A little while back I signed on Twitter and there in my notifications was a note that Rudy May followed me. That Rudy May!? Sure enough, it was the former pitcher. He was one of my favorites during his years with the Yankees and so I wrote an article here about him. Mr. May was kind enough to tweet me that he enjoyed the article and so I became bold and asked him for an interview. He kindly accepted and we recently had an hour conversation that I thoroughly enjoyed. Rudy May is a delightful guy.
I searched the Web to see if anyone else had interviewed Rudy May recently and I found Jeff Pearlman’s great interview back in January for Mr. Pearlman’s site. The last thing I wanted to do was to cover the same ground. But I did start the conversation bouncing off one of the answers to Mr. Pearlman’s questions. The rest flowed from there.
IIATMS: Mr. May, I read with interest your comments about how you loved Earl Weaver. From a fan’s perspective, Weaver always seemed like a cantankerous and grouchy little guy. But you paint a different picture. What was so great about him?
RUDY MAY: Earl Weaver was a wonderful, wonderful man. Many are mistaken to see him on the outside. We saw him on the inside. He was a great manager and he wanted to win. He cared about his players and more than anything else he was honest.
In 1977 I had a chance to win 20 games and after my eighteenth win, Earl called me in his office and I knew something was up. He said, “Rudy, you have a chance to win 20 games…” And I said, “I’m going to win 20 games.” And Earl said, “No you’re not.” Earl explained his reasoning for starting other pitchers in the last few games. He was so honest.
And I said, “Earl, I have a bonus if I win 20 and not being able to get a chance to get there is going to cost me a lot of money.” Earl didn’t know and he was concerned and said he was going to talk to Hank about getting me the money anyway. He went to bat for his players.
The following year, the Orioles traded me to the Expos and did not consult Earl and he wrote me a letter explaining that he didn’t want to see me go. That’s the kind of man he was.
Years later, my wife and I went on a cruise with him and wife, Marianna, and afterwords, my wife said that Earl Weaver was nothing like I had explained him. He was twice all that! Earl Weaver was a great manager and a great man.
RUDY MAY: I did not know Bob Welch personally and my good friend, Dusty Baker, used to talk about the guys he played with and Welch was one of those guys. But I did not know him personally.
The thing about Gwynn was that I was playing golf with this guy from the military and of course the guy had spent a lot of time in San Diego and was a huge fan of Tony Gwynn. While we were playing, someone stopped him and told him that Tony Gwynn had just passed away. We were all shocked. He was much younger than me. Nobody should die that young.
I’m getting to the age where I lose friends. For several springs, my wife and I would go to Florida and see the guys and play golf and go on cruises and things. One year, we spent some time with Mike Cuellar and Odom and right after we returned, I got a call that Mike wasn’t doing well as a result of a stroke. I called him and he assured me that he was fine. He died the next day! It’s hard.
IIATMS: When people remember you, they think of you as the ultimate “swing man,” a guy who could succeed both as as starter and out of the bullpen. But when you were actually asked to perform the role, did you chafe against it?
RUDY MAY: No, not at all. I loved baseball. I loved playing the game. If I could have hit, I would have been a second baseman. Willie Randolph used to yell at me all the time, “Get out of here! Can’t you see I’m trying to get my infield work done?” I just loved to play the game.
In 1980, I had a back injury and I stayed in Florida a few weeks after Spring Training was over. And when I did get back to the team, Dick Howser–who was also a great manager–heard that my back was still ginger and started me out in the bullpen. And I did great there. But then we had a few problems in the rotation and he moved me there and I did great there and they kept me in the rotation.
I just wanted to play. So whether I came in the fifth inning or was asked to close out a game or to start, I didn’t care. I just wanted to play.
IIATMS: How much did catchers make a difference in your success as a pitcher. The numbers say that you had great success pitching to Rick Cerone, for example, and were successful with guys like Thurman Munson, John Stephenson, Gary Carter and Joe Azcue and had little success throwing to guys like Jeff Torborg, Butch Wynegar and Tom Egan. Was that just a coincidence or is something there?
RUDY MAY: It’s funny, I did have great success with Cerone, but we almost got into several fights because he would get mad at me when I didn’t agree how I wanted to pitch to a team or a hitter. And then with a guy like Jeff Torborg, both of us wanted to win so badly and for some reason, it just never worked out. I think more of it comes from the players behind you as a pitcher and a catcher. In some situations, we just didn’t have great support behind us.
As for Tom Egan, we were a couple of really young kids at the time and we simply didn’t know what we were doing. But he was a great guy.
I will say this about each and every single catcher I pitched to: They all gave everything they had to win a game. There wasn’t one exception.
IIATMS: Who had the final decision on how a batter would be pitched?
RUDY MAY: You and your catcher worked on it together. We would review a lineup before a game and go over each guy. It was a team effort. Once you were an established big league pitcher–and I can’t even describe completely what that means–you had a lot more confidence on how you wanted to approach a certain hitter.
IIATMS: How about umpires? You had poor records and statistics with guys like Bill McKinley, John Rice, Joe Brinkman and Terry Cooney and good success with Larry Napp, Merle Anthony, Nester Chylak and Jim Honochick. Did umpires make that much of a difference?
RUDY MAY: No, I don’t think so (laughs), Nester Chylak wanted you to keep the ball around the plate and would tell the batters that the pitcher was around the plate and better be inclined to swing. But mostly, if you were around the plate a lot, especially, again, when you became an established pitcher, you would expect to get the benefit of a call and you usually did. Things got tighter in big games and during important times in a game, but as a rule, that’s what it was like.
IIATMS: Today’s game would drive them crazy with all the time in between pitches!
RUDY MAY: I know! There is a guy who pitches for Boston that does all kinds of things between each pitch. That never would have happened when we were pitching.
RUDY MAY: Yes! When Derek first came up, he would get right in the box and hit. Not any more.
IIATMS: Did you ever get thrown out of a game?
RUDY MAY: (Pause) I had a little problem with Don Deckinger. I think it was in 1976. I got a little out of hand and they were going to suspend me. I had a meeting with Lee MacPhail (then the President of the American League) and he decided not to suspend me. But I didn’t get thrown out of the game though.
IIATMS: When you were with the Angels, you pitched with Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana and Ryan threw over 300 innings as a young man and Tanana over 260. Today, they protect the young arms and yet they get hurt just as much or more. Ryan tried to change some of that with the Rangers but did not last very long.
RUDY MAY: I’ve known Nolan for years and we told him that he wouldn’t be able to change things and that it was too well established practice now. But you’re right. They have big money invested in these arms and they want to protect the investment.
One of the things I really wanted to do in my career was to pitch 300 innings in a season. 251 was as close as I got (1977). But we wanted to finish what we started. I wanted to win. I did everything in my power to win and if I left without the lead or tied, it was a negative. It’s not the same now. They have a starter getting big money to pitch five or six innings and then high paid guys to get to the ninth and then a high paid guy to close the game.
IIATMS: One of the things I noticed about your career was that your career starts had a high percentage (35.7%) of games where your offense scored two runs or less. That had to be frustrating.
RUDY MAY: It was. In 1971 and 1972 I had two great seasons. I had a good ERA, plenty of strikeouts. But I had a bunch of no decisions and one year I finished a game under .500 and the other a game over. And I only had eleven or twelve wins in each season. Like I said, I wanted to win. Everything I did was to win the game. So that was frustrating.
IIATMS: Do you know that your career record in those games where your team scored two runs or less was 16-95? And that when your team scored three runs or more, you were 114-43?
RUDY MAY: No I didn’t! That’s amazing. When I was traded away from the Angels, I was really sad and distraught because I wanted to continue to pitch out of California where I grew up. But it was really a blessing in disguise.
I learned how to pitch in the east and with high humidity. I used to struggle when I came to Baltimore because it was so hot. But once I played for them, I remember watching a California guy pitching in the heat and he was dying out there and I was comfortable. I understood what he was going through.
On the West Coast, the fans went to the game as a family outing. In the east, whether it was Philadelphia, Boston, New York or Baltimore, those fans wanted to win. And if you didn’t, they would let you know how unhappy they were and vice-versa. That incited my spirit and gave me added incentive.
And I knew that if I did well, the team behind me would do well and I really enjoyed those years in the east. I knew I was going to win.
IIATMS: Today’s thinking is that the win is not the best way to evaluate a pitcher and the focus more is on strikeouts compared to walks and how few home runs are hit. You talk about how those years in 1970 and 1971 cost you a lot of wins so you seem to prove what is being said.
RUDY MAY: Back then, the general managers wanted to know how many games you won. And if you tried to tell them about how well you pitched and the strikeouts and ERA, the general managers would just say yeah, but you didn’t win. It’s not that way today.
When I talk to kids and they want to know how to succeed at baseball and I tell them three things. First, you have to love the game. Secondly, you have to have an affinity for the game you love and third, you need to want to win and be Number One.
Everything I tried to do was to win a game. And it all was about how much I loved playing baseball.
IIATMS: The statistics show that you fared pretty much the same no matter what park you happened to pitch in. Did you have a favorite or least favorite park to pitch?
RUDY MAY: In Detroit, I was always comfortable and I liked pitching there. I also enjoyed Yankee Stadium, but I would have to say that I enjoyed Detroit the most.
All the others you could just grab out of a hat after those two.
IIATMS: A lot of those cookie cutter stadiums with astroturf were around when you were pitching. How did you feel about those?
RUDY MAY: I didn’t like them. And it was about money. You didn’t have to pay a grounds crew. I didn’t pitch as well there (Editor’s note – He did just fine). The ball got through the infield quicker and the outfielders had to play those crazy big bounces. You had to work harder to fool the batters.
I broke an ankle on that turf once and also broke my shoulder when I tripped going after a ball on that stuff. So, no, I didn’t like it.
IIATMS: You were very successful in your career in preventing stolen bases. Those who tried were only successful 55% of the time when the league average during your career was 64%. Is that something you worked on or something that came natural?
RUDY MAY: Tommy Davis is a real good friend of mine and I’ve known him for years. During a freeway series, I picked him off and I picked off Rickey Henderson too. When I first started, I realized that stealing off a left-handed pitcher was actually much easier if you didn’t have a good move. So I worked hard on a snake move to make it harder for them to steal.
A good move from a lefty is a fine line between a balk and a good move. if you became established as a pitcher and had a good period of time getting away with your move, they didn’t call the balk and it made it harder to steal bases.
RUDY MAY: You’re really trying to trip me up with that one aren’t you! I would have to go with The Blade, Mark Belanger. Don’t get me wrong, Bucky Dent was terrific in 1980, but The Blade was terrific.
In 1977, I had the lowest strikeout rate of my career (indeed – 3.8 per nine). The Blade would tell me, “Just let them hit the ball to me.” And he was right. With an infield of Brooks Robinson at third, Belanger at short and Bobby Grich at second, they wanted you to let the batters hit grounders to those guys and that’s what happened.
Rudy May was a delightful guy to interview. He was very gracious and made me feel like the conversation was personal. He started a lot of his sentences with, “William, …” And that made the conversation a real treat. I always enjoyed him as a player. It’s great to know that he’s even better as a person.