Page Four of my 1975 Topps Baseball Card binder, like most of the pages in the binder, features an interesting array of players: Bill Russell from my Dodgers, Al Fitzmorris of the Royals, Lee May of the Astros*, Dave McNally of the Orioles, Ken Reitz of the Cardinals, Tom Murphy, Brewers and two big favorites: Dave “The Cobra” Parker of the Pirates and Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven of the Twins.
I opted to go with Lee May because of two distinct childhood memories of him, and after doing a little more digging into his impressive and underappreciated career, I believe I made a good choice. *(Pictured in his 1975 Topps card as a member of the Houston Astros, May had actually been traded to the Baltimore Orioles before the 1975 season, but we’ll get to that later).
Career recap first and then some memories.
Lee May – not to be confused with Lee Maye, who toiled in the big leagues from 1959-1971 – slugged his way through 18 seasons and left indelible memories in Cincinnati, Houston and Baltimore, before closing out his career in Kansas City. Signed by the Reds in 1961 as an amateur free agent, May spent five years in Cincinnati’s minor league system with teams based primarily in the South and dealt with the racial taunts and thrown soda bottles than too many players of color had put up with during that horrible era.
Lee played his way into the majors and by 1967 – the year of my birth – he was there to stay.
Reds teammate Tommy Helms nicknamed May “The Big Bopper of Birmingham,” which later was simply “The Big Bopper,” not so much for his 6-3, 195-lb frame, which was impressive enough, but more for his prodigious home runs. Named the Sporting News’ National League Rookie of the Year in 1967, May was a vital piece of the components that were to become The Big Red Machine of the 1970s, joining Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez as the core hitters who would ultimately terrorize National League pitching for much of the decade. A National League All Star representing the Reds in 1969 and 1971, May played first base, and for five full seasons averaged nearly 30 home runs and better than 85 runs batted in for Cincinnati, and while the team was busy putting its plan of National League domination into motion, May was deemed expendable.
In a trade that would make the Reds the most formidable NL team for years to come, Lee May, Helms and teammate Jimmy Stewart were dealt to the Houston Astros for some vital pieces of The Big Red Machine, chiefly Joe Morgan and Cesar Geronimo.
May played three seasons in the spacious Astrodome in Houston, where his power numbers should have diminished, however he slammed 81 homers and knocked in 288 runs in those three seasons and was an All Star in 1972.
May was dealt to the Baltimore Orioles in December of 1974, and in five seasons as a full-time player – spending time at first base and designated hitter – he averaged 23 home runs and 91 runs batted in. The Orioles had an up-and-coming first baseman and future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray ready to bust out, so May was considered expendable again and left for the Kansas City Royals via free agency in 1980, where he spent two seasons as a part-time player before retiring in 1982.
Lee May’s career statistics are impressive: .267 batting average, 354 home runs and 1,244 runs batted in. In seven World Series games May batted .368 with 2 homers and 8 RBI.
While I pointed out the fact that May’s power numbers were not really diminished from his three years in Houston, there’s no telling what his final totals would have looked like had he played his entire career in Cincinnati or Baltimore, but there’s reason to believe that he would have slammed better than 400 home runs and eclipsed 1,500 RBI.
His power brings me to personal memory number one of Lee May.
My old neighborhood buddy Mike Begneaud owned a wonderful game called “All Star Baseball” which featured baseball-shaped player cards that you placed in little holders and then you’d flick a spinner that would land on numbered sections of the card. The numbers represented the players’ skill levels or deficiencies, and the thing I remember about the Lee May card was his home run skill level, represented by the Number 1.
Good home run hitters had a decent sized category number 1, meaning that there was always a good chance of the spinner stopping there. Really powerful hitters like Lee May (or in my example below, George Foster of The Big Red Machine) would have multiple instances of category number 1 on their card. So while Mike and I would clamor for our favorites like Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Bench, Mike Schmidt or even Hank Aaron for our teams, the guy who would inevitably wind up with Lee May on their squad would typically walk away very happy with his home runs.
Many a summer afternoon was spent agonizing over or rejoicing in Lee May’s spinner home runs.
My final memory is a baseball card memory of Lee May. Appropriately so since we are celebrating his 1975 card today.
During my card-collecting prime, Topps of course was the go-to baseball card, but I also loved the Kellogg’s cereal 3-D cards as well as the Hostess cards (I loved me some Twinkies back in the day!). The Hostess cards came in sets of three on the bottom panel of Twinkies, Cupcakes, Ding-Dongs, Suzie Q’s and Ho-Ho’s (man those are some politically-incorrect names for dessert cakes). Now if I knew in the future that an uncut panel of good cards would have fetched me some cash in the future I would have preserved them well, but as a kid I cut those cards out and kept them with my rubber-banded Topps cards.
The problem with the Hostess cards was that they apparently used the B-roll of Topps photos, and they also didn’t have a real keen eye for accuracy, as many names were misspelled (see Doug Rader become “Doug Radar,” George Hendrick as “George Hendricks” and Burt Hooten was “Bert Hooten”).
Chief among the unsightly issues with Hostess was the Milt May/Lee May problem.
Not sure what happened here, but other than both players being Astros in 1974, the good people at Hostess somehow managed to mix up the white, left-handed hitting catcher with the black, right-handed hitting first baseman. To make matters a little worse, there was a legitimate Lee May card from the Hostess 1975 set – the wonderfully awful airbrushed version with him on the Orioles.
There are more airbrush atrocities to come later.
For now I leave you with this one. Enjoy!