'Big Bopper' Lee May, member of Orioles Hall of Fame, dies at 74

Lee May's first at-bat with the Orioles still sticks with Jim Palmer. On Opening Day, 1975, Palmer warmed up in near-freezing weather in Detroit as May stepped to the plate in the first inning.

Bang. The Orioles' new first baseman hit a three-run home run at Tiger Stadium. Palmer watched the rocket go and settled in to pitch a 10-0 victory.

"It got a lot warmer when 'Mo' hit that ball into the upper deck," he said. “I wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame if we hadn’t had players like that.”

May, who played six years in Baltimore and helped the Orioles reach the 1979 World Series, died Saturday of heart disease in a hospital near his home in Cincinnati. Nicknamed “The Big Bopper,” he was 74.

The Orioles announced Sunday that they would hold a moment of silence before Monday’s game at Camden Yards to honor May.

May was 31 and a three-time All-Star when acquired in a trade with the Houston Astros in December, 1974. He replaced Boog Powell, a one-time American League Most Valuable Player, and preceded Eddie Murray, who would reach the Hall of Fame.

But May proved just as valuable to the Orioles, hitting 123 home runs and quickly becoming a clubhouse favorite.

"He was truly the leader of our team," catcher Rick Dempsey said. "You never worried about his consistency; Lee was never too high, or too low. He didn't say much but when he did speak, he didn't sugar-coat it.

“He wasn't afraid to say things to players who’d slacked off a bit. He could get on you in a way that was funny, while also making a point. He did, for us, what Frank Robinson did in his day for the Orioles."

Robinson had led the team to two World Series, including 1970 when Baltimore defeated Cincinnati, four games to one. Then a slugger for the Reds, May kept the Orioles from sweeping the Series with a three-run, game-winning home run for a 6-5 win in Game Four.

May's best year here was in 1976, when he hit 25 home runs, led the AL with 109 RBIs and was named the Orioles' Most Valuable Player. May — who played 18 years in the majors — hit .267 with 354 home runs and 340 doubles in his career. The right-handed hitter drove in 1,244 runs.

For 11 straight seasons, the Birmingham, Alabama, native hit at least 20 home runs and drove in 80 runs.

“He had a tremendously quick bat, though a bit unorthodox in the way he waved it,” Palmer said. “But a lot of great hitters have distinctive styles, and Mo could flat-out hit.

“He was a great influence off the field, too. He set a veteran tone and was a good role model for (a young) Eddie Murray, teaching him how to be a professional.”

A designated hitter in his later years, May stayed with the Orioles through 1980. Once during that season, manager Earl Weaver replaced his slumping DH with a pinch-hitter. May shrugged off the snub and, without fanfare, grabbed a catcher’s glove and trotted out to the bullpen to warm up a pitcher.

His actions spoke volumes, teammates said.

“I can’t think of a guy who has done what Lee May has done and received so little publicity,” Brooks Robinson said upon May’s departure from the team.

May took his exit in stride.

“I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it in Baltimore,” he said, even later returning as hitting coach for the 1995 season. “We were in the World Series last year (1979) and, even though we didn’t win, we were always close.”

He was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame in 1998. May is survived by his wife, Terrye; two daughters, Yelandra Daniels and Lisa Evans, both of Cincinnati; a son, Lee May, Jr., of Phoenix, Ariz.; nine grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

A memorial service is planned for September, in Cincinnati.

“Lee loved his time with the Orioles,” Terrye May, his wife of 55 years, said Sunday. “I remember him telling (pitcher) Mike Flanagan how he had hit balls so far, (live) bats flew out of the stands.”

The Orioles presented her husband with a parting gift in 1980, she said: a toilet seat autographed by his teammates.

“On the cover, they engraved a plaque that read: For stirring up all of that s— in the clubhouse,” she said. “It’s hanging on the wall of our family room. “Of everything Lee got out of baseball, he missed the camaraderie the most.”

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