Erardi: Lee May, star from the original Big Red Machine, dies in Cincinnati

CINCINNATI -- If Lee May had been the Reds first baseman who had stayed here in Cincinnati in 1972 instead of being traded to Houston, he'd have gotten a lot more consideration for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Instead, his close buddy, fellow Reds first baseman Tony Perez, made it.

It was fitting then, that on this baseball weekend, May, 74, affectionately known as the "Big Bopper,” would die after a lengthy illness in Cincinnati while his fellow teammates and National Hall of Famers Perez, Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan had gathered in Cooperstown to honor the Hall's newest player-inductees: Ivan Rodriguez, Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines.

"Yes, Lee could have been that guy to make it to Cooperstown had he been the one to stay," said Tommy Helms, May's longtime friend and fellow Reds Hall of Famer. "He was a great slugger, a great teammate and one of funniest guys I ever met. If Lee was around, you had a smile on your face."

As members of the original Big Red Machine, Helms and May played together in Cincinnati from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, and then together again for three more seasons in Houston (1972-74), where they had been traded in the Joe Morgan deal.

“Lee didn’t miss a beat; he kept hitting home runs and driving in runs even though that was a tougher park to hit in,” recalled Helms.

May hit 39 HR with 98 RBI in Cincinnati in 1971, and went 29/98 in Houston in 1972.

It was Helms who gave May the nickname the “Big Bopper from Birmingham” (Ala.), later shortening it to just “Big Bopper.” Helms tried on Sunday to give the credit for that nickname to former Reds manager Dave Bristol, but Bristol told me Sunday that it wasn’t him who coined it; more likely, he said, it was Helms or former Red George Culver.

“George texted me (Saturday), ‘The Big Bopper is gone,’" recalled Bristol.

But Culver didn’t join the Reds until 1968, having come over from the Cleveland Indians in a trade for Tommy Harper. Helms and May battled it out (.319 to .321, respectively) in Triple-A San Diego in 1965 (May out-homered Helms 34 to 6) in what was a very lively clubhouse, as manager Bristol recalled it.

“Lee’s demeanor wasn’t quite as outgoing back then; he was determined not to say or do anything that would get him sent back to Macon (Ga., in the South Atlantic League),” said Bristol. “But there’s no way he was going to get sent back to Macon; he was too good a hitter.

"So soon as he got to the big leagues (in 1966), he and Tony (Perez) began battling it out for the starting job. They were great competitors, but the best of friends. I talked to Tony (over this weekend), and he told me Lee was his best friend.”

The name “Big Bopper” was borrowed from the late J.P. Richardson, an early rock and roll musician (“Chantilly Lace”) who died in a plane crash with fellow musicians Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959.

“Lee was great for a ballclub,” said Bristol, “because he could say things to teammates who needed a kick in the rear, but he could get his point across in a funny way, but real quick. Those guys -- May, Rose, Perez, all of ’em -- always had your back.  Lee gave me everything he had, every single day.”

Helms said May occasionally telephoned him during the offseason. One time their conversation went like this…

   May: “Tommy, how ya’ doin’?”

   Helms: “I’m doin’ OK.”

   May: “How’s your weight?”

   Helms: “Uh, it’s OK.”

   May: “No it’s not.”

   Helms: “Whaddaya mean, ‘No it’s not?”

   May: “You sound fat.”

May told me that one day in the late 1960s he walked in the door at Crosley Field and found a trail of white shower towels leading to his cubicle, where somebody had perched a bottle of Cutty Sark (Scotch whisky) and the team’s water cooler.

“That was his drink – Cutty and water,” recalled Bristol. “I wanted to get the message across to him, ‘Don’t let the stuff get the best of you.’ I never won that battle, but the Cutty didn’t win it either. Lee just kept on hitting and hitting.”

When the Reds traded May, Helms and utility player Jimmy Stewart after the 1971 season, May was at his offensive peak; he had just hit 39 HRs with a .532 slugging percentage and .864 OPS (on-base plus slugging), all career highs. His offensive WAR (Wins Above Replacement) was 5.1, tied for tenth in the National League; he was 12th in the MVP balloting.

From 1969-71 he'd averaged 37 HR, 101 RBIs and an .835 OPS.

“He struck out (145 times, leading the NL in 1971), but never once did he throw his bat or helmet,” Helms said. “He’d just come back to the dugout and say, ‘I’m going to go back up there the next time and see if that guy can do that again.’ ”

May’s production barely tapered in Houston and later Baltimore. Between 1970-78,  he averaged 25 HRs and 96 RBIs, leading the American League with 109 in 1976.

Over his 18-year career, May batted .267 with 354 HRs and 1,244 RBI. He had 2,031 career hits (725 for extra bases), and drove in 90 or more runs eight times. In the 1970 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, he hit .378 with 2 HR and 8 RBI in five games, a series the Reds lost four games to one.

“I’ve got some (fresh-picked) okra in the fridge for Lee,” said Helms. “He liked the okra from North Carolina, said he had a pitching buddy from North Carolina who used to bring it to him, and now he wanted me to bring it to him. I’m here now (North Carolina), and I’m coming home soon, but not soon enough for Lee to get his okra.”

John Erardi has been writing baseball in Cincinnati for 33 seasons. His sixth Reds book, “From Cuba to Cooperstown: The ‘Tani’ Perez Story,” is scheduled for release March 1, 2018. There are two chapters covering Lee May’s friendship with Tony Perez.

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