Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Lee Mayby Bruce Markusen
July 27, 2012
I like it when a baseball card shows a player sweating. It’s an integral part of playing the game. As we look at Lee May’s face, it’s easy to see the moisture building there. It’s as if the Topps photographer took the picture moments after May finished a hearty batting practice session. May didn’t even have a second to towel off; instead, it was right from the batting cage to the photo op.
The other noticeable feature on the card is May’s uniform. While his helmet has been airbrushed with the logo of his new team, the Astros, the uniform itself belongs to the Reds, for whom he played in 1971. We can see clearly the number 23 on the right side of May’s jersey. The Reds’ road uniforms of that era featured visible numbers on the front of the jersey, but the Astros' did not. The folks at Topps probably figured that they didn’t need to alter the uniform because the Reds and Astros both featured red as their trim colors. But the discerning baseball card eye knows better.
That still leaves us with one mystery about the card. Where was this photo taken? Except for a small part of a single light tower that is barely visible beyond the neck of the hulking May, all we see is the blue sky in the background. Like a lot of Topps posed shots, I would guess that it is a spring training road shot—taken somewhere in the Grapefruit League—but I can’t be sure.
May’s professional journeys began in 1961, after he signed with the Reds as an amateur free agent. From there, May began the long road to the major leagues. It took him nearly six minor league seasons—except for small cup of coffee in 1965 and a slightly larger one in 1966—to latch onto the Reds for good in 1967.
Initially, May did not play much, not with Tony Perez blocking his path at first base. But when starting third baseman Deron Johnson went down with an injury, the Reds shuffled their infield. They rotated Perez to third, making room for May to play regularly at first base. When Johnson returned, he and May shared playing time. May played enough—and hit enough—to earn himself The Sporting News’ Rookie of the Year Award.
May also picked up a nickname, which came courtesy of second baseman Tommy Helms. Playing next to May on the Reds’ infield, Helms dubbed him “The Big Bopper from Birmingham.” The moniker was eventually shortened to The Big Bopper.
After the season, the Reds decided that the Big Bopper represented the future, and so they traded Johnson to the Braves. The infield shift, featuring Perez at third and May at first, was just the break that May’s career needed.
By 1968, May had established himself as the consummate free-swinging slugger. He drew only 38 walks against 100 strikeouts during the summer of ’68, but still managed to post an OPS of .805, an impressive figure in “The Year of the Pitcher.”
May performed even better in 1969, aided by the lessening of the height of the pitcher’s mound and changes in enforcement of the strike zone. He lifted his OPS to .860, while hitting 38 home runs and driving in 110 runs.
One of the game’s leading right-handed power hitters, May remained a productive batter for the Reds through the 1970 and ‘71 seasons. In 1970, he garnered nationwide attention for his ferocious hitting in the World Series, even if Brooks Robinson did his best to rob May of some additional extra base hits. Facing an enormously talented Orioles staff, May hit .389 and slugged .833 in a five-game loss to Baltimore.
May continued the rampage in 1971. He slugged .532 for the Reds that season, stimulating some conversation that he might be on the path to the Hall of Fame. Strangely, that year ended up being his last with the Reds, but not because of any failures against National League pitching. In fact, he reached career highs in OPS with a mark of .864 and in home runs with a total of 39.
Off the field, May had also become an important figure for the Reds. If Sparky Anderson sensed trouble was brewing in the clubhouse, May could take care of it. Between his intimidating stature (six feet, three inches tall and 205 pounds) and his biting sense of humor, May helped stomp out potential disputes in the Cincinnati clubhouse. Outgoing and willing to converse, May continues to use that keen sense of humor today, participating in the Reds’ winter caravan as a goodwill ambassador.
As the team’s MVP in 1971, May hadn’t done anything wrong to prompt the trade from Cincinnati. The Reds simply felt they had a duplicate player in Tony Perez, a right-handed hitter of a similar breed. By trading May, they could open up first base for Perez, improve themselves defensively at other infield positions, and add some desperately needed team speed.
With that thought process in mind, the Reds made a blockbuster trade at the 1971 winter meetings in Arizona. They packaged May with slick-fielding second baseman Helms and utility man Jimmy Stewart, sending them to the Astros for Joe Morgan, third baseman/shortstop Denis Menke, outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister and right-hander Jack Billingham. The trade would represent a monumental steal for Cincinnati, with Morgan developing into a Hall of Fame caliber player, spearheading the “Big Red Machine” to World Series appearances in 1972, ‘75 and ‘76.
The trade devastated May, who had been with the Reds’ organization for 12 years and considered himself part of their baseball family. To make matters worse, Morgan’s emergence in Cincinnati made the trade one of the most one-sided in history; it became known as an infamous flop for the Astros, with May taking the brunt of the blame.
And that’s really not fair. May continued to produce his impressive power numbers with the Astros, though his home run totals fell from the 30s to the 20s because of the colossal dimensions of the Houston Astrodome. (He never hit more than 29 home runs in a single season for Houston.) The Astros could not have given a slugger like May a worse environment for hitting home runs. Additionally, he didn’t like playing on the dome’s artificial turf, which left his legs sore. But May did his best to keep up, earning MVP votes in both 1972 and ‘73 for the struggling Astros.
An off season at the plate in 1974 (a year in which he drew only 17 walks all summer), coupled with a birth certificate that now placed him on the other side of 30, convinced the Astros to move May in a wintertime trade. So they sent him and a minor league outfielder named Jay Schlueter to the Orioles for infielders Enos Cabell and Rob Andrews.
This time the team acquiring May emerged as the clear winner of the trade. Although Memorial Stadium was hardly a hitter’s paradise, it was a better ballpark for a slugger like May than the Astrodome. May could also DH from time to time, giving the O’s a chance to use the slick-fielding Tony Muser at first base while keeping May in the lineup. The trade to the American League also gave May the chance to play head-to-head against his brother, Carlos May, who was forging his own career as a DH with the White Sox and Yankees.
May put up respectable numbers for Baltimore in 1975 and ‘76. Once again, he picked up some MVP votes in each of the two seasons. In 1976, May did what he did best, leading all American League batters in RBIs.
It was not until 1977 that May’s production began to tail off. He also moved from first base to DH to accommodate a young player named Eddie Murray. He was still the DH in 1979, but simply by happenstance, he received almost no playing time in the World Series, coming to bat only two times against the Pirates. (At that time, the World Series alternated years with the DH, and 1979 happened to be a year without the DH).
With his home run and walk totals declining for three straight years, the Orioles decided to drastically reduce the role of the Big Bopper in 1980. They used him as a backup and platoon DH, before allowing him to leave as a free agent at the end of the season.
Now 37 years old, May looked to be finished. But the Royals thought May could provide some depth and bench strength for a team that had been a perennial contender since 1976. Putting in time as a pinch-hitter and part-time DH, May became a good bench player in Kansas City. Even in his final season, he posted a career best OPS of .898, albeit in only 107 plate appearances.
At 38, May appeared to have plenty of hitting skill remaining to be a quality bench player. But the Royals surprisingly released him in November of 1982, essentially ending his 18-year career in the big leagues.
Yet, that was not the last hurrah for May. In 1985, the Royals brought back May as their hitting coach, just in time to earn a World Series championship ring that October.
All in all, May enjoyed an exemplary career. Back in the 1980s, I used to think of him as a potential candidate for the Hall of Fame. That was predicated mostly on my supreme belief in the RBI as a statistic. May had three seasons in which he reached the 100-RBI mark, and four other seasons in which he had either 98 or 99 RBIs. Given his impressive home run total (354 for his career), I felt an argument could be made for May in Cooperstown.
As the 1980s progressed, I began to learn about RBIs in context, that they were partly a function of team strength and opportunity. I also began to see that May’s on-base percentage (.313) left something lacking, that he struck out three times as often as he walked, and that his defensive play was at best ordinary, and perhaps below average. By the early 1990s, I realized that Lee May was not a serious candidate for the Hall of Fame.
This should not be interpreted as an insult to May. He was a fine player, a player in the mold of a Boog Powell, a Willie Horton, a George Scott, and there’s nothing wrong with that. May was a slugger who put up his best numbers during a pitching era, a pure power hitter who was awfully good at driving in runners. You could win with a man like May playing an everyday role, just like the Reds did in 1970 and the Orioles did in 1979.
With all of that, I take some pride in seeing Lee May sweat on his 1972 Topps card.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.