Obituary: Jim Wynn (1942-2020)

RIP to Jim Wynn, the first great slugger in Houston Astros history. Nicknamed “The Toy Cannon” for his 5’9″ height and massive power, Wynn died on Wednesday, March 26 at the age of 78. A three-time All-Star in his 15-year career, Wynn played for the Astros (1963-73), Los Angeles Dodgers (1974-75), Atlanta Braves (1976), New York Yankees (1977) and Milwaukee Brewers (1977).

Jim Wynn was born in Cincinnati on March 12, 1942. His father, Joe Wynn, was an amateur baseball player and kept playing in Cincinnati into the 1970s. He saw his son had the same talent and worked with him to hone his game. He told young Jim to swing hard like his idol, Hank Aaron. Wynn attended Taft High School, spent one year of college at Central State University in Ohio and was signed by the Cincinnati Reds in February 1963. He received no bonus and was assigned to the Class-D Tampa Tarpons of the Florida State League. “And that’s enough, because all I want to do is play baseball,” he told Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen.

At first, Wynn was a third baseman who also spent a little time at second base and the outfield. In his first game, played in April, he walked, was hit by a pitch, got a couple of hits and committed two errors at third base. As he got comfortable in pro ball, he put together a great offensive season. He batted .290 with 14 home runs and 81 RBIs. He walked 113 times and stole 20 bases as well.

The Reds left Wynn unprotected in the 1962 minor-league draft, and the expansion Houston Colt .45s snapped him up for a price of $8,000. “Sure hated to lose Wynn,” said Cincinnati farm club director Phil Seghi. “He’ll be up with Houston in a year or two.”

It ended up being about a half a year. After hitting 16 home runs for the San Antonio Bullets in AA, the Colt .45s brought Wynn to the majors in the summer of 1963. He made his debut on July 10. Within a few weeks, he put himself into Rookie of the Year talks. Used mainly as a shortstop, Wynn homered and doubled off Dodgers ace Don Drysdale on August 2, which helped to put the rookie on the baseball map.

“How come you got such a great one for only $8,000 when we pay $200,000 for some of our guys and they can’t even play for us?” wondered Mets skipper Casey Stengel when he got his first look at Wynn.

Wynn cooled off from his hot start and ended the year with a .244 average and 4 homers. In 1964, he struggled and was briefly sent to the minor leagues. Starting in 1965, though, Wynn secured his place in the Houston outfield and never saw the minors again. From 1965 to 1970, Wynn slashed .267/.374/.481 and hit an average of 27 homers and 81 RBIs a year. The only time he didn’t hit 20 homers in a season was in 1966, when an injury suffered while crashing into a wall at Connie Mack Stadium left him with 18 long balls. Wynn also averaged 22 steals in that span. The power is what people may most remember of Wynn, but the speed was very impressive at the start of his career. He beat the Giants on June 30, 1965 by tripling in the 8th inning and then stealing home. That was one of 43 thefts he recorded that season, and he was thrown out just 4 times.

Source: The Daily Times, June 16, 1967.

Soon, Wynn was named “The Toy Cannon,” in reference to is small size but incredible pop. He was given cannons as gifts and had a collection of them at home and in his locker. Oddly, he didn’t like the name in his playing days, though he got used to it. He didn’t care for the reporter who gave it to him and said he didn’t relate to the name. “When I hit home runs I’m the ‘Toy Cannon,” but when I don’t I’m just plain old Jim Wynn,” he said.

Wynn earned his only All-Star nomination with the Astros in 1967, when he homered 37 times and drove in 107 RBIs. He singled in the 9th inning off Al Downing in the All-Star Game. He became the first Astro to hit three home runs in a game on June 15 against the Giants. More impressively, he did it in the cavernous Astrodome. “I knew that eventually it would happen, but I didn’t expect it to happen there,” Wynn said.

“I’m going to quit moaning about how big this ballpark is after that exhibition,” quipped the Giants’ Eddie Mathews.

Oddly enough, Wynn never would have turned into a home run hitter if he had listened to his Houston coaches. They saw his small stature and his speed and projected him as more of a Maury Wills-type player. They advised him to shorten his swing, learn to bunt and steal bases. “Jim Wynn,” said a coach, “let all the advice go in one ear — and out the same one. Thank God.”

“I got one swing and it’s highly impossible for me to cut down on it,” Wynn said of his hitting style. “I may as well cut the bat in half as cut my swing in half.”

Wynn had a ferocious swing and didn’t always hit the ball — he led the league in strikeouts in 1967 — but he also had an excellent eye. He walked 148 times in 1969, leading all of baseball in that category and breaking the NL record that had been set by Eddie Stanky in 1945.

Wynn struggled in 1971, perhaps due to some marital struggles as well as increased competition in the Houston outfield. He lost playing time to newcomer Cesar Cedeno and barely hit above .200. He rebounded with a more typical season in 1972 (.273, 24 homers, 90 RBIs) but had another down year in 1973. That December, Houston traded him to Los Angeles for veteran Dodgers pitcher Claude Osteen and minor-leaguer David Culpepper.

While most people probably think of Jimmy Wynn as a Houston Astro, it’s one of those weird quirks of baseball that he was a National League All-Star more often with the Dodgers than he was with the Astros. He was in LA for two seasons, 1974 and ’75, and he was an All-Star both times. In 1974, free from the Astrodome, Wynn homered 32 times and drove in a career-best 108 runs, while hitting .271. He hit a combined .192 in the posteason with 1 home run as the Dodgers lost to the Oakland A’s in the ’74 World Series. Wynn finished 5th in the MVP voting and clearly loved his new environment.

“Everything about this ball club is first class,” he said in May. “The guys are friendly, the manager knows what he’s doing, and it’s entirely different than it was in Houston.”

Wynn underwent offseason elbow surgery and wasn’t as effective in 1975. He made the All-Star team again but slumped at the end of the season. He finished with a .248 average and 18 home runs. He was traded again in the offseason, this time to Atlanta in a 6-player deal that brought Dusty Baker to the Dodgers and Wynn, Lee Lacy, Jerry Royster and Tom Paciorek to the Braves.

In his one season with the Braves, Wynn homered 17 times and led all of MLB with 127 walks. He hit just .207 but had an on-base percentage of .377. The Yankees bought his contract for 1977, but he batted .143 in 30 games with a single home run. He was released and finished his major-league career with 36 games for the Brewers. He hit .197 for Milwaukee with 10 RBIs.

In his 15-year career, Wynn had a slash line of .250/.366/.436 for an .802 OPS and 129 OPS+. He hit 291 homers, including 223 with Houston. That stood as an Astro record until Jeff Bagwell broke it. Wynn had a total of 1,665 hits that also included 285 doubles and 39 triples. He stole 225 bases and drove in 964 runs. He was a little below average as an outfielder, but he led the NL in assists three times (twice at center field and once in left field), and he twice led the league in double plays turned as an outfielder.

The Houston Astros retired Wynn’s No. 24 jersey in a special ceremony on June 25, 2005. Wynn was driven around Minute Maid park in a black sedan as he waved to an appreciative crowd. “It was great to see the fans when I was driving around in a car that I would like to own,” he joked. He compared the honor to being inducted into the Hall of Fame. “To have my number up there with the best players ever to play in Houston is No. 1 in my life.”

Jim Wynn at his uniform retirement ceremony in Houston in 2005. Source: AP

The Astros asked Wynn to serve as a team ambassador, according to his obituary on (see below). He held that role until his death, participating in the team’s community outreach programs.

Jim Murray, writing for the Los Angeles Times in 1973, referenced the previous attempts to make Wynn into a slap hitter because of his size. “You give Jim Wynn a bat. You give Jim Brown the football and Caruso an aria and Spencer Tracy a script, don’t you?” he wrote. “Getting Jim Wynn to bunt is like getting Jim Brown to block, Caruso to sing barber shop harmony or Spencer Tracy to do stunts. You let cannons shoot, and you aim them high.”

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