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."