There is a new man appearing in the Pirates' regular array of might and main, and his name is Milton May. After two years on the bench. Milt became Pittsburgh's starting catcher this spring when Manny Sanguillen moved into right field to succeed the late Roberto Clemente. Everyone wondered whether the new alignment would work, and especially how it would work defensively.
Well, after three rainy weeks the Pirates are once again scrambling around near the top of the Eastern Division. Willie Stargell and Al Oliver are batting better than .350, Stargell has hit six home runs in the 11 games he has played, and eight of the 15 nonpitchers on the roster are batting .300 or better. Sanguillen (.345) is playing right field valiantly. Stargell, who had declared that outfield duty was too hard on his problem knees, has acceded to Manager Bill Virdon's plea that he play left so that the defensively superior Bob Robertson could play first base.
And May, it seems clear, can do. He is hitting .277 and driving in lots of runs—but that goes almost without saying. Of course May can hit. If he couldn't, the Pirates, whose bench groans with good line-drive hitters, would have tied him in a sack and drowned him by now in the river of their choice: the Allegheny, the Monongahela or perhaps the Ohio.
Everything else in life May does right-handed, but he has always batted left. His mother has a picture of him batting that way when he was three years old. He holds his bat cocked high, straight up in the air, to keep himself from dipping his back shoulder and undercutting the ball, and he generates good power.
From the Pirates' point of view, the good news of the spring is the way he fits in behind the plate. "You get used to one catcher, the way he gives signals and everything, and it takes a while to adjust," says All-Star Pitcher Steve Blass. "But Milt is good to work with. He picks up things like what your out pitch is, the one you like to go to in a tough spot. If you've got your head all set, concentrating, thinking slider, you don't want to see a curve or fastball sign flashing at you."
At only 22, May manages to project the image of a deep-dyed, squared-away, resin-in-his-veins old pro. After all, he has thinning hair (his teammates are always telling him to put his hat on, he is too young to be bald) and some 18 years of experience in organized ball already. As a rookie in 1971 he drove in the winning run in the fourth game of the World Series with a pinch-hit single. As a regular on opening day this season he threw out the Pirates' first opposing base runner—no less a one than Cardinal Lou Brock—when the speedy Brock tried to steal second. And he can handle chewing tobacco as well as Coach Bill Mazeroski or Director of Player Acquisition and Development Danny Murtaugh.
When Milt was 10 a minor league ballplayer managed by his father Pinky held a big wad of Red Man under a faucet until all the juice had run out and then gave it to Milt to hold in his cheek.
"I thought I was something," Milt says. Soon he could handle a chaw with the juice in it, and he has been partaking ever since, spitting with ease through the bars of his mask. The other day at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh he was chewing Happy Jim, because that was the brand the equipment manager had issued him. "But I have a pack of Beech-Nut in my locker for big games," he says. ("Scared money don't win, evil women drink gin and Beech-Nut is the brand to chew," goes the radio commercial.)
Only once has May's habit given him trouble behind the plate. That was in the Florida Instructional League when a foul tip caught him in the Adam's apple and he swallowed his chaw. The blow itself didn't really faze his throat, he says, "but I pretended it did, so I could take some time to get myself together from swallowing my tobacco. It made me a little dizzy."
Pinky May, a chewer himself, played third base for the Phillies between 1939 and 1943, and all during Milt's boyhood—until his retirement last year, in fact—Pinky managed minor league teams. From the age of 4 Milt was his father's aide.
"I was born in Gary, Ind., but that was just because my uncle was a doctor there. I've never been to Gary hardly except to be born. I was raised on a farm outside Laconia, Ind., a town of 100 then. When I was 9 we moved to St. Petersburg, Fla. But at the end of each school year we would move to wherever Dad was managing a team—Dubuque, Iowa; Tampa; Keokuk, Iowa; Selma, Ala.; Burlington, N.C.; Rock Hill, S.C. And I would always be the bat boy and travel with the team. I had my little uniform and stayed in hotels with Dad. He liked having me; otherwise he'd have been rooming alone. I'd stay around Dad and talk baseball. It was hard to get him to talk about whether he was any good, though. 'Pretty good ballplayer,' he'd say, and wouldn't elaborate. Later I met people who said he was good. But they said I ran like him. 'You've got your father's speed.' they said. He was sort of known for not having any speed.
"He was built about like me but he was a line-drive hitter, only hit four home runs in the big leagues. He kept emphasizing to me that what they pay for is the long ball."
So Milt learned to hit the long ball against teams managed by his father. "I was playing for Gastonia, N.C. in '69, and Dad was managing Monroe, N.C. in the same league. I had 11 home runs the whole year and 10 of them were against Dad's team. One day I hit one—I had hit a couple against them the day before—so the next time up I expected the pitcher to knock me down on the first pitch. So he does, and I get up. O.K., I'm in good shape now. The next pitch was a foot behind my head! I got up and looked over at Dad and he was laughing. I found out later that he'd told the guy to knock me down twice. At the time I wasn't too happy about it. I was sort of mad. But looking back, it was pretty funny."
It was baseball, anyway, and that is what Milt wanted. "My mom always laughs about it—when I was 4 or 5 we were riding in the car and I said, 'Dad, what do you think I should be when I get too old to play baseball?' "
Pinky, as it happens, is working in a liquor store in St. Pete these days, but Milt hasn't had to face that question yet. And may not have to for a while. How can you keep a really good tobacco-chewing kid who hits with power out of the lineup, especially if he can catch some, too?