A fantastic ballplayer, the Toy Cannon, died Thursday at age 78. When I fell in love with baseball and the Houston Astros, he was one of the guys I fell hardest for.
After we moved from West Virginia when I was a baby until I was 10, we lived 5 short miles from the Astrodome. I was barely in school when center fielder Jimmy Wynn and the Astros started ruling my sports world. In my mind the first true star-quality player the franchise had, Wynn played for the Colt .45s and Astros from 1963 to 1973, hitting 223 homers while playing 81 games a year in the cavernous Dome.
I was just 6 years old in 1967, but I remember Wynn’s great year, when he hit 37 homers and drove in 107 runs, even while hitting only .249 and leading the NL with 137 strikeouts for a team that finished a miserable 69-93. For a guy of less-than-menacing stature at 5-10 (but closer to 5-9) and 160 pounds, Wynn had great pop, earning his Toy Cannon nickname and ending up with 291 dingers in a career that later took him to the Dodgers, Braves, Yankees and Brewers. After he and Astros teammate Doug Rader became the first hitters to reach the upper deck of the Astrodome in 1970, their feats were memorialized with “Toy Cannon” and “Red Rooster” seats where their bombs landed.
A highlight of my brief sports writing career was meeting Wynn in my first job, at The Odessa American after I graduated from Texas A&M in 1983. In early February 1984, he was among the sports celebrities attending the annual Midland sports banquet that I covered. The other two biggies on hand that night were baseball Hall of Famer Vernon “Lefty” Gomez, who won 5 World Series with the Yankees (1932, 1936-39) and hulking former Oakland Raiders defensive end Ben Davidson, who, at 6-8, towered over 6-2 yours truly. Now that Wynn’s gone, all three have passed away.
The three of them were gracious enough to spend a few minutes letting this 22-year-old rookie journalist interview them separately before the event began. But I’ve got to admit, for me it was all about getting to talk to the Toy Cannon. Of course, I told him I’d grown up watching him play. At the time of that banquet 36 years ago, his 37 homers and 107 RBI in 1967, as well as his 223 HRs while playing in Houston, still stood as franchise records.
“I went through more managers than players,” he cracked of those “really tough years” when the team struggled mightily to break .500. “The only thing I really regret about my years with the Astros is we didn’t bring the people of Texas a championship ballclub.”
Wynn said he remembered his Houston friendships as among the most memorable aspects of his playing career — guys like Joe Morgan, Larry Dierker, Bob Watson and the late Don Wilson.
“All of us, whenever we went on the road, stuck together,” he said. “It was just like a beautiful family. We always ate together and had a few drinks together. Those friendships will be with me for a long time.”
At the time of the banquet, Wynn had been working community relations for the Astros for the past year. It was clear he was itching to get into coaching, and he would’ve been a hell of a good one. But he never did.
“I’m having a lot of fun in what I’m doing,” he told me, “but I would like to get back. I have so much knowledge to give to these young kids. It makes me feel like I’m throwing my life away. I hope to return to baseball soon.”
Hopefully it won’t be long before he’ll either be on or filling out one awesome lineup card in heaven.