He may be fooled on a certain pitch but the next time up he'll hit the same pitch out of the park.
- Reds hitting coach Ted Kluszewski
Lee May is often best remembered by Reds fans as one of the players the Reds traded to get Joe Morgan, the deal that gave rise to the Big Red Machine title teams of 1975 and 1976. It is often forgotten that May was an integral part of the first incarnation of the Machine, the club that stormed to seventy victories in the first 100 games of the 1970 season. It was in that year that the Reds, led by a powerful lineup that included May, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Pete Rose and Bobby Tolan, captured the franchise's first pennant since 1961.
May was signed by the Reds out of Birmingham, AL in 1961. He toiled in the farm system for almost six full seasons before he broke through with a stellar rookie performance in 1967. In only 438 at-bats, May belted twelve home runs and drove in 57. May was named The Sporting News Rookie of the Year for his efforts. Teammate Tommy Helms christened May, "The Big Bopper of Birmingham" and May's impressive rookie campaign helped to solidify the nickname.
Over the next two seasons, May blossomed into one of the league's top power hitters and the Reds inched ever closer to a title. May lead the club in home runs in 1968 and 1969 and the '69 Reds finished just four games off the pace in the newly formed National League Western Division. May was also becoming a clubhouse leader. A no-nonsense personality combined with a biting sense of humor allowed May to be both disarming and persuasive. May gradually had become the player most likely to be tapped to put out clubhouse fires. Manager Sparky Anderson once commented, "I can't tell you how many times I had May in for a little talk about something that was wrong and he'd say, 'OK, Skip, I'll take care of it'".
At 6'3" and 205 lbs., May was also an intimidating physical presence. He joked once about his ability to convince Helms to retrieve any and all pop-ups in the high sky at Wrigley Field. If the second baseman failed to do so, "He would be talking to me (May) after the game." Not surprisingly, according to May, the diminutive Helms seemed to play some of his best games in Chicago, chasing down every ball that was hit to the right side of the infield. There was certainly more than a little humor infusing his directive to his longtime teammate, but Helms's reaction also made it clear that May's words carried great weight in the clubhouse.
Led by new manager Sparky Anderson, the 1970 Reds domination of the National League cemented the "Big Red Machine" label that had been affixed to the club the previous year. After sweeping the Pirates in the LCS, the Reds squared off against the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.
In a Series best remembered for Elrod Hendricks's phantom tag of Bernie Carbo in Game 1 and the brilliant defensive play of Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson, Lee May shone for the Reds. May batted an impressive .389 in the Series and set a record for a five game Series by driving in eight runs. His biggest hit came in Game 4 with the Reds facing elimination after losing the Series' first three contests.
Trailing 5-3 in the eighth inning, May came to the plate with two runners on base. Facing reliever Eddie Watt, May launched a three-run blast on the first pitch he saw that gave the Reds a 6-5 lead that, unlike in the Series' first two games, they would not relinquish. Said a jubilant May after the game, "I knew it was gone as soon as I hit it and the only thing I could think as I was running the bases was how fortunate we were. When I got back to the bench I was still so thrilled and amazed that all I saw were people's faces and all I heard were sounds."
Although the Orioles' Series clinching victory the next day overshadowed May's clutch home run, there was much for May and the Reds to feel good about. They were a young team that had demonstrated an ability to overwhelm National League competition and they had shown themselves to be a more than worthy adversary to the American League's powerhouse club.
The prohibitive favorites to repeat their success of the year before, the 1971 Reds stumbled out of the gate and never recovered, finishing a woeful 79-83. Despite the club's poor performance, May had another outstanding season pacing the club for the third time in home runs and, for the first time, led the team in RBI as well. His exemplary performance netted him the club's Most Valuable Player award as well as his first appearance on the National League All-Star team. May's strong season notwithstanding, Reds General Manager Bob Howsam concluded that the 1971 season had exposed fundamental weaknesses in his club. Foremost among them was a lack of team speed. Playing on the Astroturf at Riverfront Stadium, Howsam determined that the Reds needed to become faster.
The club turned its sights to Joe Morgan, the Houston Astros' speedy second baseman. After lengthy discussions, the two clubs finally arrived at a deal. On November 29, 1971 the Reds sent Lee May, Tommy Helms and utility player Jimmy Stewart to Houston for Joe Morgan, infielder Denis Menke, pitcher Jack Billingham and outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister. The trade was met with a great deal of skepticism and, in some cases, outright derision in Cincinnati. At the time, Joe Morgan was a player of modest notoriety and the rest of the players in the package were virtually unknown to most Reds fans. Of course Sparky Anderson words proved to be prophetic when he assured Howsam that, "You have just won the pennant for the Cincinnati Reds."
Things were a bit more somber for May and Helms, two players who had literally grown up in the Reds' organization. May adopted a professional approach to the deal publicly simply, "I play for money and they pay money in Houston." It was only later that he revealed the degree to which the trade impacted him. "That might have been the worst point of my life in baseball," he said. "I had never played with anybody but the Reds. We had gelled together and all of a sudden I got traded, kicked out of the house. It took a while to get over it."
But May did get over it and went on to many more productive seasons playing for the Astros, Orioles and Royals. He retired following the 1982 season and shortly thereafter became the Royals hitting instructor. He returned to the Reds organization as a coach for the 1988 and 1989 seasons, years that reunited him with former teammates Tommy Helms and Tony Perez, and his former manager, Dave Bristol on manager Pete Rose's coaching staff.
Upon learning of his induction to the Reds Hall of Fame, May was elated and relieved. "I never thought I'd make it. I gave up on it. I'll always be a Red at heart, because that's where I got my beginning. My first major league ball game, I was a Cincinnati Red. The first World Series I was in, I was a Cincinnati Red. I've got a lot of good memories and I have a lot of good friends that I met when I played in Cincinnati. It's a fun town to play in."
Although May missed out on the apex of the Big Red Machine's accomplishments, he still left an indelible mark on that team and the city it represented. Perhaps with his induction into the Reds Hall of Fame, Lee May's career will be appreciated more for what it was rather than what is wasn't. Perhaps now he will be remembered first for the great player that he was rather than as one of the players that helped the Reds become the Big Red Machine. After all, it was already a machine when Joe Morgan arrived in Cincinnati and Lee May had played a large and powerful role in making it run.