of them in an 18-year career — most of them with a compact swing of the bat after wiggling it while waiting for the pitch. A rookie in 1967, May began a streak of 11 straight 20-home run seasons when he hit 22 in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher (May’s 135 OPS+ was 11th in the NL), and he hit 111 — 37 per season — in his final three seasons with the Reds. May hit 38 in 1969, as the nickname gained popularity when the Reds led MLB with 798 runs scored, but finished third in the NL West thanks to a pitching staff that ranked 19th with a 4.11 ERA — better than only five other teams, and three of those in their first seasons. May hit 34 in 1970 as the Reds won the NL pennant, and batted .389 in the World Series despite Brooks Robinson, who took a hit or two away. May’s three-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 4 gave the Reds their only win in the Series; his 8 RBIs tied a record for a five-game series, which still stands (Danny Murphy knocked in 8 for the 1910 A’s, who beat the Cubs). And May hit 39 more homers in 1971 as the Reds tumbled 23 games in the win column and to fourth place in the standings. It was after the disappointment of 1971 that GM Bob Howsam swung the trade that made the Big Red Machine, great in 1970, even greater in the mid-70s. And May, popular with fans and teammates, was the bait which returned Joe Morgan from the Astros in an eight-player deal. Had the trade been subjected to a referendum of Reds fans, it would have lost as surely as the Bengals in a playoff game. Reds beat writer Bob Hertzel, writing for baseballprospectus.com in 2010, looked back on what he wrote then about the trade: “ ‘For Lee May, you’d expect Willie Mays, not just another guy named Joe.’ And ‘If the United States had traded Dwight Eisenhower to the Germans during World War II, it wouldn’t have been much different than sending May and (second baseman Tommy) Helms to Houston.’ “OK, so I exaggerated a little, but who knew?” Howsam for one, though you can understand Reds’ fans suspicion of management. The May trade came just five years after the offseason in which the Reds traded Frank Robinson; fans liked that one no less than the May trade, and they were right. Howsam had his reasons. The Reds had moved out of hitter-friendly Crosley Field midway through 1970 — May hit the final home run there, a game-winner off Hall of Famer Juan Marichal — and into Riverfront Stadium and onto an AstroTurf surface. Howsam was trading power for speed and defense, but with Morgan, the Reds kept the power, too. Pete Rose, from the Cincinnati Enquirer: “When we went out and got Morgan, we all hated to see him and Helms go. It was a good trade for both sides. …” No it wasn’t. If Rose analyzed NFL lines the way he did that trade, it’s no wonder he owed the bookies. The Reds got Morgan, a Hall of Famer, to say nothing of Gold Glove centerfielder Cesar Geronimo and pitcher Jack Billingham, who won 19 games twice for the Reds and allowed one earned run in 25.1 World Series innings. The deal — which also allowed the Reds to move poor-fielding Tony Perez off third base for Denis Menke originally, but later for Rose, which created a vacancy filled by George Foster — was as one-sided as many of the Big Red Machine victories. That wasn’t May’s fault — he hit 81 homers in three seasons for the Astros, not easy to do in the pitcher-friendly Astrodome. But Morgan won MVPs in 1975 and 1976, the Reds won World Series both years, and Morgan went to the Hall of Fame. It would take a lot more home runs to make that “a good trade for both sides.” The Astros traded May to the Orioles after the 1974 season, where May took over for Boog Powell, and prospered under Earl Weaver, a manager who appreciated the three-run homer. May hit 25, 27 and 25 homers in his first three Baltimore seasons, and led the AL in RBIs in 1976 with 109. His streak of 20-home run seasons finally ended in 1979, when he hit 19 for the pennant-winning Orioles, but he batted just twice in the World Series because the DH rotated each year at that time. May sat as Hall of Famer Eddie Murray played first and struggled through a 4-for-26 Series, and the Pirates won in seven. (It might be fashionable to suggest the Orioles might have won had there been a DH, but that’s not backed by the evidence. May’s 719 OPS in ’79 was the worst of his career to that point, and not as good as the Pirates’ John Milner and/or Lee Lacy, who were limited to 13 at bats.). That was May’s final season as a regular, and he hit just 10 home runs in the next three seasons before being released by the Royals at age 39. When May left the Orioles, they gave him a parting gift, his wife told the Baltimore Sun: a toilet seat autographed by his teammates. Wife Terry Maye to the Sun: “ ‘On the cover, they engraved a plaque that read: For stirring up all of that s— in the clubhouse.'” Career numbers: .267 average, 354 home runs, 1,244 RBIs, 2,031 hits, 340 doubles, .313 on-base percentage, .459 slugging, .772 OPS, 116 OPS+, 487 walks, 1,570 strikeouts, 219 double plays grounded into, three times an All-Star (once when brother Carlos was an AL All-Star), received MVP votes six times (a high of ninth in 1972 and ’76), 27.1 WAR, 3 Hall of Fame votes in 1988.                                                                                                                                                                                    (For the record: Darrell Osteen, who shared the 1966 rookie card with May above, pitched in 26 games with the Reds iver three years and had an 8.35 ERA. Traded to the A’s after the ’67 season, he won his only game in 1970 and ended his career having pitched 38 innings with a 1-4 record and 8.05 ERA).

 

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