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."