Houston Astros: Jimmy Wynn, RIP—Living and learning

The Toy Cannon died at 78 Thursday. Jimmy Wynn wrestled with managers and himself until he settled into retirement, working for the Houston Astros.

Jimmy Wynn probably deserved better in a still-impressive major league career. The not-so-tall outfielder with a powerful enough throwing arm, and a slightly more powerful stroke at the plate, died in Houston at 78 Thursday.

Houston was where Wynn—whose compact size married to breathtaking power earned him the nickname the Toy Cannon—both shone and was suppressed. Two things worked against him, playing the prime of his career in a pitching-rich era and playing with the Astrodome as his home park. Both seemed challenges he didn’t mind meeting.

His lifetime average of 25 home runs per 162 games underrates him. Twice with the Astrodome as his home park he hit 30+, including 37 in 1967 (an Astros team record until Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell broke it) and 33 in 1969. After his trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers following the 1973 season, Wynn faced another pitchers’ haven as his home park but still managed to send 32 over the fences in his first Dodger season.

As things turned out, Wynn hit 291 home runs lifetime and seventeen more on the road than at home before he retired after the 1977 season. But he also led the National League in walks twice, including a then-league record 148 in 1969. He was also a rangy center fielder who led his league twice in range factor per game, assists, double plays turned, and putouts.

It’s not impossible that if Wynn had gotten to spend at least half his career in even a neutral home ballpark he might have made his way to Cooperstown. According to Jay Jaffe’s measurements, Wynn barely missed qualifying as a peak-value Hall of Famer. Jaffe ranks Wynn the number seventeen center fielder of all time, and Wynn’s 43.3 wins above replacement-level player in his peak seasons are only 1.4 lower than the average Hall of Fame centerfielder.

Wynn got his once-famous nickname from Houston sportswriter John Wilson. It took Wynn awhile to accept that it wasn’t a knock on his 5’9″ frame. Los Angeles Times legend Jim Murray probably helped him see the light. “[P]itchers who expected to be hit with a cork with a string on it,” Murray wrote, “suddenly found an 88-millimeter howitzer opening up on them.” Jimmy Wynn finally embraced the name and the image, eventually naming his memoir The Toy Cannon.

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He had a realistic view of life and the game he loved. Cincinnati-born and bred (and drafted by the Reds before the then-Colt 45s plucked him in the National League’s first expansion draft), Wynn didn’t mind being known as the son of a garbage man.

“When they came up with the newer, cleaner, term ‘sanitation worker,’” he wrote in his memoir, “I still called him a garbage man because that’s what he was doing and there is no shame in that work at all. If it weren’t for people like my dad, people who do the really essential work that has to be done, our cities would stink to high heaven and slow down to a dead stop.”

There were times his Astros managers accused him of playing indifferently; this seems to have happened most when he’d be moved from center field to one of the corner outfield positions. To Wynn center field was a challenge of responsibility that he embraced heartily. But Grady Hatton fined and benched him a couple of times in 1967, and Harry (The Hat) Walker did likewise in 1969, Walker being quoted as saying Wynn needed to produce like the major league star he was paid to be.

In fact, Walker tried actively to change the Toy Cannon’s batting approach. Once an opposite-field hitting specialist himself, Walker tried to convince Wynn to do likewise. “No way,” Wynn would remember. “My swing was already grooved. I didn’t get all those home runs being a Punch-and-Judy hitter. I guess when you’re short, managers have a tendency to mess with you more.”

Wynn wasn’t the only not-so-big-man with speed to burn and power to spare with whom Walker tangled on issues like that. The Hat also thought Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, like Wynn compact but powerful, should be beating balls into the ground more and using his speed to pry a few more singles.

To Morgan, it was an example of Walker’s racism. Wynn agreed but also took a more nuanced view. “Harry took things into his own hands, where he tried to change me from being what I was to what he wanted me to be,” Wynn wrote in his memoir. “I couldn’t do that. I rebelled; I rebelled a great deal. There was no name-calling or anything like that; it was just me doing what I wanted to do and not what he wanted me to do.”

When Wynn walked those league-record-setting 148 times, Morgan cited Wynn’s lack of protection in the Astros lineup as a key factor. “Jim never sees a fastball anymore,” Morgan told a sportswriter at the time. “They throw him breaking balls down and away all the time. If we had someone who could hit even fifteen home runs batting fourth, the pitchers would have to give Jim at least one pitch to hit.”

The Astros of the late 1960s and early 1970s had a promising corps of youth and young veterans, but with hindsight, you can say team management and coaching stuck between short-sightedness and ignorance kept them from remaining the contenders they seemed to be a couple of times during Wynn’s tenure with the team.

Players like Wynn, Morgan, Rusty Staub, Larry Dierker, and Don Wilson should have meant the core of pennant contenders but didn’t; Wynn, Morgan, and Staub would play on pennant winners after their Astro days ended.

Wynn’s wrestlings with Walker may have taken a toll on him off the field, too. His already shaky marriage (in The Toy Cannon Wynn admitted he wasn’t the best husband as it was) collapsed after the 1970 season, following a violent argument during which Wynn impulsively grabbed a loaded shotgun and his wife stabbed him. The divorce and separation from his children weighed heavily on Wynn in 1971. So did further escalating tensions with Walker, who foolishly blamed Morgan—who’d come up to the Colts/Astros with Wynn in 1963—for being a negative influence on Wynn.

That led to Morgan being traded to the Big Red Machine in the package that brought the Astros Lee May but sent the Reds another Machine mainstay, Cesar Geronimo. May, Wynn, and a rookie named Cesar Cedeno yanked the Astros to a winning 1972 and Wynn professed it was the best Houston club he’d played on yet. But Walker’s insistence on still trying to bend his hitters into his own image finally caught up to him, and the Astros fired him in favor of deposed Cubs manager Leo Durocher.

Durocher proved no better for Wynn and a lot of Astros in 1973. The Lip moved Wynn to the leadoff slot, thinking his skill at reaching base out-weighed his run production, and it backfired despite Wynn’s 91 walks and twenty homers. The Astros finally traded him to the Dodgers. And Wynn got votes of confidence from two unexpected sources.

One was manager Walter Alston. Sports Illustrated reported that Alston “advised Wynn that he could bat third, play center field, swing at the ball any way he damn well pleased as long as he hit it from time to time, and have complete freedom on the bases.”

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The other was Dodgers batting coach Dixie Walker, Harry Walker’s brother. The same Dixie Walker who’d once petitioned against his Dodgers bringing Jackie Robinson up from their Montreal farm club. The same Dixie Walker who’d changed considerably in the years since and regretted the anti-Robinson petition, though it wasn’t always reported at the time.

“He came up to me and told me he knew I’d had some problems with his brother,” Wynn remembered. “He told me I needn’t worry about him. I appreciated that and I told him the problems I had with Harry had been greatly exaggerated.”

The People’s Cherce (Walker’s nickname as a once-popular Brooklyn Dodger) and the Toy Cannon actually became close enough to hit the golf links together. And this Walker basically let Wynn swing his normal way while acting purely on behalf of minor adjustments when needed.

Wynn responded with a season that earned him honors as the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year. He walked as often as he drove in runs (108 each), he hit those 32 home runs (then a record for the Dodgers in Los Angeles), started in the All-Star Game, and only a very late-season injury stopped him, as he hit poorly in the 1974 National League Championship Series and the World Series.

He started well in 1975 and earned another All-Star berth—where he smashed a home run off Oakland Athletics lefthander Vida Blue—but he fell off in the second half and was dealt to the Atlanta Braves for, among others, Dusty Baker.

If only Wynn could have had the notorious Launching Pad as his home park earlier in his career. But now he was 34 and beginning to slow down in earnest; he didn’t hit well for the Braves in 1976 though he led the National League in walks (127) for a third time. Wynn was sold to the New York Yankees for 1977, released that July, signed by the Milwaukee Brewers a week later, released after the season, and then he retired.

In retirement, Wynn went through a second broken marriage but reconciled with his two children and tried a number of jobs before re-joining the Astros in the later 1980s as part of their community relations department.

He also met the woman who’d become his third wife in 1992. When they vacationed in Hawaii as part of a baseball alumni group in 2000, they married in casual Hawaiian attire with three Hall of Famers—Steve Carlton, Ferguson Jenkins, and Gaylord Perry—among those standing up for them. The third Mrs. Wynn’s matron of honor was the wife of another of the alumni group, Mudcat Grant.

Long since under a new administration, the Astros reconciled admirably with their former center fielder and bombardier. They retired Wynn’s number 24 in 2005 when Minute Maid Park opened as Enron Field, and they created a Jimmy Wynn Training Center for urban Houston youth. To Wynn, retiring his number was almost as good as making the Hall of Fame.

“Jimmy’s success on the field helped build our franchise from its beginnings,” said the Houston Astros in a formal statement upon his death. “After his retirement, his tireless work in the community impacted thousands of young people in Houston. Although he is no longer with us, his legacy will live on at Minute Maid Park, at the Astros Youth Academy and beyond.”

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He came a long way from the big home runs (one of which sailed clean out of Cincinnati’s Crosley Field and onto the freeway behind the park, in 1967), the battles with his managers and his first wife, and most of all with himself. Those who think you can’t live and learn might take a second look at Wynn, who proved you could do it admirably enough to go home again.

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