One of the game’s top run producers in the late 1960s and on through the 1970s, Lee “Big Bopper” May was a terrific slugger for the Reds and Orioles. A three-time All-Star, May posted eight seasons during his career when he blasted 25 or more homeruns. The era in which Lee played is noted more for its pitching, but May was a thunderous presence in the heart of any batting order. Although not the most gifted defender in the league, May made a highlight reel catch in 1985, after he had retired from playing. As the Royals hitting coach, May saved George Brett from an exploding cranium when he caught the diving third baseman who lunged into the dugout, chasing a foul popup.
The Reds signed Lee as a teenager off the Alabama sandlots in 1961. As he climbed the minor league ladder, Lee showcased power as the climbed the rungs. The Reds gave him a five-game trial at the end of the 1965 season and then a 25 game look in 1966. By 1967, May was in the Majors to stay. He was part of a coming Cincinnati Reds team in the late 1960s. In 1968, Lee and Rusty Staub were the only NL first basemen to eclipse 160 base hits and 30 doubles. The Reds had a strong offense geared around such youngsters as May, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Tommy Helms. Vada Pinson, at 29, was the oldest regular on the team.
Although the Big Bopper had a solid 1968 season, his breakout year came in ’69. May drilled 38 homeruns and drove in 110 mates–numbers only eclipsed by Hall of Famer Willie McCovey among NL first basemen. He proved the following year that he was a legit power source and not a one-year wonder when he sent 34 balls into the seats. He teamed with Bench and Perez to give the Reds three men with 30+ plus homers in 1970 as Cincy captured the NL West flag. Off to his first World Series, the Big Bopper was terrific in Fall Classic action. He swatted a pair of homers, led all participants with 8 RBI and hit a lusty .389. But poor play by Bench and a dismal showing from Perez allowed Baltimore to make short work of the Reds.
Named to the 1971 NL All-Star Team, May enjoyed his greatest season for homeruns when he blasted a career high 39 dingers–good for third in the National League behind Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Willie Stargell. But the Reds fell out of contention that year and made a trade that would bolster the team and thus earn them the nickname “The Big Red Machine” after the season when they dealt Lee to Houston for second baseman Joe Morgan. In the cavernous Astrodome, May’s homer totals fell off but he still swatted an enviable total of 29 homers in 1972. The Big Bopper hit .284 in an era of low batting averages and led the Astros in RBI.
May enjoyed his second 100-RBI season in 1973 as he led NL first basemen in the department. But after a down year in 1974, in which he “only” slugged 24 homers, Lee was traded to Baltimore for Enos Cabell. Cabell became a fixture in Houston but he didn’t have the run producing skills of the Big Bopper. In Lee’s first taste of American League action, he came within one little RBI of another 100 runs batted in season. He made certain that he reached that mark in ’76 by pacing the junior circuit with 109 RBI. Orioles skipper Earl Weaver flip-flopped Lee between first base and DH to get the better fielding Tony Muser some action at the initial sack while keeping May’s big bat in the lineup.
In 1977, May posted his eighth year with 90 or more RBI when he chased 99 mates across the dish. In 1978 he blasted 25 homeruns as the everyday DH since a young Eddie Murray established himself as the regular first baseman. The Orioles captured their division in 1979 but in the World Series, the designated hitter wasn’t used, so Lee only had two pinch-hit appearances in a losing cause to Pittsburgh. Granted free agency after the 1980 season, the aging Big Bopper signed with the Kansas City Royals and gave the boys in blue a solid veteran bat-off-the bench for two years before he retired.
G 2,071/R 959/H 2,031/2B 340/3B 31/HR 354/RBI 1,244/SB 39/BB 487/SO 1,570/BA .267/OBP .313/SA .459