Lee May, a slugging first baseman with the Cincinnati Reds who was traded to the Houston Astros for Joe Morgan after the 1971 season and missed the Reds’ becoming one of baseball’s greatest teams a few years later, died on Saturday in Cincinnati. He was 74.
His death, at a hospital, was caused by pneumonia, said his wife, Terrye May.
At 6 feet 3 inches tall and 205 pounds, May wagged his bat before swinging and was nicknamed the Big Bopper. He was part of a Cincinnati team that became known as the Big Red Machine, featuring Johnny Bench and Tony Perez, future Hall of Famers, and Pete Rose, the career hits leader, whose betting on baseball years later has denied him entrance into the Hall.
Led by Manager Sparky Anderson, the Reds won 102 games in 1970 but lost the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles. May’s mighty three-run home run in the eighth inning of Game 4 gave the Reds their only win.
“Chills went down my spine,” Reds center fielder Bobby Tolan said afterward.
May had one of his best seasons in 1971, hitting 39 home runs (behind Willie Stargell and Hank Aaron) and driving in 98 runs (ranking him sixth in the National League). Al Michaels, then a Reds announcer who car-pooled to Riverfront Stadium with May, said by email: “He was a big presence with zero bombast. Just a rock solid guy with a great, understated sense of humor.”
May’s power hitting for the Reds ultimately made him expendable. After slipping to fourth place in 1971, the Reds decided that they needed more left-handed hitting, speed and defense. In an eight-player deal, May was dealt to Houston for Morgan, a short, speedy, base-stealing second baseman with surprising power.
Morgan became the catalyst for the Reds’ World Series titles in 1975 and 1976, seasons in which he was also named the National League’s most valuable player.
May was hurt by the trade, comparing it to being “kicked out of the house.”
Unlike Morgan, May was not a Hall of Famer, but he had a more than respectable career with the Reds, the Astros, the Baltimore Orioles and the Kansas City Royals. In all, he hit 354 home runs, drove in 1,244 runs and batted .267. He played in three All-Star Games.
Like many sluggers, he also struck out a lot, peaking in 1972 with 145.
“He used to say that if he didn’t strike out 100 times a season, the Orioles wouldn’t think he was trying,” Ken Singleton, his teammate with the Orioles, said by telephone on Monday. Late one season, Singleton said, May approached him in the dugout smiling.
“I got it,” Singleton recalled May telling him. “I struck out my 100th time last time up. I’ll be back next year.”
Lee Andrew May Sr. was born in Birmingham, Ala., on March 23, 1943. His father, Tommy, a semipro ballplayer, and his mother, Mildred, were divorced when he was young. May played baseball in high school and was also a forward for the basketball team and a fullback for the football team. He considered a football scholarship at the University of Nebraska but chose baseball.
“Well, the Reds offered me money, and I felt I had a better chance in baseball,” May said in profile for the Society for American Baseball Research.
May rose steadily in the Reds’ organization after being drafted in 1961. He credited one manager, Red Davis, with helping him to harness his power by suggesting that he hit from a slightly crouched batting stance, and he credited another, the former pitcher Johnny Vander Meer, with converting him from an outfielder to a first baseman.
“I threw sidearmed too much for an outfielder, and my throw would move too much from the target,” May told The Sporting News in 1966. He became a regular with the Reds in 1967.
May remained with Houston for three seasons before he was traded to Baltimore in late 1974. Singleton, who was dealt from the Montreal Expos to the Orioles a day after May, remembered May’s first at-bat for the Orioles, in an opening day victory in April 1975.
“We were in Detroit, and it was, like, 28 degrees,” Singleton said. “I was on third base, and he hit a three-run home run. And he turns to Earl Weaver” — the Orioles’ manager — “and says, `I think I’m going to like this league.’”
In addition to his wife, the former Terrye Perdue, who met him in elementary school, May is survived by his daughters Yelandra Daniels and Lisa Evans; his sons Lee May Jr., who played in minor league baseball and is currently a coach, and Derek Reid, who also played in the minor leagues; his brother, Carlos, who played 10 seasons in the major leagues; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
May retired after limited duty with Kansas City in 1982 and coached for the Royals, the Reds, the Orioles and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now the Rays).
This year, Jacob May, one of his grandsons, made his debut with the Chicago White Sox. He is now playing for their top minor league team in Charlotte, N.C.