Remembering Jimmy Wynn, the Toy Cannon (1942-2020)

Like his longtime Astros teammate Joe Morgan, Jimmy Wynn packed a lot of punch into a relatively diminutive frame, and did a great many things well on the diamond while thriving in a low-offense environment. Listed at 5-foot-9, the “Toy Cannon” made three All-Star teams during his 15 major league seasons (1963-77), but he likely would have drawn even greater appreciation had his career taken place a few decades later. His combination of tape-measure power, a keen batting eye, a strong throwing arm, speed, and solid work in center field has made him a stathead favorite, one whose career numbers (.250/.366/.436 for a 129 OPS+ with 291 homers, 225 steals, and 55.8 bWAR) tell quite a story. Bill James ranked him 10th among center fielders in The New Bill James Historical Abstract circa 2001, and similarly, it took Wynn until well after his playing career to be fully appreciated by Houston fans, that after he had worked his way back from a dark domestic altercation (in which he was stabbed by his wife in self-defense) to become a community icon whose name graced a baseball facility for urban youth, and whose number 24 hung in the rafters of Minute Maid Park.

“It’s never too late to make things right,” Wynn wrote in Toy Cannon, his 2010 autobiography, a frank account of his career and the mistakes he made along the way. “Even if it does mean that you may have to crawl out of a deeper hole at an older age to get your life turned around. You can still do it, one day at a time, if it’s important to you.”

Wynn died last Thursday in Houston at the age of 78. His cause of death was not announced.

Born in Cincinnati on March 12, 1942, Wynn was the oldest of seven children of Joseph and Maude Wynn, and grew up near the Reds’ ballpark Crosley Field. His father was a sanitation worker, though Wynn “still called him a garbage man because that’s what he was doing and there is no shame in that work at all,” as he wrote in his autobiography. Joseph, who played semipro ball in Cincinnati into his late 40s, coached his son in Little League, and worked with him tirelessly.

“My father made me the kind of hitter I am,” Wynn told Sports illustrated’s Ron Fimrite in 1974:

“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.”

Wynn was a four-sport star at Robert A. Taft High School, running cross country in addition to playing baseball, football, and basketball. Though the Reds tried to sign Wynn after he graduated high school in 1960, he honored his mother’s wish to attend Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, but spent just two years there before signing with the Reds in 1962. That was three years before the amateur draft was instituted; he received a signing bonus of just $500. Even at age 20 and encountering the racism of the Deep South at Class D Tampa, he demonstrated the skills that would help him flourish at the major league level, batting .290/.448/.445 with 14 homers, 20 steals and 113 walks. Wynn spent most of that season playing third base, with additional time at second and in the outfield as well.

The Reds — who at the major league level had Vada Pinson in center field and Frank Robinson in right — did not get to keep Wynn. In November 1962, he was selected by the Houston Colt .45s in the first-year player draft, a bygone parallel to the Rule 5 draft. The Colt .45s, who had joined the NL as an expansion team in 1962, sent Wynn to Double-A San Antonio for the first half of the ’63 season, playing him mostly at shortstop with a bit of third base thrown in. Called up to make his major league debut on July 10, 1963, he was assigned no. 24 by Houston general manager Paul Richards. “They gave me the number, and told me to be another Willie Mays,” Wynn told Fimrite. “That’s too much to ask of anyone. There is only one Mays.”

Batting sixth and playing shortstop in his debut, Wynn did manage to go 1-for-4 with a ninth-inning single and a stolen base against the Pirates’ Bob Friend. His first 13 major league starts were at shortstop, but after struggling defensively, he moved to center field, and played a smattering of left field as well. On September 27, he was part of the majors’ first all-rookie lineup, notably joined by Morgan (second base), Rusty Staub (first base), and Jerry Grote (catcher), all of whom went on to long and distinguished major league careers. The starter that day, 17-year-old pitcher Jay Dahl, was less fortunate; not only did he never pitch in the majors again, he died in a car accident six months before his 20th birthday.

Wynn finished the 1963 season with a respectable .244/.319/.372 (104 OPS+) line, with four homers and four steals in 286 PA in 1963, though rough defense (-7 runs according to Total Zone) limited him to 0.3 WAR. He began the 1964 season as Houston’s starting center fielder, but slumped (.224/.301/.324) and was demoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City in midseason before returning in September. He came into his own in 1965, as the Colt .45s became the Astros and moved into the cavernous Astrodome, which measured 340 feet down each foul line, 375 to the power alleys, and 406 to center field. Though he struggled to follow fly balls, since the venue’s ceiling hadn’t been painted yet, the 23-year-old Wynn broke out to hit .275/.371/.470 for a 144 OPS+ (eighth in the NL) and, thanks to average defense in center field, 7.4 WAR. His follow-up to that breakout ended on August 1 when he fractured his left wrist and elbow in a collision with the center field wall in Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium, as Dick Allen circled the bases on a 10th-inning walk-off homer. Ouch.

After finishing with a 116 OPS+ in 1966, Wynn rebounded to a 138 mark in ’67, driven by his 37 homers, a total he would never top and one that ranked second in the NL behind only Hank Aaron. He accounted for 15 of the Astros’ 31 home runs at home, while his 22 road homers led the league. On June 10, he homered over Crosley Field’s 45-foot scoreboard and out onto the freeway.

Five days later, Wynn produced the first three-homer game in Astrodome history; it would take 27 years until Jeff Bagwell produced the second. Each of those homers was estimated to be at least 400 feet. Other prodigious shots, including one in Pittsburgh that cleared Forbes Field’s center field wall, 457 feet away, further stoked his legend. Wynn made his first All-Star team, and by the late summer, had a nickname. Via the Houston Chronicle’s John Wilson in the August 26 edition of The Sporting News:

Jim Wynn is Houston’s Toy Cannon. No other 168-pounder has ever swung the bat with such power. That is an all-inclusive statement, of course. If there are any doubts, just go down the list of baseball’s home run hitters.

Wynn’s weight stays at a constant 166 to 169 pounds, and he looks even smaller. But the 25-year-old Cincinnatian doesn’t just hit home runs— he hits them out of sight. He easily has been the king of the tape-measure men this year.

Wynn resisted the nickname at first, then embraced it. “I privately ate it up because of everything my dad said about nicknames: ‘You haven’t arrived until you have one,” he wrote.

That 1967 season began a four-year stretch across which Wynn hit .267/.384/.492. His 150 OPS+ for the period ranked ninth in the majors, his 22.7 WAR tied for seventh, his 123 homers sixth, and third in the NL behind only Willie McCovey (151) and Aaron (150). His 158 OPS+ in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, ranked third in the NL, while his career-best 166 the following year placed fourth. That year, he tied an NL record with 148 walks, in part the product of anemic work by the cleanup hitters directly behind him, who combined for just nine homers and a .348 slugging percentage. Not until 1996, when Barry Bonds drew 151 walks, was the record eclipsed.

In June 1968, Astros hitting coach Harry Walker was promoted to manager, replacing the fired Grady Hatton. Best known as the 1947 NL batting champion, Walker was a slappy singles hitter who totaled just 10 home runs in his 11 big league seasons. He disapproved of Wynn’s penchant for swing-and-miss; the slugger had struck out an NL-high 137 times in 1967, and followed with seasons of 131 and 142. “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,” Wynn told Fimrite. “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.”

Morgan similarly clashed with Walker, who tried to change his hitting style as well, and in his 1993 memoir called him a racist for the way he treated black players. Wynn concurred, calling Walker “both a racist and a stupid ‘people person’… either the meanest man in the world, or else the most clueless manager in baseball history.” Wynn wasn’t confrontational, however. “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.”

Despite that conflict, Wynn was flourishing on the field, but off of it, things weren’t going so well. His marriage to Ruth Mixon, which had produced two children, was deteriorating. In Toy Cannon, Wynn admitted that he married Mixon, whom he hardly knew, because he was at risk to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Astros general manager Spec Richardson advised him that marrying would allow him a deferral. By Wynn’s own admission, he was not a good husband. “Our unhappiness covered everything in the world that could go wrong between a young couple. We were just totally lost and mightily struggling,” he wrote.

On the night of December 21, 1970, the couple’s sixth anniversary, an argument escalated. According to the United Press International account (but unmentioned in his autobiography), Wynn picked up a shotgun, which was unloaded, and Mixon defended herself by stabbing her husband in the abdomen — “the left side about halfway between the navel and the side,” according to the UPI report — with a four-inch steak knife. Neither party filed charges, but Wynn needed emergency surgery, and the pair soon divorced. In a particularly soul-searching stretch of his autobiography, Wynn wrote of forgiving Mixon, who died of cancer several years later, “I can only hope that she somehow found a way during her own lifetime to forgive me too for not being the kind of husband and partner she both needed and deserved so many years ago. I also most actively pray that my two wonderful natural-born kids, Kimberly and Jimmy Jr., can find it in their hearts to forgive their very imperfect father and the way he handled this early part of his life.”

Where today he most likely would have faced discipline from MLB for his part in the altercation, Wynn was in the Astros’ 1971 Opening Day lineup, but he slogged through a dreadful season (72 OPS+, -0.6 WAR in 466 PA), and at times flat-out ignored Walker. “I will never use the violent end to my first marriage as an excuse for the bad year I had on the field during the 1971 season, but I can say honestly that I never before felt less like playing ball or doing anything good for myself than I did that year,” he wrote.

While many believed Wynn would be traded after that dreadful season, instead it was Morgan who was dealt, to the Reds in a blockbuster that also included future All-Star hurler Jack Billingham and future three-time Gold Glove winner Cesar Geronimo, all of whom became key components of the Big Red Machine as they won four division titles, three pennants, and two championships over the next five seasons. Wynn and the Astros both improved; he posted a 146 OPS+ with 24 homers, 17 steals, 103 walks and 5.5 WAR for a team that went 84-69 in the strike-shortened 1972 season. Late in the year, Walker was fired, replaced by Leo Durocher. Eager to harness Wynn’s on-base ability, Durocher moved Wynn into the leadoff spot for most of the 1973 season, but the slugger had difficulty adjusting, and hit just .220/.347/.395.

After three years of enduring the boos from Astros fans who had soured on him, Wynn was traded to the Dodgers for lefty Claude Osteen and a minor league pitcher. This, too, proved to be a lopsided deal that went against the Astros, as Osteen turned in a subpar season that culminated in an August trade to the Cardinals. Wynn, on the other hand, got a new lease on his career. Per Fimrite, Dodgers manager Walter 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.”

Students of baseball history will note that Dixie Walker, a former batting champion and four-time All-Star, is remembered primarily for having led a faction of the Dodgers in rebelling against the arrival of Jackie Robinson during the spring of 1947, circulating a petition of which Durocher famously said, “You can wipe your ass with it.” Apparently, Walker had evolved in the ensuing quarter-century. “He came up to me and told me he knew I’d had some problems with his brother,” Wynn told Fimrite. “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.” The two became golfing partners, and Wynn set career highs in both RBI (108) and WAR (7.7) while batting .271/.387/.497 (151 OPS+) with 32 homers — at the time, the most hit by a Dodger since their 1958 arrival from Brooklyn.

He made the All-Star team for the second time, and the Dodgers won the NL pennant for the first time since 1966. Alas, Wynn scuffled in the postseason, and his lone home run — a ninth-inning shot off the A’s Rollie Fingers in the World Series opener — came in defeat. Wynn finished fifth in that year’s NL MVP voting, his highest showing; teammates Steve Garvey and Mike Marshall finished first and third, respectively. Wynn did win The Sporting News‘ NL Comeback Player of the Year award. “I sure don’t want to win it again,” he quipped.

After undergoing offseason surgery to remove bone chips in his right elbow, which had particularly hampered his throwing, Wynn made the All-Star team again in 1975 thanks to a hot start, and followed Garvey in hitting back-to-back homers off Vida Blue during the All-Star Game in Milwaukee. Unfortunately, he tailed off drastically after the break due at least in part to right shoulder problems, though he still finished with a .403 on-base percentage, a 134 OPS+, and 4.7 WAR.

On November 17, 1975, the Dodgers traded the going-on-34-year-old Wynn and three other players (Lee Lacy, Tom Paciorek, and Jerry Royster) to the Braves for Dusty Baker and Ed Goodson. Though Wynn hit for just a .207 batting average in his lone year with the Braves, his 17 homers, 16 steals, and NL-high 127 walks still translated to a respectable 2.7 WAR. On November 30 of that year, Wynn was sold to the Yankees, and while he homered off the Brewers’ Bill Travers in his first plate appearance on Opening Day, it proved to be the Toy Cannon’s final blast. The 35-year-old slugger slid into an unfathomable 2-for-52 slump, amid which his most notable contribution was keeping Jackson from coming to blows with manager Billy Martin in the Fenway Park dugout after being pulled from a June 18 game for lackadaisical play in right field. Released in mid-July, Wynn caught on with the Brewers, but between the two stints, hit just .175/.289/.237 in 228 PA. He was done.

Wynn retired to Los Angeles to play golf and represent a beverage company. He attempted a brief comeback with the Coahuila Mineros of the Mexican League, but the ballpark was 360 feet down the foul lines “and it just got far worse from there,” as he wrote. He didn’t last long before hanging up his spikes for good.

Spurred by the death of his own parents, Wynn moved back to Houston in 1985 in order to be closer to his children, with whom he worked to rebuild his relationships. In 1988, he rejoined the Astros in a community outreach capacity, and save for a brief stint in 1997 as a minor league hitting coach, he spent the remainder of his life in that role. He worked tirelessly in the Houston area, making hundreds of appearances on behalf of the team and the Astros’ Foundation. From his autobiography:

“I went to many schools in the Houston area on a regular basis, just to talk about everything from how I got started in Baseball, the Astros, the importance of following their own dreams, the value of learning from their own mistakes, avoiding drugs, bad company, and crime, the value of healthy self-esteem, and the importance of having a life plan for themselves that’s built around what they really care about.”

In the 1990s, Wynn got involved in the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, and later spent years as a board member. In 1992, Wynn was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame, which in 2004 named an annual award for exceptional community service in his honor: the Jimmy Wynn Toy Cannon Award. In 2005, the Astros retired his number 24, and in ’11, the team and Minute Maid officially dedicated the Jimmy Wynn Training Center, a state-of-the-art baseball facility in North Houston, available for youngsters of all ages at no cost to their families. “Come out and learn the game of baseball, learn the facts of life – you have no excuse now,” Wynn said at the dedication ceremony. “If you need me I’ll be available. I might be slow, but I’m available.”

Last year, the Astros included Wynn among their inaugural class of 16 inductees to the team’s Hall of Fame. As for the real one in Cooperstown, Wynn was shut out entirely when he appeared on the ballot in 1983. That makes him the owner of the highest JAWS (49.6) of any player to receive zero votes on a BBWAA ballot, though two caveats apply. First, the organization did not begin reporting such shutouts until 1978, presumably so as not to embarrass anyone; it was only a year later that the first iteration of the “Five Percent Rule” was even put into place. Second, one rung above Wynn’s spot in the JAWS rankings among center fielders is Willie Davis, with 49.9; for reasons that apparently relate to his stints in Japan (1977-78) and Mexico (1980) sandwiched around a brief return to MLB in 1979, Davis never even appeared on a BBWAA ballot.

Did Wynn deserve better? His JAWS is 8.4 points below the standard for center fielders; he’s much closer on seven-year peak WAR (43.3, 1.4 below the standard) than career WAR (55.8, 15.5 below the mark). He outranks nine out of the 19 Hall of Fame center fielders in JAWS, but above him, among the unenshrined are Carlos Beltrán, Kenny Lofton, Andruw Jones, Jim Edmonds, and Davis, not to mention Mike Trout.

By retiring in his mid-30s, with just 1,665 career hits, Wynn counts as one of many greats to fall victim to the “Rule of 2,000.” No player from the post-1960 expansion era with fewer than 2,000 hits has been elected, either by the writers or the small committees. From among that group, the likes of Dick Allen, Bobby Grich, and Minnie Minoso clearly have stronger cases, and Jones and Edmonds are in the group photo as well. Wynn’s score of 36 on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor makes clear that he didn’t check the boxes that usually catch voters’ attention; he made just three All-Star teams, never won a Gold Glove, only once played in the postseason, and fell short of major milestones. The Monitor doesn’t account for raw numbers that took a hit from the pitchers’ parks he played in during a low-scoring era, nor does it reward his high on-base percentages, which were driven by his walking 77% more often than the league average during the course of his career; his 177 BB%+ is in a virtual tie for 10th among players with at least 7,000 PA during the post-1960 expansion era. Had he come along 25 or 30 years later, his story with respect to Cooperstown might have been different.

One table, I think, gets to the heart of why Wynn’s career was so under-appreciated in its time but looks stronger, if not quite Hallworthy, today:

Highest bWAR with .250 Batting Average or Lower
Rk Player Years AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+ WAR
1 Graig Nettles 1967-1988 .248/.329/.421 110 68.0
2 Darrell Evans 1969-1989 .248/.361/.431 119 58.8
3 Jim Wynn 1963-1977 .250/.366/.436 129 55.8
4 Curtis Granderson 2004-2019 .249/.337/.465 114 47.0
5 Gene Tenace 1969-1983 .241/.388/.429 136 46.8
6 Mike Cameron 1995-2011 .249/.338/.444 106 46.7
7 Darrell Porter 1971-1987 .247/.354/.409 113 40.9
8 Mark Belanger 1965-1982 .228/.300/.280 68 40.9
9 Jim Sundberg 1974-1989 .248/.327/.348 90 40.5
10 Donie Bush 1908-1923 .250/.356/.300 91 39.3
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Unlike Nettles, Wynn was no defensive wiz (-28 runs according to Total Zone, offset by more than enough via his bat and baserunning), but otherwise, he was just about as valuable as a player with such a modest batting average can be.

Wynn’s career and his life both had their ups and downs. Understandably, some might have trouble reconciling the image of the beloved civic icon with the violent incident that ended his marriage. But over the ensuing half-century, the man devoted himself to change for the better, not only in himself but in the world around him. That’s a legacy worth remembering.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Ryan DC
Ryan DC

Great article on a player with whom I was totally unfamiliar. Thanks!