Publish date:


It was pitching and magic that put the Dodgers on top the last time. Now they have pitching—and such power, notably the cannon named Wynn, they may rise out of sight

Jim Wynn, the Los Angeles Dodger outfielder, may fairly be described as a proponent of the principle first espoused in the Babylonian Talmud—and later disputed by Songwriter Hawley Franck (Many an Honest Heart May Beat Beneath a Ragged Coat)—that "clothes make the man."

Or as Wynn commented one day last week, while seated stark naked before his alabaster Dodger double-knits, "There is a magic in this uniform." In truth, the Dodger costume seems to have imparted occult powers to Wynn, who is off to the flashiest start of a 12-year career, previously spent in Houston, that had been distinguished mainly by unpredictability.

As the week ended Wynn was leading the National League in home runs (12) and runs batted in (37) and was tied for the lead in runs scored (32) and bases on balls (34). His batting average was approaching .330 and he was playing center field and running the bases with such daring and aplomb that cultish Southern Californians were prepared to build one around him.

Actually, Wynn's considerable achievements were only slightly above the norm on a team that seems to be playing in a league all of its own. Fresh from a nine-game winning streak, the Dodgers were nearly 200 percentage points better than any team in either league. They were leading their division by seven games and pacing both leagues in almost every major batting and pitching category as well.

Their fans, a curious mixture of collegians, suburbanites, car hops, tourists and film celebrities, were showing up in droves at their lush, palm-decorated stadium in Chavez Ravine. The Dodgers passed a half million in attendance on Friday when 53,927, including Jack Benny, turned out for yet another Henry Aaron tribute. It was the team's 19th home date, which averages out to 27,000 customers per game.

The fans were by no means being shortchanged. In the first game of a doubleheader with Houston last Wednesday, attended by 33,018, the Dodgers blew a 3-0 lead in the top half of the fifth inning when the Astros scored six runs. In their half of the same inning, the Dodgers scored seven. They won the second game more routinely 10-2.

During that long evening the spectators were also entertained by Bill Buckner's thoroughly remarkable catch of a potential home-run ball hit to the left-field corner by Astro Outfielder Ollie Brown. Buckner snatched the missile in full flight, then, unable to arrest his progress, crashed into the low railing along the foul line. With true grit he struggled to his feet, and tossed the ball back to the infield to hold a runner on base before collapsing a second time. He recuperated in time to crack out two more hits in the game, extending his hitting streak to 17 games.

Buckner is among the league leaders in batting with an average above .340. First Baseman Steve Garvey is tied for second in the league in doubles with 12 and is second to Wynn in home runs with eight, and Shortstop Bill Russell is tied for the league lead in triples with four. Three Dodger regulars—Buckner, Garvey and Wynn—are hitting above .300 and three others—Willie Crawford, Russell and Third Baseman Ron Cey—are in the .290 range. During the nine-game winning streak, which ended with an extra-inning loss to Atlanta, the team scored 73 runs and hit .334.

Not even the most optimistic Dodger expects these heroics to continue throughout a 162-game season, but all of them exude a confidence that must be galling to those giving chase. "It's awfully early," says pitcher Andy Messer-smith (4-0), "but the other people are going to have to do a lot of catching up."

"There is nothing dramatic or spectacular about the way we've gone out front," says Pitcher Don Sutton (6-3) inaccurately. "This is the culmination of something that's been coming for a long time. We've got a nice blend now. We have young players with experience and we have age where it counts—on the pitching staff. I've been with this team for nine years and this is the best one I've seen. In 1966 we won the pennant on pitching, Maury Wills and mirrors. This team is capable of doing a lot more offensively. My lifetime has been shortened by all the one-run games here, but now I know that if there is a one-run game, it's probably going to be 8-7."

Walter Alston, who, with 21 years as boss of the Dodgers, is dean of active baseball managers, takes the long view of the early-season rush. "Things have gone just right for us," he says, displaying the smile of a man with job security. "We've won a few that maybe we shouldn't have. But we seem to do what's necessary. If we only get one run, the other team gets none. If they get seven, we get eight. You can work just as hard, play just as well and have things go the other way. But this is a sound ball club. We won 95 games last year with kids who were inexperienced. Buckner hadn't played much and neither had Garvey. Cey and Ferguson [Catcher Joe] hadn't really played at all. Russell was still learning to be a shortstop and [Dave] Lopes was still learning to be a second baseman. That year of experience is counting this season. And we've always had good pitching. Now with Mike Marshall [acquired from Montreal for Willie Davis] in the bullpen, it's even better. And I can't say enough about Jim Wynn."

Nobody seems to be able to, for Wynn's enthusiastic play has been the pleasantest surprise of a singularly salubrious season. "Just look at him out there," said Dixie Walker, the Dodgers' batting instructor, observing Wynn from the press box, while eating a dish of chocolate ice cream. "See how much he's enjoying himself. The fans cheer him all the time. He likes that. All players like that." Dixie has some expertise in fan affection; as a Brooklyn Dodger outfielder in the '40s, he was the "People's Cherce" of the Ebbets Field bleacher bums.

Wynn enjoys a similar distinction with the better-scrubbed clientele in the Dodger Stadium right and left field pavilions. "His rapport with the fans here is unlike anything we've had since the days of Lou Johnson," says Fred Claire, the team's publicity director, recalling the crowd-pleaser of the mid-'60s. "They never really warmed to Willie Davis, but Jimmy was an instant favorite."

Wynn, the man in the new white suit, has not always been so lovable. In Houston he was as much the object of derision as cheers, possibly the unhappy result of the roller-coaster nature of his career there (in his last three seasons he hit .203, .273 and .220), or of high expectations unrealized, or of a tumultuous private life that became public property when the first Mrs. Wynn elected to conclude a domestic altercation by puncturing her husband with a kitchen knife. The normally affable Wynn grew to be as testy with the Texas fans and press as he has been engaging with their Southern California counterparts.

But that stormy first marriage and his equally unfortunate unions with sometime Managers Harry Walker and Leo Durocher are mercifully dissolved. He has a second wife, Jo Ann, and a new manager, Alston, whom he avowedly adores, and this new private warmth is readily transmitted to the public at large. Wynn, it is safe to say, loves his fans as much as they love him.

In Houston his path was darkened from the very beginning when General Manager Paul Richards assigned him uniform No. 24 and instructed him to play the game the way another No. 24 was playing it.

"They gave me the number," Wynn recalls with a wince, "and told me to be another Willie Mays. That's too much to ask of anyone. There is only one Mays."

In his first full season, 1965, Wynn was also required to play center field in the first indoor ball park, the Astrodome, an experience that bordered on the claustrophobic. "They hadn't painted the ceiling yet and you couldn't follow the ball at all," he said, munching reflectively on a sirloin at his favorite L.A. restaurant, the Hungry Tiger. "I remember in one game against the Giants, Jim Ray Hart hit a ball falling away from the pitch. Naturally, I had no idea where it was going, but I figured if a guy hit a ball with his rear end sticking out like that, it would be a pop-up. I ran in on the ball. It hit one bounce away from the center-field fence. It cost us our lead and I looked like a complete fool."

Wynn did not always look foolish. He hit .275 that same year, with 22 home runs and 43 stolen bases. Two years later he achieved career highs of 37 home runs and 107 runs batted in, performances which, because of his relatively small stature, earned him the sobriquet, The Toy Cannon. Despite such impressive statistics, managers of the Harry Walker bent could not resist tampering with Wynn's swift, hard uppercut swing. Wynn is not the peewee he is often portrayed to be; although just 5'9", he weighs a well-muscled 175 pounds, much of it in his impressively heavy shoulders and chest. Still, he is uncommonly small for a home-run hitter, the smallest since Mel Ott, and the Walkers of this world cannot help but envision such comparative Lilliputians as singles hitters.

"My father made me the kind of hitter I am," said Wynn. "I was a shortstop when I was a boy growing up in Cincinnati and my father saw me as an Ernie Banks type—a good fielder who could hit home runs. He threw baseball after baseball at me, and when he got tired he took me out to a place near the airport where they had pitching machines. I developed the timing and the strong hands and wrists you need to hit homers. Timing is really the source of my power. I don't get many line drives because I come up on the ball, so I'll never really be a .300 hitter, but you couldn't tell that to Harry. He kept telling me I'd hit .300 if I just choked up on the bat, went to the opposite field and concentrated on average. No way. My swing was already grooved. I didn't get all those home runs being a Punch-and-Judy hitter. I guess when you're short, managers have a tendency to mess with you more."

Walker was not the only manager who messed with Wynn. Leo Durocher did not so much reconstruct the Wynn swing as he did relocate the swinger in the batting order. Impressed by the success the Giants had enjoyed employing power-and-speed man Bobby Bonds at leadoff, Durocher concluded that Wynn was the logical person to hit there for him. Wynn was opposed to the move, reasoning that it would reduce his runs batted in, but, good soldier that he is, he agreed. The experiment proved a failure and Wynn suffered through a sorry season, complicated this time by a serious illness to his second wife.

Along with all these problems, Wynn felt he was playing out of position his last few seasons in Houston. He is much more comfortable in center field than in right or left, but the Astros had the young superstar, Cesar Cedeno, in that spot, and Wynn could not move him out.

Ah, but there is nothing quite like a new suit of clothes. After the trade with Houston for Claude Osteen, Alston advised Wynn that he could bat third, play center field, swing at the ball any way he damn well pleased as long as he hit it from time to time, and have complete freedom on the bases. And just about the first Dodger he encountered was Harry Walker's brother, Dixie.

"He came up to me and told me he knew I'd had some problems with his brother," Wynn recalls. "He told me I needn't worry about him. I appreciated that and I told him the problems I had with Harry had been greatly exaggerated." Dixie is not only the "People's Cherce," he is now Jim Wynn's; the two are frequent golfing partners.

Freed of overmanaging, domestic strife and hostile spectators, Wynn has blossomed in the Southern California sunshine. If there remained any doubt about his potentiality, it was dispelled in a four-game series with San Diego earlier this month. In those games Wynn had 13 hits in 18 at bats, including a double, a triple and four home runs. He scored eight runs and batted in eight more. "That is the best series I've ever seen any player have," said Alston.

Wynn's homecoming last week was reminiscent of Lindbergh's. His every move on the field merited a standing ovation, and when he positioned himself in the outfield, the pavilion fans accorded him the equivalent of locomotive yells.

Wynn did not ignore these huzzas; he responded with hearty waves and shouts of encouragement. After Buckner's circus catch, he pointed to his teammate and led the cheering in his behalf. His own play scarcely cooled. Even in defeat on Friday he got three hits, including a double and a triple, and two RBIs.

"There are only two uniforms that spell magic to me," Wynn said later, "this one and the one the Yankees wear. But I've always wanted to be a Dodger. I can't tell you how good it feels to be in this uniform."

Or as old Henry Ward Beecher, the American clergyman, put it, conceding some ground to the Babylonians, " not make the man, but when he is made, they greatly improve his appearance."

Jim Wynn would appear to have it made.



Hits fly from the bats of Wynn, Left Fielder Buckner and First Baseman Garvey (bottom).



Bill Russell matures rapidly at shortstop.



Andy Messersmith (4-0) warns that it's early.



Myopic Don Sutton (6-3) fails to see drama.



Ex-Expo Mike Marshall anchors the bullpen.



Manager Alston says L.A. does the necessary.