December 2, 2010
Jimmy Wynn is a humble man, and he is also one of the most underrated players in baseball history. Known throughout his big-league career (1963-77) as “The Toy Cannon,” the 5-foot-9, 170 pound outfielder was not only a prodigious power hitter in one of baseball’s worst hitting environments, he was an on-base machine who could run. Originally drafted by Cincinnati, he spent most of his career playing in the Houston Astrodome and finished with 291 home runs, 225 stolen bases, a .366 OBP, and a 128 OPS+.
Wynn has recently told his life story in “Toy Cannon: The Autobiography of Baseball’s Jimmy Wynn,”which was co-authored by Bill McCurdy.
David Laurila: What was baseball like in your era, the 1960s and 1970s?
Jimmy Wynn: In my era, baseball was fun. Everybody loved the game… the fans, especially the kids who brought their parents out to support their favorite ballplayer and ballclub. It was more or less togetherness back in the ‘60s and ‘70s; everybody loved one another, everybody loved playing the game of baseball, and I think it showed on all the players.
It wasn’t like today’s game; I think today’s game is more of a business. Any time that you start paying these guys multi-million-dollar contracts, it becomes a business. Back then, the money was OK, but I think it was fun. Guys put on the uniform and respected that uniform. I’m not saying that the guys don’t respect what they’re wearing now—I think they do—but it was just fun. We went out there with smiles on our faces and enjoyed the game itself.
DL:> What was it like to be a young African-American baseball player in the early 1960s?
JW: Well, being a black ballplayer in the 1960s, I never thought about being colored or being black, so to speak. I had a job to do; I put on the same uniform as the other guys did. I’m just happy that I played with Houston, because everybody on the Houston Astros played together and they loved one another. We ate together, we stayed together, and we were part of a unique family.
DL: In the book, you talk about how the South wasn’t yet fully integrated when you were in the minor leagues.
JW: That’s so true. There were certain areas in Florida and the Florida State League where I played my first professional season [in 1962]… there were certain places in Florida that didn’t cotton to a black ballplayer playing in a white sport. Of course at that time, you know, I was called all kinds of names. I’m just fortunate that I wasn’t prejudiced at that time—and I’m not prejudiced now—and I was very fortunate that my father taught me the etiquette of being who you are and staying with that concept. I’ve lived with that concept for years and years now, and I’ve never deviated from that.
One of the things about the different name-callings that happened in Florida was that I had two great managers. One was Hershell Freeman, who did everything possible to make sure that I wasn’t hurt from the name-calling. He defended me a great deal. The other was Johnny Vander Meer, who everybody knows about because of the two no-hitters back-to-back. I had two great guys who I respected a great deal, and they were more or less like father figures to me.
DL: You went on to play for Harry Walker, who you describe in the book as a racist.
JW: I try not to delve deep into Harry Walker’s mindset, and why he was the way that he was—the things that he tried to do to certain ballplayers, mainly black ballplayers, when he was managing. What we tried to do, or what I tried to do, was to continue to play the game that I loved the way that I wanted to play it. That was to play it hard and with the attitude of knowing that the only thing the Astros signed me to do was hit home runs, drive in runs, and steal bases. But Harry took things into his own hands, where he tried to change me from being what I was to what he wanted me to be. I couldn’t do that. I rebelled; I rebelled a great deal. There was no name-calling or anything like that; it was just me doing what I wanted to do and not what he wanted me to do.
DL: What specifically did Walker want you to do?
JW: Get more walks, hit first, hit the ball to right field, not worry about hitting home runs, not worry about driving in runs. Those sorts of things. He wanted to make me a .300 hitter, instead of me being a .250 or maybe .275 hitter. I rebelled against that. The thing that really made me disappointed in what I did was that every ballclub that came into the Astrodome, or when I went on the road, everybody looked at me and said, “We don’t have to worry about Jimmy Wynn anymore; all we have to do is put him on base, and let him run, and he will not hurt us.” In other words, he will not hit home runs and drive in runs, and help the ballclub win ballgames. That’s the only thing that I really, really revolted against.
DL: Bill James has you rated as the 10th-best center fielder of all time, right ahead of Larry Doby. What do you think when you read something like that?
JW: That makes me feel great. There was a whole lot of great center fielders when I played, and there are still some great center fielders now. Those are things that I never realized happened, because living in Houston we were not a newspaper kind of reach-out-to-folks like LA, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco were. Reading about that made me feel really, really great, to understand that somebody out there knew exactly what I was, and what I was capable of doing. To be named one of the top 10 center fielders in the game? Hey, that’s a mind-blowing situation.
DL: You write in the book about your close friendship with Joe Morgan, which is somewhat ironic in that he is infamously dismissive of the importance of on-base percentage. That was one of the things you excelled at.
JW: My job was to get on base and hopefully score runs. The only way to do that was to walk, hit home runs, and drive in runs. The players that were behind me at that time were not capable of doing that on a daily basis. Joe’s thing, that I could not understand but I did later on in baseball, was that he was a stat man. He wanted to improve his stats each and every year and he wanted me to do the same thing. That was Joe’s thing and not mine. My thing was to try to win as many ballgames as I can, and to help the team go to the playoffs and the World Series, which I tried so desperately to do, but we couldn’t do it.
DL: You came up as an infielder and stole a lot bases early in your career. Do you see yourself and Morgan as having been at all similar players?
JW: Joe was more, I wouldn’t say a complete player, but he was pretty close to it. He could steal, he could hit, but he couldn’t hit the home runs. Being a second baseman, he did what he could. The thing I think really helped Joe to improve everything about the game of baseball was Nellie Fox. Nellie Fox helped him become a great second baseman.
I was very happy to get out of shortstop. I was very happy to become a center fielder for the Astros. I think that was one of my crowning moments, to be in center field, where I could use my speed and my arm.
DL: How much impact did the Astrodome have on your career?
JW: I think it had a great deal to do with it, to the point that I think if I’d have played in a different ballpark I could have had a little over 400 home runs and been in the running for the baseball Hall of Fame. But I was very fortunate and very happy to be in Houston and very fortunate and very happy to play in the Astrodome.
DL: Do you ever think about how your career might have been different had you never left Cincinnati?
JW: Yeah, I would have played in the minor leagues for five or six years and I’d have never gotten the opportunity to be in the major leagues as quick as I did if the Astros hadn’t drafted me. When I was playing in Cincinnati, they had Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Wally Post, and they had Tommy Harper coming up. They had all these guys in the big leagues before me and in the minor leagues coming up and of course they had Johnny Temple and Roy McMillan, two of the greatest guys that I respect a great deal, at shortstop and second base. I would have spent five, maybe six years in the minor leagues before they even decided to bring me up, so I was very fortunate to be drafted by Houston and to get a chance to show my skills and what I was capable of doing.
DL: That said, once you did get to Cincinnati you’d have played on a championship ballclub and probably hit a lot more home runs.
JW: I probably would have. And I would have played in front of my family and my friends, my high school friends and high school coaches who guided me to become a very good ballplayer. Yeah, I could have hit a lot more home runs, and I could have been with a ballclub that probably would have won a lot more pennants than the Astros, but I look back on that and God blessed me with the Astros. I’ve never looked back.
DL: Speaking of friends and family, do you think that fans are sometimes guilty of forgetting that players are real people with real problems?
JW: Yeah, they look at us as almost like gods, I think up to a certain point. We cannot do any wrong, and when we do they look at us like “Why did you do this? You had a great career, you’re making a lot of money.” I think that’s the first thing they look at, you know. You make a lot of money, so why are you doing this? They look at us kind of like gods, and I don’t think they should do that. We are people just like they are. We just happen to be professional baseball players.
DL: From reading your book, it appears that marital problems and nightlife negatively impacted your career? Is that fair to say?
JW: Yeah, that’s fair. That’s No. 1, yeah. My married life was going to “the kapootsies” as I put it, and I had to do something. There’s no way in the world I could have stayed in the house and tried to do things to bring the marriage back to the way I wanted it to be. I ventured out a great deal and had a lot of drinking partners, and I would sit down at different clubs and enjoy myself. That was something a majority of the ballplayers did. We didn’t have any, so to speak, drugs back in those days that we could have taken to relax, but we did our own thing. I relaxed with alcohol.
DL: In the book, you say that you lost the 1967 home-run crown to "the greatest legitimate career home-run hitter of all time.”
JW: Yeah, so to speak. I lost it and Hank [Aaron] and I became really good friends, mainly because of what he said to me. He called me and told me that he was going to sit out the last game of the season, and him and I would be the co-home-run champions of the National League. I said that I would love that, but that something was going to happen. And it did. I think the commissioner of baseball found out that Hank was going to sit out the last game and he didn’t want him to, and he called Hank and told him he had to play. Consequently, Hank played and hit two home runs, and I didn’t, and he became the home-run champion. He said that Jimmy Wynn should be the home-run hitting champion, because of the Astrodome. That made me feel good. It was nice for me to be No. 2, because of all the great home-run hitters at that particular time.
DL: Did you call Aaron “the greatest legitimate career home-run hitter” because his era was more honest than more recent ones?
JW: Very much so. It was very, very honest; he did it on sheer athletic ability. There was no pill-taking, no shot-taking. He is, truly in my eyes and the eyes of a whole bunch of other ballplayers, the greatest home-run hitter in baseball, and always will be.
DL: You were briefly with the Yankees late in your career and it sounds like you did not get along well with Reggie Jackson.
JW: I didn’t. A lot of ballplayers at that particular time, 1977, didn’t get along with him, because to me he was not a team player. He was strictly for Reggie Jackson, and by Reggie Jackson. Whatever he did was for him and not the team. No, I didn’t get along with him at all; that began in spring training.
DL: Can you tell the story about your last big-league home run?
JW: My last home run was, I would say, one of the greatest home runs that I’ve ever hit. It was in Yankee Stadium on Opening Day. I came to the ballpark and didn’t realize that I was playing because it was a right-handed pitcher pitching for Milwaukee. I had been brought in to be the DH, but only against left-handed pitching. Of course, I had to get my mindset together. First time up, home run, dead center field on the black tarp out there. The first person that met me at home plate was Reggie Jackson and I ran right by him. Then I sat down on the bench, and he came down, and to make a long story short he thought my nickname “The Toy Cannon” didn’t fit me because I played in the National League and not the American League. When he came down to the bench he said, “Jimmy Wynn, you are truly the ‘Toy Cannon,’” and I just told him “Don’t you ever forget it.”
DL: What was the longest home run you ever hit?
JW: There are quite a few of them. One that I admired a great deal, and one that Drayton McLane, who is the owner of the Astros, loved was the one that I hit in Cincinnati over the scoreboard and onto the freeway at old Crosley Field. There was also one that I didn’t realize, until they showed me the picture, in Forbes Field, in dead center field, over the batting cage and over a few trees. Those two had to be the longest ones. Of course the one that [most people] think is the longest one is the one that I hit here in Houston, into the yellow section in the Astrodome.
DL: How did a man your size hit a baseball so far?
JW: I drank a lot of milk.