He was the kind of guy who fascinated you. He grabbed your attention and didn’t let go.
Every time he stepped to the plate, you thought he’d take one deep. Into a once hitter-proof upper deck. Over a scoreboard. Onto an exit ramp that bordered the field.
It wasn’t routine, but when Jimmy Wynn found the right pitch, it was gone. Pitchers shook their heads. You found yourself wondering how in the devil he did it.
How in the world could someone 5-9 and 165 pounds – not much bigger than a high school player – pack that kind of punch?
“I’m just swingin’ the bat,” he said after launching one out of old Crosley Field in Cincinnati in 1967 and onto the Mill Creek Expressway exit ramp, “and lettin’ wood meet horsehide.”
Go ahead and Google that grainy black-and-white video. The hit, the commentary, it tells you all you need to know about the player known as the Toy Cannon. Well, mostly everything.
“Jimmy was one of the Astros’ first big stars,” Astros president Reid Ryan said. “He connects to the generation that saw the team play at Colt Stadium and the Astrodome.
“He represents our past and all the great players that have come since then.”
It’s hard to believe that come Tuesday, it will be 55 years since Jimmy Wynn made his major league debut at Colt Stadium – playing shortstop. After bouncing along in the minors, the Colt .45s, who had drafted him in the first-year player draft of 1962, called him up and he stepped into the big show on July 10, 1963.
He wound up playing for the Colt .45s and Astros for 11 seasons and made one of his three All-Star appearances during the his career-best 1967 season when he hit 37 home runs. His other two All-Star Games were during his two seasons immediately after leaving Houston when he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1974-75.
And, yes, he was a star.
In Houston, he was the first Astros player to put one in the upper deck at the Astrodome and the first to homer three times in a game at the not-so-hitter-friendly Dome – Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell is the other. Wynn finished his Houston career with 97 home runs in 678 games in the Astrodome.
He started slowly with the Colt .45s, hitting four homers in his first season and five in his second. Then the team became the Astros, started playing in the Astrodome and Wynn exploded. Wearing an array of uniforms from the Colt .45s through those shooting star Astros jerseys, he finished his Houston career with 223 home runs, including those 37 in 1967, 33 in 1969 and five other seasons with 20-plus homers.
But enough of numbers for the moment and back to the why. And how.
Larry Dierker, who played with Wynn and eventually managed the Astros, worked in the front office and was a broadcaster, was on the mound for the Astros that day in 1970 when Wynn sent a Phil Niekro knuckleball over 500 feet into the sixth row of the gold section. The two-run homer came in the third home game of the year and just nine days after his teammate Doug Rader had sent one into the same area – one section over – during an exhibition game against the New York Yankees.
“Seeing the seat that he hit in the upper deck with a home run was an impressive sight,” Ryan said.
Even for the players.
“Before he did that, ” Dierker said, “I don’t think anyone thought it was possible. After that, a few more were hit up there, but that first one was an indication of how much power he had in that relatively small body of his.
“Most of the home run hitters of that era were a lot bigger than him. But he managed to somehow get the bat speed to hit those really long ones.”
Actually, it wasn’t just bat speed.
The Astros’ locker area had concrete beams across the ceiling. They were about 11 feet high and some players would take a running jump to see if they could slap it. Dierker was
6-4 and could barely do it.
“One day, Jimmy watched us try to do that and he stood there below one of the beams and without even running just jumped up into the air and slapped it on both sides with both hands,” Dierker said. “He jumped six inches higher even though he was at least six or seven inches shorter than I was and his arms weren’t as long as mine.
“We were jumping from a running start. He was just standing there. That speaks to the kind of athleticism he had in his body. His height and weight and all the other measurements wouldn’t have been all that impressive but what that body contained was beyond impressive.”
The late Houston Chronicle reporter John Wilson nicknamed Wynn the “Toy Cannon.” Wynn, who worked hard in the weight room to keep his wrist, hands and upper body strong, didn’t like the name at first, but it stuck.
And Wynn learned to love it.
So did other writers including the late Jim Murray, the legendary Los Angeles Times columnist who said “Toy Cannon” was the perfect nickname. Why? “Because pitchers who expected to be hit with a cork with a string on it, suddenly found an 88-millimeter howitzer opening up on them.”
But Wynn wasn’t just a home run hitter. He was fast, an amazing runner, played great defense and was a star center fielder.
And, Dierker said, he was a lot like another center fielder who wore No. 24 — Hall of Famer Willie Mays.
“Jimmy had the same sort of running motion,” Dierker said. “I don’t know how to describe it. If you were to see Mays run after a fly ball and you would see Wynn run after one, they had the same style. It was kind of a bow-legged running motion.
“But Willie was a couple inches taller and probably 20-30 pounds heavier. He was a little bit bigger man. He wasn’t huge, but he was a lot bigger than Jimmy. Both of them could do everything in terms of running down balls that other centerfielders couldn’t get to because of their speed, as well as stealing bases, bunting for a hit.”
Wynn’s Astros jersey was retired in 2005, but there was never a thought nor a push for the Hall of Fame. The one year he was on the ballot, he didn’t get a vote.
Ryan never saw Wynn play, but he grew up listening to his Hall of Fame father Nolan tell stories about Wynn and make those same comparisons to Mays.
So was Wynn’s 15-year career – he finished with 291 home runs, a .250 batting average and 964 runs batted in – overlooked?
“The hard part is that since Jimmy’s days, so many games have been preserved on video,” Ryan said. “When Jimmy played, they just didn’t have as many games on TV. I believe that era gets overlooked in general because we can’t as easily go back in time to the ’60s like we can the ’80s or ’90s.”
Dierker said the one line on Wynn’s stats that is overlooked is his on-base percentage.
“He walked about 100 times every year,” he said. “I think Jimmy was underrated because I don’t think people understood how important it was to draw walks. Especially if you were a fast base runner.”
The Astros allowed Wynn to hone, then showcase those skills. To become a star. To live his dream.
Today – 55 years after that debut – the Astros have another diminutive star in the 5-6 Jose Altuve. But we’re not here to compare Wynn and his tape-measure home runs to Altuve and his knack for making contact.
They’re mentioned together in conversations today because of their size. But honestly, they’re different players from different eras with different strengths.
Our take? Just sit back appreciate them both.
Melanie Hauser, a former sportswriter for the Houston Post, writes a weekly column sponsored by the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.