Grave Story: Will Wynne (1869-1951)

Here lies Bill Wynne, who pitched one game for the Washington Senators in 1894. Don’t feel bad for him, though. Though his MLB career was short, he made a name for himself in his home state of North Carolina as a radio and telephone businessman.

The number 150 is a pretty important one for this year’s grave story and for major league baseball in general. MLB is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, considered baseball’s first openly professional baseball team. Two other noteworthy events (as far as this Grave Story goes) happened 150 years ago. First, William Avera Wynne was born in Neuse, N.C. on March 27, 1869. Second, Oakwood Cemetery opened in Raleigh, N.C. Oakwood is Raleigh’s oldest cemetery and is the final resting place for a number of state and federal politicians — and Bill Wynne. It also has a Confederate Cemetery that holds almost 1,500 Civil War soldiers. The grave photo here was taken by Michael Palko, friend of RIP Baseball and Oakwood’s photographer. To learn more about the cemetery and its tours, visit www.historicoakwoodcemetery.org or follow it on Instagram at www.instagram.com/oakwoodcemetery.

Wynne would become just the second North Carolinian to make it to the major leagues; only outfielder Charley Jones, who played in the 1870s and ‘80s, came before him. Wynne wasn’t just a baseball player. He was a competitive bicyclist. He won speed races, but he also was a champion trick rider as well. In 1888, Wynne used a borrowed bike to beat Henry Ward for the National Trick Bicycling Championship at Norfolk, Va. One report from 1893 states that he jumped over seven wheels safely in a demonstration, earning a large cheer from the assembled crowd. On another occasion he rode his bike down the stone steps of the Norfolk court house in front of a gathered crowd of 500. Who knew there was a 19th century equivalent to Dave Mirra?

Wynne attended Wake Forest University and somehow found time to play baseball and cycling, giving trick exhibitions in towns where he traveled to play ball. His obituary claims that Wynne beat Trinity (now Duke University) in a game one day and then pitched for Trinity the next day and beat Vermont University. “There were no college transfer rules at the time,” explains the writer.

Will Wynne grave photos courtesy of Michael Palko of Oakwood Cemetery. Wynne’s given middle name was “Avera,” not Andrew like it says on the headstone.

For all his cycling skills, Wynne was still a very talented pitcher, and he turned professional in 1894. He started the season with the Charleston Seagulls of the Southern Association and went 3-1 in 7 games before the team disbanded. He played for a couple other teams, and then Senators manager Gus Schmelz signed him. One practice was all it took to convince Schmelz and captain Bill Joyce that he could pitch. “He has tremendous speed and fair control of the ball, and if he can keep his head during a game will turn out all right,” wrote the News and Observer.

Wynne’s sole appearance came on August 31, 1894. He pitched the second game of a doubleheader between the Senators and Philadelphia Athletics and lost 11-5, but it certainly wasn’t all his fault.

“Wynne, a pitcher from Charleston, S.C., was in the box for the ‘Senators’ in the second game, and had he received proper support the game would have had a different result,” reported The Philadelphia Inquirer. “The visitors made five of their six errors in the first inning, and after that Wynne became wild and his bases on balls were very costly.”

Wynne and his catcher Dan Dugdale were also victimized by Billy Hamilton, who stole 7 bases in the game, which is still an MLB record (George Gore of the White Stockings also accomplished the feat in 1881). Wynne did go the distance in the game, which was called after 8 innings due to darkness. Six of the 11 runs were earned, so his major-league statistics include an 0-1 record, 6.75 ERA, 10 hits allowed, 8 walks, 2 hit batsmen, 2 wild pitches and 2 strikeouts.

While Wynne never pitched in another game for the Senators, he and his teammates did have some fun in the nation’s capital, if his obituary is to be believed. He rode his bike down the steps of the Capitol building, and he and his fellow Senators tried to smuggle the bike up to the top of the Washington Monument before getting caught by the security guards.

Artist’s depiction of Bill Wynne’s wild ride in Atlanta, Ga. Source: The News and Observer, July 18, 1897.

Wynne pitched for Norfolk and Wilks-Barre in 1895 and wasn’t particularly effective for either team. He also pitched with some local talent in Raleigh and took on all comers, including the Baltimore Orioles in an exhibition game and a minor league team from Dallas managed by Ted Sullivan. He still performed daring feats on his bicycle, “shooting the chutes” in Atlanta, a 19th Century thrill ride featured at the Atlanta Exposition. He raced a boat down a 500-yard slide that emptied into a lake. Wynne finished the race in about 8 seconds, which was slower than the boat but still a phenomenal accomplishment. “Such a race has never been run before, and is literally an annihilation of time and space,” enthused The Press Visitor of Raleigh, with just a touch of embellishment.

Wynne was more than an athlete and an entertainer. He was an entrepreneur through and through. By 1896, he had invented a “telegraph alarm call,” which would call any office along a telegraph or telephone line without disturbing any of the other offices on the line. The system was initially put in place between Raleigh and Charlotte but spread quickly. The following year, he and Ed Egerton of Selma, N.C. financed a phone line that connected Raleigh with neighboring towns like Dunn, Pine Level, Auburn, Garner and Wakefield. The cost for the line was $5,000 and was to stretch 100 miles. That was the start of the Almyra Telephone Company, with Wynne as its president and Egerton as secretary.

The telephone spread across North Carolina like wildfire, and Wynne became the manager of Interstate Telephone in Raleigh and then general manager of the Raleigh Telephone Company, which started operations in 1899. He stayed with the company as majority shareholder until 1921, when it went into receivership. Along with management, Wynn kept inventing improvements to the telephone along the way.

One of Wynne’s inventions was the automatic phone intelligencer, which was designed to help train dispatchers with the amount of calls they received from people asking if a certain train was on time. Instead of having to speak to a human, the caller could state the name of the train, and an automatic message would indicate if it was running late or not.

It was 1921. Will Wynne had invented Siri.

The following year, Wynne opened a radio shop, and in 1924, he established Raleigh’s first radio Station. WRCO (Wynne Radio Co.) stayed on the air until 1929, when it was sold to Durham Life Insurance Co. and renamed WPTF (“We Protect The Family” – radio station call signs used to be acronyms for phrases or station mottos).

That information comes courtesy of Historic Oakwood Cemetery, written by Oakwood historian Bruce Miller and executive director Robin Simonton. The North Carolina newspapers were curiously absent of any news regarding the growth of radio in the state. Maybe they were afraid of the competition.

Wynne stayed close to baseball during this time. He umpired in games in Raleigh and participated in Opening Day ceremonies in the state. He didn’t stray too far from his business expertise, either. As dial phones began to be phased in during the late 1930s, he started a petition to get rid of the “damn things” — one of the few times in his life that he was against the latest technology.

Bill Wynne died on August 7, 1951 in Raleigh, N.C. He was 82 years old and died from carcinoma of the palate and pneumonia.

“Tar-Heel grit, Southern strength and American level-headedness, together with the most pleasant address and gentlemanly bearing,” is how he was described by the News and Observer in 1897. “Raleigh is ever proud of her baseballist, inventor and cyclist.”

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