This article was written by Clifford Blau
When he wasn’t in class or playing baseball, he could usually be found in the halls, singing with a group of friends who would create what was called the “Jeff High” sound. Several of these friends became prominent rhythm and blues singers, such as Jesse Belvin, Richard Berry (author of “Louie, Louie”), and Cornell Gunter of the Coasters. Maye would form a singing group, Arthur Lee Maye and the Crowns, with Berry and others, and begin a recording career while still in high school. However, when the opportunity to play baseball professionally arose, his singing career became secondary. He later said he’d wanted to play ball “ever since I was big enough to know myself… That was my dream.”
Upon graduating high school in June 1954, Maye was signed to a contract with the Milwaukee Braves organization by scout Johnny Moore. He was assigned to Boise in the Pioneer League, where he played 78 games and hit well, scoring 72 runs. The following year he played in four different leagues, spending the most time at Yakima in the Class B Northwest League. There he slugged .563. He finished up the season in the Class B Three-I League, where he spent all of the 1956 season. Playing for Evansville, he led the league in hits, runs, and runs batted in. He had a three-home run game on June 21, and finished second in the league’s MVP balloting. By this time, the Braves were speaking of him as a future star. Maye played winter ball in the Dominican Republic. He earned a promotion to Class A South Atlantic League in 1957, and continued to show power. He finished second with 23 homers while splitting time between outfield and third base, and made the All-Star team. However, his batting average dropped from .330 to .264, and the Braves expressed disappointment. They did add him to their 40-man roster that winter, though.
Maye went to spring training in 1958 with the Braves, but was optioned to Wichita in the Triple-A American Association. He didn’t get much playing time there, and was quickly dropped to the Double-A Texas League. There he found a home with the Austin Senators. Club President Allen Russell said Maye was one of the best players they’d ever had, despite suffering a jammed shoulder sliding back to first in mid-May which forced Lee to throw underhand. Maye refused to take time off to allow the shoulder to heal, and his game was otherwise unaffected. He covered a lot of ground in center field; he was regarded as one of the fastest men in Organized Baseball, running 100 yards in under ten seconds. Although he didn’t steal a lot of bases, he was quite successful when he tried, later stealing 38 bases in 44 attempts from 1960-63 with Milwaukee. Lee once again made the All-Star team in 1958, and finished third in batting average. In the winter he played for Caguas in the Puerto Rico League, helping them make the playoffs. However, his .417 batting average in the final round wasn’t enough to keep them from losing to Santurce.
In 1959, Maye was promoted to the American Association, where he proceeded to demolish the league’s pitching. By mid-July, he had built a lead of 13 RBIs over his nearest competitor, and was slugging .640 when he was called up to Milwaukee. His role was to replace the slumping Wes Covington as the left-handed hitting half of the left field platoon. He also filled in some in right field, when Hank Aaron was shifted to center, and finished with an even .300 batting average. Maye once again played winter ball, and the following spring he made the Braves again, only to be sent back to Louisville when the roster limit dropped to 25 in May. Milwaukee brought him back in late July, but he found playing time scarce. Although Lee finished with a .301 batting average, the Braves were unsatisfied because he drove in only two runs in 83 at bats. Indeed, hitting with men in scoring position was a weakness throughout his career. In those situations, he compiled a career OPS of .668 versus a .738 OPS with the bases empty. His teams tended to use him wisely, generally hitting him either first or second in the lineup.
Following the season, Maye was scheduled to be part of a National League Negro All-Star barnstorming team, but he decided to play in Puerto Rico instead. When he failed to show up at the All-Star team’s first game, Commissioner Ford Frick ordered him to join the team or be fined. Maye made it back to the mainland in time for the second game. Another dispute he was involved in that year was a paternity suit, brought by a young woman named Bessie Espree. Maye was found to be the father and ordered to support the child, who was born in November 1960 and named Pamela D. Maye.
Maye won the Braves’ left field job in the spring of 1961, but reinjured his shoulder on opening day. He played sparingly the rest of April, but recovered in May, and started playing regularly against right-handed pitchers. Using a shorter stroke, he began showing some of the power he’d displayed in the minors, hitting homers in three straight games in mid-May. He ended up playing 110 games that year, hitting reasonably well, with a .440 slugging average. He then put up big numbers in the Puerto Rican winter league, with a .312 batting average, 14 homers, and 49 RBIs. In 1962, however, his health again derailed him early in the season. A respiratory infection landed him in a San Francisco hospital for nearly two weeks in mid-April and he didn’t play for two months. As a pinch-hitter in his first game back, he drove in a run with a double, but his illness had cost him 15 pounds and left him weak. He was back at the hospital briefly in June complaining of a rapid heartbeat and difficulty breathing. Although he didn’t fully recover all season, he was well enough to play regularly in the second half of the season. Despite some poor reviews of his fielding, the Braves took advantage of his speed by moving him to center field. In 1963, Lee again played regularly against right-handed pitchers, splitting time between center and left. Despite the enlarged strike zone, Maye improved at the bat, gathering 40 extra base hits. His season came to a premature end, though, due to a back injury suffered on September 8. He worked in the Braves ticket office during the winter, and rested. The next season, 1964, would prove to be his most successful one. Getting into a career-high 153 games, Maye led the National League in doubles with 44, scored 96 runs, and drove in 74. He attributed his success to playing regularly and not swinging as hard. “I’m satisfied now with hitting a single,” he stated.
Everything was not well with Maye, though. After the season, he was part of a team on a goodwill tour of Central America which was arranged by the U.S. State Department. The goodwill was not always returned, as some people threw rocks at the players. Furthermore, attendance had plummeted in Milwaukee, and the Braves were making arrangements to move to Atlanta. Maye, having experienced segregation in the south during spring training and when playing in Knoxville, wasn’t eager to go there. He said, “I’ve got to make a living, so I’ll go if the team does.” But he wouldn’t move his wife and 11-year old son there. A few years later, he would say that baseball had come further than other sports in race relations, but he resented the lack of endorsement opportunities available to black players.
Legal action kept the Braves in Milwaukee for the 1965 season, but Maye found himself moving anyway. He was determined to be the everyday center fielder, saying, “I’ve always been labeled a bad outfielder, but I’m going to prove I’m a good one.” After fighting for playing time against such prospects as Mack Jones and Rico Carty, Maye felt he had a won the job. Once again, however, injuries got in the way. Lee hurt his right knee and ankle on the first of May, and missed three weeks of action. He had barely returned when he was shocked by being traded to the Houston Astros for pitcher Ken Johnson and outfielder Jim Beauchamp. Maye would later call this “the worst hurt” of his life; he had been in the Braves organization for 11 years. Although Houston was located in the deep south, Maye found a new home there, and lived there for 14 years before returning to Southern California. His time with the Astros wasn’t very happy, though. The Braves had been a competitive team throughout his time with them; meanwhile, the Astros usually beat out only the Mets. Plus, the Astrodome was tough to hit in, and the roof didn’t help Maye’s fielding problems, either.
His most notable achievement in Houston was to break teammate Joe Morgan’s kneecap with a line drive during batting practice in 1966. He stayed with the Astros through the 1966 season, and was then traded to the Cleveland Indians in a five-player deal. This was to be the pattern for the rest of his playing career, drifting from one second division team to another, generally playing only against right-handed pitchers. After two seasons with Cleveland, he was traded to Washington in June 1969; late in the 1970 season he was sold on waivers to the Chicago White Sox. In May 1971 he pulled a muscle, and then suffered another shoulder injury, limiting him mainly to pinch-hitting duty. On July 7, the White Sox released him. Unable to interest another Major League club, Maye signed with the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League. On July 12, he homered, his first extra base hit against a left-handed pitcher since 1967. Maye showed he could still swing the bat, finishing with a .311 batting average. However, with no takers amongst the big leagues, Maye returned to Hawaii for 1972. “Baseball has been my whole life,” he said, “and I’d do anything to stay with it.” He got off to an excellent start, with a .354 batting average in early June, but cooled off to finish at .285, with a .473 slugging average. Lee called it quits after that.
While he focused on his baseball career, Arthur Lee Maye kept up with his singing as well. Maye began singing in the church choir, and a radio talent show appearance led to his initial recording session. This was while he was still in high school and he was joined by friends Johnny Coleman and Richard Berry. Oddly enough, this trio was known as the “5” Hearts, and later as the Rams. Those three, plus Charles Colbert and Joe Moore, then formed a regular group known as Arthur Lee Maye and the Crowns. Maye, a tenor, was the lead singer. They recorded several singles for the RPM label, having local hits like “Truly”, but never broke out as a national act. They were hurt by the fact that Maye could only work with the group during the offseason. A move to the Specialty label in 1955 didn’t help, so in 1957, Maye broke for a while with the Crowns and joined a group organized by rhythm and blues impresario Johnny Otis known as the Jayos. With the Jayos, Maye recorded his only album. Instead of performing his own material as he did with the Crowns, this album was made up of versions of songs that had been hits for other artists. He was also still working with the Crowns, recording on small labels such as Flip, Cash, and Dig. Lee’s brother Eugene joined the group in its latter days, but due to lack of success and Maye’s erratic schedule, the Crowns broke up. Maye continued recording singles as a solo act, occasionally signing with big labels such as Columbia and ABC-Paramount. He was sometimes billed on record as “Lee Maye of the Milwaukee Braves” to take advantage of his new renown. During baseball seasons, he would sometimes perform in nightclubs. After his playing career, he sang lead with a group called the Country Boys and City Girls, and made a few more solo recordings. He continued working in music right to the end of his life, having booked a European tour before being felled by cancer.
Maye tried for 10 years after his playing career to find a job in professional baseball, but at that time, there were few nonplaying jobs for blacks. On top of that, Maye had not always been the easiest person to get along with, speaking out on racism, and getting into several fights with teammates and coaches. Instead, he took a couple of jobs as a salesman, and then went to work for Amtrak. He stayed with Amtrak for 12 years, working in food service and baggage handling before retiring.
After a brief illness, Arthur Lee Maye passed away on July 17, 2002, in Riverside, California, of pancreatic cancer. He left behind his wife Pat (Littlejohn), five children, and three grandchildren. Other survivors were his brother Eugene and sisters Mildred and Laura.
Lee May Discography
With the Crowns
Set My Heart Free/I Wanna Love
Love Me Always/Loop De Loop De Loop
Please Don’t Leave Me/Do The Bop
With “5” Hearts/Rams
The Fine One/Please Please Baby
Sweet Thing/Rock Bottom
With the Jayos
Album- Johnny Otis Rock n’ Roll Hit Parade
This Is The Night For Love/Honey Honey
Whispering Wind/A Fool’s Prayer
Hey Pretty Girl/Cause You’re Mine Alone
Will You Be Mine/Honey Honey
All I Want Is Someone To Love/Pounding
Halfway Out Of Love With You/I Can’t Please You
Who Made You What You Are/Loving Fool
How’s The World Treating You/Loving Fool
Only A Dream/The Breaks Of Life
Who Made You What You Are/Even A Nobody
Have Love Will Travel/Loving Fool
When My Heart Hurts No More/At The Party
Fools Rush In/Jes’ Lookin’
If You Leave Me/The Greatest Love I’ve Ever Known
He’ll Have To Go/Jes’ Lookin’
Moonlight/I’m Happy And In Love
Today Today/Touch Me On My Shoulder
Total Disaster/What’s Happening
Stop The World / At The Party
With Country Boys and City Girls
Forgetting Someone (Is Easier Said Than Done)/She Said Hell No! (You Can’t Have Any More)
With Barbara Lynn
Careless Hands / (Don’t Pretend) Just Lay It On The Line
Gee / Only You
Sincerely / Sh-Boom
Honey Love / At My Front Door
Cool Lovin’/Please Say You Love Me
Don’t You Know
That’s What I’m Gonna Do
I’ll Have Memories of You
Ko Ko Mo I Love You So (with Mel Williams)
New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Defender, Los Angeles Times, Pasadena Star-News, The Sporting News, Riverside Press-Enterprise, Cedar Rapids Gazette, Washington Post
World Wide Web sites: Ancestry Plus, Doo-Wop Society of Southern California, interview by Ray Kerby on The Astros Daily, Soulful Kinda Music
Usenet group rec.music.rock-pop-r+b.1950s