When I was in early elementary school my family moved a lot. From Milwaukee to Peewaukee (home of JJ Watt) to Chicago to Dallas to Houston. When I was in third grade I began to enjoy pro sports and my team was the Dallas Cowboys. This was not yet the ubiquitous (obnoxious) America’s team, but a struggling expansion team with mighty might Eddie Lebaron at QB and not so legendary (at the time) Head Coach Tom Landry. Dallas had no major league baseball team, but then we move to Houston in the summer of 1965 and the Astros and the stunning new Astrodome were the center of my sports universe.
And my first baseball hero? It was Jimmy Wynn, the Toy Cannon, who died on Thursday at the age of 78. It was not a real surprise as he had looked extremely fragile in a wheelchair at his Astros Hall of Fame induction back during the 2019 season (and doesn’t that seem like 10 years ago).
Jimmy Wynn came out of Cincinnati and started off in the Reds minor league system for one season before being picked up by the Colt .45s in something called the first-year player draft. He made his MLB debut right after that in 1963 splitting the year between the minors and majors. And shades of Myles Straw he played the infield and the outfield as a rookie for Houston. By the time my family moved to Houston he was in his first full-time season as an Astro and was the best position player on a very bad team as he hit 22 HRs and stole 43 SBs. He proudly wore the #24, the same as the player who he was a smaller version of – Willie Mays.
It is funny, but it never made any difference to me that the Toy Cannon was a different color than me. Never really thought about it. He was just my favorite player, just like Hank Aaron was my parent’s favorite player, who they rooted for when they lived in Milwaukee.
For much of his 11 seasons with the Astros, his protection in the lineup was not a lot to talk about. A couple of the best, Joe Morgan and Rusty Staub were shipped away before they could grow into the core of a terrific lineup.
Looking at some of Jimmy Wynn’s stats modern folks may not be that impressed. He never hit much for average topping out at .282 in 1970. Especially early on his on-base percentage (which no one cared about back then) was pretty low. But from 1968 to 1976 he had a series of very good OBP seasons topped out by a huge .436 OBP in 1969 when he led the majors with 148 walks. In 1965, the season I first saw him play, his OPS, a stat I would not know about for another 30 seasons was .841 when the NL average was .685.
And that OPS, which topped out at .943 in 1969 was tied to his power. His power is the thing that comes to mind along with his ever-present toothpick, even when hitting. His power was insane for someone who was 5′-9″ and 175 lbs soaking wet. He had George Springer kind of power in a package that was 6″ shorter and 40 lbs lighter. He had that wonderful long helicopter blade swing and when he met it just right wonderful things happened.
There was the shot in his hometown at Crosley Field onto the freeway.
There was the early Sunday shot over the batting cage in center field at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, the batting cage left on the field because no one was going to hit it 450+ feet away. Well, he didn’t hit the cage. He cleared it by a ton.
I wish I could include his HR into the upper deck of the Astrodome where they painted a cannon on the seat a few down from where they painted a red rooster where Doug Rader clubbed an upper decker. That was a long, long, long way from home plate.
Even with all his power he never hit more than the 37 HRs he whacked in 1967. But remember that the Dome for much of the time he played there was 340 feet to the leftfield pole and 390 to left center and you had to hit it up in the pavilion to register a dinger. If Wynn had played at Enron/Minute Maid he would have been tattooing the scoreboard and plunking the patrons of the Crawford Boxes on a frequent basis. He could have easily been a 50 HR player.
Folks have often pushed Roger Maris for the Hall of Fame. Here are some career numbers to compare….
Maris .260 BA .345 OBP .822 OPS 826 Runs 275 HRs 850 RBIs 21 SBs
Wynn .250 BA .366 OBP .802 OPS 1105 Runs 291 HRs 964 RBIs 225 SBs
Wynn was a comparable hitter, with a lot more speed and could play a good CF on top of it. Oh, and he did not play in Yankee Stadium with a short right field porch (for the lefty Maris) and with Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard and Yogi Berra around him in the lineup.
So should Jimmy Wynn be in the Hall of Fame? Nope he was good and sometimes very good but not quite that great and neither was Maris except for a few peak seasons.
Like Morgan and Staub and Cuellar and Mayberry before him, the Toy Cannon was shipped out, in his case to the Dodgers at the age of 31 in the off-season before the 1974 season. Finally, with a good team he had one of his finer years scoring 104 runs, hitting 32 HRs and knocking in 106 runs while sparking LA to a losing matchup in the World Series with the A’s. This was the only postseason appearance for Wynn and after one more season with the Dodgers, he bounced between the Braves, Mets and Brewers for the next couple years until he was finally done at the age of 35 years old.
He came back to his real home in Houston and showed he was as fine a person as he was a player, helping kids and others and serving the team and the city he loved until he died.
He wasn’t the greatest player or even the greatest Astro player I ever saw. But he was the first one who sparked my love for my team and his passing leaves me with a large hole in my heart.
God bless Jimmy Wynn and please hold him close to Your heart dear Lord.