Lee MayJanuary 9, 2009
According to the back of this card, Lee May drove in 195 runs for the Houston Astros in 1973, more RBI than anyone has ever produced in a single major league season. More than Lou Gehrig, Hack Wilson, Hank Greenberg, etc. Name a slugger, any slugger. Lee May topped him, according to the back of this card.
But it’s a mistake, right? If it’s not, I can’t think of a more subtly shattering blow to my sanity than the sudden knowledge that for all these years, my whole conscious life, the subject I know most about includes a glaring absence of knowledge about the all-time single-season RBI champ. It would be like a guy who spent every spare hour birdwatching and reading about birds and studying birdcalls suddenly finding out that there was a bird known as the bald eagle.
“Good lord, what is that?” he’d remark to his fellow birders as he stared through binoculars at the familiar patriotic icon perched on a high branch. By the time he lowered his binoculars to investigate the silence greeting his exclamation, his fellow birders would have realized he wasn’t joking, but shaky grins would remain frozen on all their faces. No one would be making any eye contact.
But that’s too unfathomable to think about. I’d rather identify the 195 RBI as a typo. I’d rather envision some Topps temp concentrating on her glazed donut while thudding the 9 key instead of the 0 key on a typewriter, then later in the process the proofreader rationalizing his half-assed half-asleep effort by telling himself that he wouldn’t even care that much if he got canned. Thus, with these two parenting mediocrities—the key-entry functionary and the quality assurance functionary—a mistake is born.
I should know. I work as a proofreader, which means all day long I search for mistakes. Sometimes my mind wanders and mistakes slip through. I think about this phenomenon a lot. It’s my window into one of the rare certainties about human life: mistakes will be made. Sometimes the mistakes won’t matter much, but other times they might. Someone’s mind wanders when they’re inspecting an airplane. Someone’s mind wanders when they’re checking a chest x-ray. Someone’s mind wanders when they’re speeding down the highway. Last night my wife told me about what she saw on her long drive home. One of the cars in a crash had been crushed to the size of a juke box. Years ago, on a road trip, we’d been on that same highway and had seen the aftermath of a crash involving eight or nine cars all crumpled and intertwined in an awful metallic conga line, complete with sirens and revolving red lights. One mistake had been made. One little mistake.
It’s the kind of thing that can make you want to never leave your house, or to pack yourself in a thick coating of bubble wrap for so much as a short walk to the corner to buy Q-Tips. So for the sake of my continuing ability to barely function in society, maybe what I need to do is once again entertain the idea that the info on the back of Lee May’s card isn’t a mistake. Maybe every other source on the subject is wrong, and this one card is right. Maybe Lee May just had one magical season where he could do no wrong.
I never had such a season (and judging by Lee May’s expression on the front of the card, I think it’s safe to assume that he never had such a season, either), but I did at least have one long summer afternoon. I was nine or ten and I went to stay overnight at my friend Mike’s house. Mike lived in town, while I lived far out in the country, where there weren’t very many other kids around, so it was amazing to me when Mike and I took a few steps out of his house and found a bunch of kids already gathering in a big open grassy lot that happened to be next a cemetary. Teams were formed, a baseball diamond laid out using rocks and pieces of clothing for bases. For some reason we used a tennis ball instead of a baseball. It was a good choice. Everyone was a slugger, thocking the fuzzy yellow ball into the far reaches of the field, the farthest clouts bounding all the way into the newest rows of graves.
By this time I had fallen in love with the statistics on the backs of baseball cards, so as the slugfest went on and the runners kept whirling around the bases and home I started getting giddy about my own stats for the game. Let’s see. Four doubles, a couple triples, three home runs, fourteen RBIs. Or is it fifteen? I was, I decided, an RBI machine.
I don’t remember how outs were even made, but somehow they were once every half-dozen runs, because the beautiful thing was that everyone on both teams got easy chance after easy chance to be a record-breaking slugger. I guess if I had the opportunity to play that kind of a game every day I might have grown bored with it, but since I so rarely got to play with a huge group of other kids I loved it. As I remember it, the game didn’t end with anyone losing but with the slow soft arrival of dusk, the beaten tennis ball a dimming yellow glow floating toward the batter then flaring in a sizzling shooting star arc deep into the outfield. Finally someone drove the ball into the granite stubs and slabs at the far border of the field and it was too dark to find it, though we all looked for a while, every player on both teams, everyone a cheerful chattering superstar slaloming fearlessly through the graves.
OK, I’ve already droned on enough for one day, but before finally shutting up I did want to pass along to any fellow Stooges fans a link to an LA Times interview with Mike Watt in which the legendary bass player pays moving tribute to his fallen idol and bandmate, Ron Asheton.