Throughout the Reds illustrious history, any player of superstar status has managed to avoid the number that Michael Jordan has made so globally known. For the sake of the countdown, we will honor Lee May as the best to ever wear the #23 in Reds history.
The man known as “Big Bopper” was as underrated as they come during his tenure with the Reds. He never got to reap the glory years of the franchise, as he was the sacrificial lamb that got sent to the Houston Astros in exchange for Joe Morgan.
May was signed as an amateur free agent by the club in 1961, and it took him a few years to begin to get consistent playing time at the big league level. Finally, in 1967, he got his foot in the door, and the following season, he was the full-time first baseman.
Beginning in 1968, May began a streak of 11 consecutive seasons of 20 homeruns and 80 RBI’s, earning himself three All-Star Game selections along the way, including two top-10 MVP finishes. In his final three year stretch with the Reds from 1969-71, May bashed 38, 34 and 39 homeruns, respectively.
Capitalizing on May’s immense power surge, the Reds saw that with Tony Perez ready to take the reins, it was time to swap May for one of the most important cogs in the Big Red Machine, Joe Morgan. The Houston Astros had set a record for ineptitude the year before concerning the longball, so acquiring May for Morgan, who up to that point had only been an average player, was virtually a given. Of course, playing in the Astrodome was more of the issue than anything, but the need was begging to be addressed.
His home run pace slowed upon his arrival in the Lone Star state, which again, was to be expected playing in the cavernous Astrodome. May produced three above average seasons for Houston before they swapped him over to the Baltimore Orioles of the American League.
In a generation before there was Interleague play and fraternization between the players, May did not seem to miss a beat being thrown into the gauntlet of American League ball. His first four seasons in Baltimore were also the last four of his incredibly impressive 20 homerun, 80 RBI streak that lasted through the prime of his career.
May tried to continue to hang around into the 1980s with the Kansas City Royals, but it became painfully obvious the game had passed him by. Thankfully, for May, he eventually got the World Series ring that had always eluded him in 1985, but it was as the hitting coach of those very same Royals. Had he remained a member of the Reds through their glory days, he would have had quite the collection. (Sure, if he never left for Joe Morgan, maybe the Reds don’t win in ’75 + ’76, but for the sake of argument, let’s just say they would.)
Lee May was the clear favorite to win the honor of the best to ever wear the #23, as the two main competitors were Jason LaRue and Doug Flynn, both average players at best. LaRue was the long time Reds backstop, that ironically had his career ended by Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto when he was swiftly kicked upside the head by Cueto during the brawl between the Cardinals and Reds of 2010. Flynn on the other hand, was only a member of the club for three seasons, but in his first two, the Reds won the World Series. His contribution was subtle at best, but he has the hardware to last a lifetime.
The name may not jump off the page and harken you back to the Reds glory years, but Lee May was a vital member of the organization at a key time. He performed well in the 1970 World Series against his future team the Orioles, and it looked that he would never get the championship ring that had done so much to escape him. May’s story ends as a happy one though, and he can be fondly remembered as the best in Reds history to wear the #23.