Jeff Pearlman

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Rudy May

#136
He pitched in the era of high socks and fluffy sideburns. He also threw the nastiest curveball many had ever witnessed. A Yankee's journey. POSTED January 9, 2014

Screen-Shot-2014-01-09-at-12.11.51-AMLife is quirky, and I have the proof.

Two months ago, my dear friends Robyn and Dave got married. As I was writing the card, I thought I’d be funky and tape something to the front. I looked around and looked around and there, sitting on a desk, was a random, out-of-place 1973 Rudy May Topps baseball card. I had purchased it, oh, 30 years earlier at the Stormville Flea Market, and somehow it stuck around. Hence, I pasted it to the note and never thought much of Rudy May again …

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 1.24.26 PMUntil a week later. That’s why—without rhyme or reason—Rudy May’s name popped up on my Twitter feed. I added him as a friend because, hey, who wouldn’t add Rudy May as a friend. When I ultimately asked whether he’d join thw Quaz party, Rudy offered an enthusiastic, “Sure!”

And here we are.

For those of you who don’t know, Rudy May was a fantastic Major League lefthanded pitcher; one whose 16-year career resulted in 152 wins, a 3.46 ERA and an appearance in the 1981 World Series. Here, Rudy talks about the fading away of pro athletes; why fishing trumps baseball and why Earl Weaver trumps Billy Martin. One can follow Rudy on Twitter here, and visit his website here.

Rudy May, The Quaz is your kingdom …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Rudy, so there’s this thing with retired athletes that’s sorta funny. The insanely famous ones, we follow (Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath, etc). The insanely infamous ones, we follow (Mike Tyson, Steve Howe). The rest, however, sort of vanish. They drift off into the real world, rarely to be heard from again. Rudy, I did some digging—and found almost nothing on your life since retiring from the Majors in 1983. Please, fill us in. What is your life? What have you been doing?

RUDY MAY: I found out in spring training of 1984 that I couldn’t pitch anymore because of injuries to my back, so I retired. When I retired I was set to never work again. After about 10 years, however, my daughters thought it was best that I go back to work, so they badgered me until I did.

I had a friend who lived in Fresno who introduced me to the convenience store business. When I decided to go work, however, I realized I didn’t know how to work. I didn’t know what to do. I had a friend who was managing a convenience store, and he introduced me to it. So that’s what I started doing—making $3.25 an hour.

I struggled at first and I quit. But I went back and thought to myself, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this well.” Within time, I was managing three convenience stores successfully—so much so that they moved me up the corporate ladder to a marketing consultancy position. It wasn’t until I became a marketing consultant that I worked regular business hours and I liked it—9-to-5, five days a week, weekends off. When that company eventually went bankrupt, and I moved onto British Petroleum as a marketing consultant, where I worked for 20 years.  I really enjoyed it there and had a good retirement earlier this year. It was really, really good.

My wife, my grandchildren, fishing and work in the yard: that’s my life now and what really enhances me. At this point, I take more pride in my fishing accomplishments than anything I did in baseball.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 12.14.38 AMJ.P.: In 1962 you were an undrafted free agent by the Minnesota Twins out of Castlemont High School in Oakland. You were 18-years old, un-hyped, unheralded, an African-American kid during a time of much racial uncertainty in America—and you’re sent off to Bismarck of the Northern League. I can’t even imagine what this must have been like. So, Rudy, what was this like?

R.M.: I did really, really well in high school in both baseball and football but I didn’t know anything about racial uncertainty—other than my parents’ talking about it. I was born in Coffeyville, Kansas but we left there when I was a year old. I was raised on the West Coast where my schools were predominantly white.

When I left California, to go to Spring Training in Fernandina Beach, Florida—I was in for a big surprise.  It was in a small town. My initial reporting orders said I was to report to the hotel in the town but it turned out it was for the white players only, so I ended up staying in a black home with the other black players in spring training.

I got into a little bit of trouble because I was the only black player from the West Coast. I didn’t know that I was not conducting myself as I should have been. For instance, the clubhouse was segregated. The whites were on one side and the blacks were on the other … and I was there a whole week before I realized that. I didn’t know. One of my teammates told me, “Why are you going in the front door of the clubhouse? Why are you drinking out of the fountain—you’re not supposed to do that. There’s a bucket in the back for us to drink out of.”

When spring training broke, they were going to send me to a higher class team but they thought if they sent me to the South, there was going to be trouble—so they sent me to Bismarck, North Dakota … and it was fine up there. No problems.

I remember the next year (1964), I was in the White Sox organization. I was playing in the Carolina League on a team that predominantly black—but, at the time, the bathrooms still had signs on the doors that said ‘white men only’ or ‘colored men only’ and ballparks had segregated seating. On the day the Civil Rights Act was passed, we were in Kinston, North Carolina and we were checked out of the black hotel in the middle of the afternoon, and walked through the town to the white hotel—we were scared to death!

J.P.: It’s amazing how all the different miniature Rudy May bios on the Internet fail to mention, perhaps, your most amazing baseball achievement: On April 18, 1965, after less than three full minor league seasons, you reached the Majors, starting for the California Angels against the Detroit Tigers at Dodger Stadium. In that game you went nine innings (against Dennt McLain, as well as a lineup featuring Al Kaline and Willie Horton in the middle), allowing one hit, one run and striking out 10 … and the Angels wound up losing. Rudy, what do you remember about the build-up to that start, and the start itself?

R.M.: I don’t remember a lot from that day. I was so young.

I had made the team out of spring training. Dean Chance developed a blister in his first game, so my manager, Bill Rigney, told me a couple days beforehand that I would be starting in his place.

I told my mom and dad, and asked them if they wanted to come down and watch me play. My dad and my brother flew down from Oakland (it was the first time my dad had ever flown).

As for the game, I remember Jake Wood getting a looping single into center where Jose Cardenal did everything he could to catch it—but couldn’t. I really don’t remember striking out Kaline or Horton, but I know I did. The game was like something that happened but then it had come and gone. It was a great feat, I just don’t remember a lot about it—I was that young.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 12.15.03 AMJ.P.: I’ve always wondered what Major League clubhouses were like, back in the 1960s and early-70s, when it comes to race relations (I read an article where your dad warned you, “Blacks don’t play baseball!”). There was this odd mix of white Southern ballplayers—who were raised with segregation, and the idea that blacks needed to know their place—with black ballplayers expressing themselves by growing out their hair, speaking out, etc. Was it weird? Uncomfortable? Odd? None of the above?

R.M.: My dad said to me after I pitched my first major league game, “I never would have believed that I would have a son who would play in the Major Leagues.”

My dad played baseball as a catcher and he loved it. And his dad loved it. I, on the other hand, didn’t know much about it. As a youngster I used to watch my dad play for the Navy team. He had all the equipment in the car, and when he wasn’t watching, I used to go and play with it.

But Dad would let me know that there was no place for a black baseball player. Long before that, they had Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays—but dad didn’t want me to go that way because he didn’t believe I had the ability to do it.

My aunt lived across the street from where we played baseball in high school. When we played, a lot of Major League scouts would come and watch. I played with six guys who signed to play pro ball (one was Joe Morgan). My aunt would tell my parents about all the scouts, and how well I was doing. She would give the scouts cards to my mom—but my dad was not interested. He would use baseball to get me to do well in school, and do chores around the house. I had to keep my grades up because there was a chance I was going to get a scholarship, as I was an All-Northern California football player. I was not doing well in English, so my dad told me that I could only pick one sport: football or baseball. I said football—so I played football.

When the football season ended, the baseball one started. Both my parents worked so they didn’t know I kept playing baseball. One night, I came home late and my mom asked me where I had been. I had to tell her and she said, “Well, I can’t protect you. You know your dad is going to find out … but I can’t protect you.”

We had a game against Oakland High School, and I threw a no-hitter. When I got home, I walked in the door, and was sent to my room by my mom. My aunt called and told my mom that all the scouts were excited and talking about me, and they want to talk to her and my dad about my prospects. My mom asked me: “Are you really that good?” and I told her “I’m better than that.”

My dad was very angry. The next morning, my mom came in the room and asked me if I wanted to play baseball. I said yes, so she said “OK, but don’t lie to your dad. He’s going to ask you some questions.”

I went into the living and my dad was reading the morning papers, and he said: “Hey boy … are you playing ball? Don’t lie to me because I’m reading the paper and I see ‘Rudy May pitches no hitter against Oakland High,’ and I was at work yesterday, so I know it wasn’t me! Is this you?” So when I answered yes, he sent me back to my room. My mom eventually came in and said, “Your dad wants to see what you have … I’m serious.”

So we went outside and I started throwing to him. He had his catching gear on, and after a few pitches, he said to my mom: “This boy’s got nothing”—but I can see he’s starting to flinch at my throws.

My mom walks over and she says, “Dad says you don’t have anything.” I said I couldn’t throw the ball hard because he was flinching, and that if I did, he was going to get hurt. She said, “Do you want to play ball?” and I was like, “Yeah!” so she told me to “Give him what you have.”

I threw a three-quarter fastball, he flinched, missed the ball. It hit him in the chest and knocked him over. I ran down there to pick him up and he yelled, “You go get that ball!” When we went back inside and my dad said, “I’m going to let you play but you have to bring those grades up!”

Two years after that, I was in the big leagues.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 12.14.27 AMJ.P.: On June 15, 1974, you were purchased by the Yankees from the Angels. I know guys feel uncomfortable being traded. I know guys struggle with free agency. What was it like being, literally, purchased by a team? And what was it like for you, a Californian, to have to relocate to New York?

R.M.: It was a blessing in disguise when I got sold. It enhanced my career—it was like I had never played before and I was a whole new player. When I was with California, I was on the brink of being a superb AL pitcher when I hurt my back and it was like I lost everything. I lost my desire to play and my ability at that point. Man, 1973 was a bad year—I wound up in the hospital because of my back. They said I was faking it, that I wasn’t hurt. I had thrown three shutouts in a row and then my back went against Kansas City. For the rest of the year, I was trying to pitch with a bad back. On top of that, things weren’t going well with my pitching coach, and he was real instrumental in getting me sold to the Yankees.

The strange thing about it was that it happened on Monday after the game (June 15). The Angels were playing the Yankees in Anaheim Stadium. So on the Tuesday, I just went to the Yankees clubhouse (next door). On the Wednesday, when the game was over, I got on the bus and flew to New York. When I got off the bus, it was so different than California. I was left standing with nowhere to go. I didn’t even know where to go! So I went to the hotel where we stayed as a visiting player and I checked in there. After getting a good rest, a friend picked me up, and I stayed with him. It was weird.

J.P.: Midway through the 1976 season you were involved in my all-time favorite Major League trade, because it includes so many cool names and interesting players. It involved you, Rick Dempsey, Tippy Martinez, Scott McGregor and Dave Pagan going to the Baltimore Orioles for Doyle Alexander, Jimmy Freeman, Elrod Hendricks, Ken Holtzman and Grant Jackson. What do you recall of the trade? Also, that season, the Yankees went on to play in the World Series—without you. What does that feel like? Did you watch the games? Celebrate? Cry?

R.M.: I didn’t watch the games. I didn’t celebrate or cry.

Something really traumatic happened to me in the weeks leading up to the trade, that’s hard for me to write or talk about even now.

Early in 1976, I pitched against Cleveland. I pitched well, but we lost the game. After the game, I went into Billy Martin’s office because I wanted to talk to him about the game—and he lit me up. He let me know that I would never pitch for him again. I just left it at that and then I didn’t pitch for a while. But things between Billy and I were never the same.

Soon after, Dave Pagan (who took my spot in the rotation) got sick, and he couldn’t pitch a game in Detroit. When I got to the ballpark that day, Billy told me I was pitching that day. Billy said, “I will tell you when you come out of the game!” We had a heated disagreement about me coming out of games prematurely and he didn’t like it when I asked about it. After our talk, he threw a ball at me, and it hit me. That night, I went out and I threw a 1-0 shutout. After the game, we flew to Boston.

The next day, I was in the hotel talking to my mom on the phone when someone came in and told me my wife was there. I knew that was going to cause more trouble with Billy because there was an automatic fine if a wife showed up on the road. I sent her home the next day and everything was fine was fine with Billy at that point.

Then the next night, I was out with Goose Gossage and we stopped at a watering hole, where Billy and Art Fowler happened to be. Goose got into it with Art Fowler. Billy was drunk … I am not going to get into the details—but it was a big hassle. So much so, that that I was psychologically beat.

The season went on and Billy wouldn’t speak to me—and I wouldn’t pitch. One day in Minnesota, Billy was on the clubhouse phone, he looked over at me and started laughing. I didn’t know why. That night, I was back to my room, and Catfish Hunter came back and told me I was trade to the Orioles. Billy had sent him to tell me, instead of telling me himself. I told Catfish I was sorry he had to do that.

It took me a very long time to get over the whole ordeal.

I played for Billy again later in my career but the relationship was superficial. After I retired, I realized that none of it mattered. It was a just a phase in my life and that I needed to forgive Billy. On an old timer’s day, a few years after I retired, I saw him in the clubhouse. I walked up to him, told him that I loved him and that I wished him well. He said the same back to me. We kind of hugged. It wasn’t long after that he died.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 12.13.26 AMJ.P.: Your calling card was your curveball—a nasty, nasty pitch. How did you learn it? How did you throw it? And do you feel like anyone can learn to throw an effective curve—or is there something inherent about the ability?

R.M.: It was certainly inherent. I threw my breaking ball a certain way. There were a lot of other pitchers in baseball who I asked, looked at, and compared myself to … but there was nothing like it. Guys like Nolan Ryan, Andy Messersmith, Bert Blyleven and Sandy Koufax—but I didn’t throw mine like any of them. It was something I learned out of trial and error.

Whitey Ford and Sammy Ellis worked with me. Whitey didn’t teach me as so much as I was self taught, but he showed me the motion and what I needed to do at the end of the pitch to get the most out of it. The more I worked on it, the better it got. People feared it. It was that devastating. I didn’t learn to pitch until late in my career. But when I was on with it, I could throw it at any time in the count. Hitters had to look for it.

J.P.: You retired in 1983—thirty years ago. There’s a line in the movie Everybody’s All-American, where the main character—a long-ago football star—says, “I’ve told the same stories so many times, I can’t remember them actually happening to me?” Do you ever feel that way? Does baseball seem like another life ago? Does Rudy May—the ballplayer—seem like a different person? Another guy?

R.M.: Yes. I see my life as divided into 3 stages:

1) Adolescence/youth

2) Years as a family man and father

3) And now, the elderly years, with the appearance of grandchildren, and the faltering health as a senior citizen.

When I look back at that, those early parts of my life are gone. People see me as Rudy May the baseball player. My neighbors know that of me, but they don’t think of me like that.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 12.12.36 AMJ.P.: While you were a ballplayer you also became a professional diver, and received an NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) license in order to be called upon for emergency jobs. Uh … that’s something I’ve never heard of with a ballplayer. Please explain, Rudy. And do you still dive?

R.M.: It’s something I did and enjoyed immensely. What I did was legal but while I was playing baseball, it was illegal. If some of the teams knew that I was doing it, and knew the extent to what I was doing it, they would have disallowed it. It was written out of my Baltimore contract because I got caught.

I wasn’t making any money in baseball but I was making $400 per hour diving. That was good money. It really supplemented my baseball income (which wasn’t much).

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 12.16.08 AMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH RUDY MAY:

• Lowest moment of your baseball career?: Retirement

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Lyndon Johnson, Quebec, Google Maps, General Hospital, Abba, Sanford and Son, Jennifer Lawrence, Gloria Steinem, Reggie Jackson, Roberto Duran, cabbage, Alf: Sanford and Son, Roberto Duran, Lyndon Johnson, Gloria Steinem, Reggie Jackson (good when under control), Quebec, all the rest.

• Right now, we give you a month to train, then one start for the University of Delaware baseball team in its game against Towson State. What’s your pitching line?:  9IP, 3H, 1ER, 1BB, 12K—and I get the win. Of course!

• Celine Dion calls—she offers you $5 million to move to Las Vegas for a year and give her 8-year-old son daily 7-hour pitching lessons. You also have to clean her sink and get a tattoo of the Titanic on your neck. You in?: No! Not for $20 million. There’s no fishing in Vegas.

• Five nicest guys you ever played with?: Thurman Munson, Catfish Hunter, Earl Weaver, Dick Howser, Andre Dawson

• What happens after we die?: We go to heaven (or hell).

• The next president of the United States will be …: I don’t know

• Best advice you ever received?: Keep the ball down.

• My daughter seems to like One Direction. I would like this behavior to immediately stop. Any advice?: That’s a tough one. No. Sorry.

• Who would have won in a fight between Earl Weaver and Billy Martin? How many rounds?: Billy would have won the fight but Earl Weaver and Dick Howser were the best two managers I ever played for. Weaver was the epitome of what a manager was supposed to be.

  • http://www.erikshermanbaseball.com Erik Sherman

    Rudy May came to my baseball camp in Paramus, New Jersey back in 1980 and couldn’t have been friendlier with us. He kept saying, “gotta paint the black” over and over again as his best pitching advice.
    Hard to believe he ranks Thurman as the nicest guy he ever played with after everything I read about the moody captain. Perhaps they just hit it off.
    One mistake in his story he told you was that he couldn’t possibly have been out with the Goose in 1976 because Gossage didn’t join the Yankees until ’78. I guess he confused stays with the Yankees and one of Billy Martin’s five tours of duty as Yankee manager.

  • Ted

    Worked for British Petroleum for twenty years as a marketing consultant, recently retired. I think that fact requires one or two follow up questions, no? Just out of curiosity?

  • Tony

    Very cool. I remember Rod Carew being quoted as saying that Rudy May was the toughest pitcher for him to hit, and a baseball fan of the 70s had to be impressed by that.

  • Kirsten Blakeman

    You should have asked him about his wife, Elenor, the amazing lead singer for the soul group out of LA, the Superbs!

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life