Publish date:

Big blasts from a toy cannon

After a terrible start the Astros are moving up fast, thanks mainly to the hitting of minibrute Jim Wynn, the major leagues' tiniest slugger

Harry Walker, who is the manager of the Houston Astros and the best nonstop, one-way conversationalist in the major leagues, was talking (naturally) about baseball and Army sergeants last week in Pittsburgh when suddenly he stopped. In the stunning silence the usual coterie around Walker scraped nervously, expecting that surely he would say something in response to a question about Jim Wynn, the Astros' little home-run hitter. "No," Walker said, "I don't know what to say about Wynn." And that ended the conversation. The moment will be remembered as the Pittsburgh Mouthout of 1969.

James Sherman Wynn is baseball's leading mystery. There are 600 players in the major leagues right now, and 581 of them are bigger than Wynn. According to the Astros, Wynn is 5'9" short and weighs 168 pounds. "That's right," Wynn says, "I'm 5'9" and weigh 168." He does weigh 168 pounds in his uniform, but subtract at least one inch from his listed height to compensate for Texas exaggeration.

Despite his size, or lack of it, Wynn somehow hits more home runs than 99% of the other 599 players. He has hit 14 so far this year; only five players have hit more than that. Frank Howard, one of the five, is 10 inches taller and 110 pounds heavier than Wynn. Willie Mc-Covey and Lee May, who lead Wynn in the National League's home-run derby, both are at least six inches taller and 35 pounds heavier.

Last year the minibrute hit 26 home runs and in 1967 he had 37. Wynn has played with Houston for less than five full seasons but he still has hit a total of 126 home runs—more than twice as many as any other Astro. "I just swing the bat," he says, "and I let the wood meet rawhide."

It has not been that easy. Wynn has been confronted with more handicaps than his stature. For one, he plays half his season in the Astrodome, the worst home-run field in baseball. "I've hit about 55 home runs in the Dome, I guess," he said last week, "and they all ask me how I do it. I just tell them that when I come up the wind always blows out. There is wind in the Dome, you know. It's exactly one mph."

Nevertheless Wynn (the Astros all call him the Toy Cannon) is the only player ever to hit three home runs in one game under the Dome and he also is the only player to hit the Dome ceiling with a batted ball during a game. "It went straight up over home plate—just like one of my golf shots," he says.

Jim Wynn always hits his longest home runs on the road. For instance, he scored an unusual double in St. Louis. In 1965 he hit a home run against the Busch sign in old Sportsman's Park, and two years later he homered against the Busch sign in the new Busch Stadium. Fittingly enough, Wynn was working for Schlitz at the time. Also in 1967 Wynn hit the longest home run at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. The ball cleared the 58-foot scoreboard in left field and landed on an exit ramp of the Mill Creek Expressway.

Wynn has hit all these home runs despite the fact that pitchers do not really pitch to him. He bats third in the Astros' lineup, and the club never has had a cleanup hitter with home-run power. Consequently, pitchers will walk Wynn even with two men on base, as Jim Bunning did in one game last week, rather than risk giving up a home run. "Jim never sees a fastball anymore," says Joe Morgan, the Astros' second baseman, who precedes Wynn in the batting order. "They throw him breaking balls down and away all the time. If we had someone who could hit even 15 home runs batting fourth, the pitchers would have to give Jim at least one pitch to hit. But we don't have a No. 4 hitter. Think what Jim could do with a Richie Allen or a Willie McCovey behind him."

To compensate for all that he has going against him, Wynn has developed one of the most lethal home-run swings in baseball. He does not have the strong wrists of a Henry Aaron or a Frank Robinson (Wynn's idol as he grew up in Cincinnati) or a Roberto Clemente, so he does not swing down on the ball. Instead, Wynn cocks his bat with a full extension of his left arm (much like the perfect golfer) and tries to uppercut the pitch. He works his muscular shoulders, arms and legs, all developed through extensive weight-lifting sessions during the off season, under and then up into the ball. Obviously the Wynn technique works.

Manager Walker, who is a superior batting instructor, does not recommend the Wynn method for aspiring hitters. "You don't teach a kid to field like Clemente," Walker said at another time last week when the subject of Jim Wynn did not seem so overpowering to him, "and you don't teach a kid to hit like Wynn. Their styles are peculiar to them."

Walker, who won a batting championship because he hit singles and not home runs, prefers not to discuss home runs with his Toy Cannon. Instead, he watches Wynn hit them, congratulates him and then tries to forget about them. "If he hits a home run that goes 450 feet and we all start to talk about it, then he'll start to think that he should try to hit a 470-foot home run," Walker says. "When he tries to hit that 470-foot home run, he won't hit the ball 400 feet."

Wynn had everything working perfectly last month when he helped revive the Astros after they had made one of the worst team starts in baseball history. Houston won only four and lost 20 of its first 24 games and, while seven of the losses were by one run, some were by scores of 14-0, 12-1 and 10-0. The Astros had serious problems wherever their owner, Judge Hofheinz, looked.

Among other things the paying customers were discouraged by the club's handling of the Rusty Staub trade. The Astros sent Staub to Montreal for what Walker hoped would be a competent No. 4 hitter, Donn Clendenon, and a regular outfielder, Jesus Alou, only to have Clendenon refuse to play in Houston. The pitchers the Expos gave instead of a No. 4 hitter were hardly the right substitute. There were other problems, too. The team had lived through three general managers, four field managers, 14 coaches, 155 players, 1,183 games (685 of them losses), two names and two stadiums and, just when they should have been reaching the age of respectability, they were playing like the old Astros.

Then, on May 1 in Cincinnati, Don Wilson, a young Astro righthander who may be the next Bob Gibson, pitched a no-hitter against the Reds just 24 hours after Jim Maloney of Cincinnati had pitched a no-hitter against the Astros. During the Maloney no-hitter, Wilson seethed on the bench while the Reds amused themselves loudly at the Astros' expense. The no-hit victory almost was not enough revenge for Wilson. After the final out he was still so mad he wanted to charge the Cincinnati dugout.

That victory ignited the Astros. They did a complete turnabout in May and won 20 of their 26 games. Larry Dierker, a young Don Drysdale, won five of seven starts, four of them complete games, and Wilson won three games after his no-hitter. The hitters, particularly Wynn, started to hit, too.

Wynn got only two home runs during the month of April. In May he hit 11. His toothpicks began to taste like whipped cream. Before each game Wynn places an all-day toothpick on his bottom lip and rolls it against the left corner of his mouth, where it remains until the end of the game. "Some pitchers tell me they're going to knock the toothpick out of my mouth when I come to bat," he says, "but no one's done it yet and no one's going to do it, either." After the final out of a game, Wynn extracts the toothpick, snaps it in two pieces and throws it away. "I buy toothpicks by the box," he says, "and I carry a supply around with me in my toothpick tube. They got to be round toothpicks. I don't like the square ones at all. They don't sit comfortable on my lip."

Wynn's home-run-production pace probably will increase the rest of the season, because now, at last, the Astros seem to have found some hitters who can work effectively behind him in the batting order. Denis Menke, a smooth shortstop, is hitting close to .350. Norm Miller and Doug Rader, two young players who have been a "year away" for the last few seasons, seem finally to have arrived. Twice last week the Philadelphia Phillies elected to walk Menke and load the bases for Rader in the bottom of the ninth inning. The first time that happened Rader hit a grand-slam home run to win the game; the next time he hit a single for the victory.

"Our whole problem," says Walker, "has been growing up. None of the young kids we've got around here, the Dierkers and Wilsons, the Wynns and Raders and Morgans and Millers, ever won a whole lot—either here or down in the minors. So last winter we traded for some players who had been on winners, guys like Johnny Edwards and Curt Blefary, and this has helped the kids. I mean, it wasn't easy to come back after what happened to us in April."

Jim Wynn came back, too. "All I really want are three things," he said. "I want to be a complete ballplayer. I want to make my money. I want to be happy." He is not the complete ballplayer yet. He loafs occasionally when he plays center field and sometimes he does not run out infield flies. When he plays that way, Walker usually meets him at the top step of the dugout with a few dozen well-chosen words.

Wynn is making more than enough money to stock two cases with jazz records (Chico Hamilton recordings in particular) and two closets with the latest Edwardian bell-bottoms, boots and scarves. And he seems happier now that Rusty Staub is playing in Montreal—not Houston.

It seemed to irk Wynn in former years that Staub, a singles and doubles hitter with a good batting average, was the figurehead player on the roster. "They built it all around Rusty, the All-America Boy," Wynn said. "He was there before I was, and it was right. So I just tried to do my job." The job is easier now that Wynn is recognized as King Finger (the expression apparently has great significance for the Astros' players) in Houston.

Ask one of the Houston players to tell you what King Finger means, and he will say: "Jimmy's the man who sneaked the gold from Fort Knox." Ask Harry Walker what that means and he will say, "I don't know what to say about Wynn."