A tribute to Dave May

We almost always called him Davey May. That sounded more lyrical, more friendly, more fun than Dave May. But Dave May was fitting, too. It’s a short and blunt name, adjectives that fit May’s physical build. Short, stocky, and with legs as thick as mahogany, Dave May looked like a boxer in a baseball uniform.

As a young fan in the 1970s, I usually confused May’s identity. I used to think that he was Carlos May’s brother; like Dave, Carlos was built muscularly and low to the ground. But I was wrong. Carlos was the brother of Lee May; Dave was not related to anyone in the major leagues. At least not yet.

Dave May died over the weekend at the age of 68, a victim of a long struggle with diabetes and cancer. He will forever be remembered as the man who was traded for Hank Aaron. And that’s really not fair, because there is much more to the story here.

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May was signed by the Giants in 1961 but never made it to San Francisco’s major league roster. That’s because the Orioles’ organization, which was reaching heights of brilliance in the 1960s, saw fit to take him in the old first-year draft in which minor leaguers could be drafted after only one season.

Being drafted by the Orioles brought mixed blessings. On the plus side, the Orioles taught their minor leaguers the right way to play the game, teaching the fundamentals from the ground up.

From another perspective, they had a deep system full of good enough outfielders, which made the possibility of advancement difficult for a young man like May. Despite hitting consistently in the .300 range, showing some speed, and hitting with flashes of power, May did not make the major leagues until 1967.

Through perseverance, May finally cracked Baltimore’s roster. His positive attitude also helped him. Upbeat and happy, May loved to laugh. The Orioles, along with a few other organizations, took note.

May missed out on the world title season of 1966 and barely would miss out on Baltimore’s dominating championship team of 1970. (He did appear briefly in the 1969 World Series.)

In between those title teams, May struggled to gain traction with the Orioles. He failed to hit higher than .242, which made it difficult to earn a regular job on a team that had so many talented outfielders: established stars in Frank Robinson, Paul Blair, and Don Buford, and prime young flychasers like Curt Motton and Merv Rettenmund.

The Orioles ran out of patience with May in the middle of the 1970 season, trading him to Milwaukee for two obscure pitchers, Dick Baney and Buzz Stephen. The Brewers, playing their first season in Milwaukee after a failed debut as the Seattle Pilots, could afford to give May a starting job. They made May their starting center fielder, watched him play 100 games, and witnessed him flounder with a .240 batting average and only seven home runs.

Then came the breakthrough of 1971. A strong left-handed hitter, May began to show the kind of power/speed combination the Orioles once had forecast for him. He hit 16 home runs, stole 15 bases, and reached base 34 percent of the time.

The 1971 season marked the start of an odd pattern for May: big seasons in odd-numbered calendar years and poor seasons in even-numbered years. Inconsistency plagued May to extremes. In 1972, May’s OPS fell off to a dreadful .643. He also ran the bases poorly, with 13 caught stealing attempts against only 11 stolen bases.

Not to worry. May bounced back with a remarkable 1973, by far his best season. He clubbed 25 home runs, nine better than his next-best total, and batted .303, the only time in his career he bettered .300. He also tied for the American League lead with 295 total bases. May played so well, he made the All-Star team and even finished eighth in the league MVP voting despite playing for a subpar Brewers team.

A horrible 1974 season, in which his OPS dipped below .600, resulted in a trade. The Braves decided to take him and minor league pitcher Roger Alexander as compensation for Aaron, whose wanted to return to Milwaukee and hoped to extend his career as a DH. On the other end, the Braves hoped that May, who was still only 31, might benefit from playing in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, known as “The Launching Pad.”

The Braves were half-right. When May played, he played well. He put up an on-base percentage of .361 and a slugging percentage of nearly .500. But he also suffered through a string of injuries that curtailed his playing time. The Braves also used him as a platoon player in right field, severely limiting his at-bats against left-handed pitching. By season’s end, May played in only 82 games and accumulated a mere 230 plate appearances.

After a lackluster 1976 season, the Braves made May part of a blockbuster package for Rangers star Jeff Burroughs, who was two seasons removed from an MVP Award. The Braves sent May, fellow outfielder Ken Henderson, pitchers Roger Moret, Carl Morton and Adrian Devine, and $250,000 in cash to Texas for the slugging Burroughs. May did not find Texas to his liking. As a platoon right fielder, he struggled, hitting a below par .241 with only seven home runs.

The 1978 season found May in limbo. Still on the Rangers’ roster, he did not play in April or May. On May 17, the Rangers sold him to Milwaukee, sending him back to the Brewers for a second stint. Playing in a utility outfield role, May didn’t hit at all, prompting him to be sold to the Pirates in mid-September. He appeared in five games before drawing his release that winter. Once again, he missed out on a world championship, as the Pirates would win the World Series in 1979.

Refusing to give up, May decided to continue his career in the ill-fated Inter-American League. He played for Mike Kekich, the manager of the Santo Domingo Azucareros, hit a tepid .265 in 44 games, and watched the league go up in financial flames, bringing to an end his long professional career just as the league came to an abrupt end.

May never returned to organized baseball, but he would contribute to the major leagues in another way. He fathered a son, Derrick May, who would debut for the Cubs in 1990 and would enjoy a journeyman career with six teams over the course of the 1990s. Appropriately, Derrick finished his playing days with the Orioles, the same organization where Dave began his major league career.

Although Dave May was also a journeyman, he had a huge impact on the game. Just consider what Derrick said in describing the number of phone calls his father received in the final days of his life. “I never realized how many people he’s impacted, not only around here [in New Castle] but people in baseball,“ Derrick told Delaware Online. “Dusty Baker called, and Cito Gaston, Willie Horton, Ralph Garr and all these people called just to help him out. He and Johnny Briggs were best friends for 40 years.”

Always bringing laughter to the clubhouse, Dave May touched more than a few lives along the way.

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Comments

  1. John F. Knauer said...

    Bruce:

    Thanks for a great article about one of my favorite Orioles of all time.  As a lifelong Orioles fan, I pulled hard for Dave May to crack the O’s lineup, but there was just so much talent ahead of him, making it a most formidable task.  I was so happy to see him enjoy the success he did in Milwaukee, as it was a vindication of sorts.  I also enjoyed watching his son Derrick play for the O’s.  Rest in Peace Dave May, you were one of the good ones.

  2. Paul said...

    Dave May was a proud native of the state of Delaware.  During his years with the O’s Dave commuted from the Wilmington area to Baltimore for games.  This earned him one of my favorite nicknames, “Turnpike.”

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