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'Toy Cannon' celebrated as Houston icon

Wynn put up All-Star numbers, represented change during civil rights movement

HOUSTON -- Jimmy Wynn's first professional baseball game was in 1962, which was 15 years after Jackie Robinson broke the sport's color line and about a decade after Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and others helped clear a path for all the black players who followed.

"Those guys," Wynn said, "they made it, not really really easy, but easy enough for players like me to go to different places and be accepted. Those are things black ballplayers should be very proud of."

Wynn still experienced racism, mostly in the Minor Leagues. When he did, he'd telephone his dad, Joseph, back in Cincinnati.

"It disappointed me when that kind of thing happened," Wynn said. "I always felt that if you were part of a team, teams stayed together, played together, ate together, did things together. My father told me that I would run into things like that. He told me to discuss it with him. That's exactly what I did. By doing that, it made me a much better person.

"I'd call home at night and tell him what transpired. He just gave me some wisdom. He'd tell me, 'You knew what you were getting into. You knew what part of the world you were going to. You knew the world was prejudiced and racist. You grow with it and be a man.' That's exactly what I did."

For the Astros, Wynn is an iconic figure, beloved still. He was there at the beginning, 49 years ago when the Astrodome opened its doors and the local baseball team represented the pioneering spirit of a city that prided itself on being both innovative and visionary.

The Astrodome was breathtakingly large and spectacularly majestic, a structure unlike any other -- The Eighth Wonder of the World. To Houstonians of a certain age, it was more than just an accomplishment of bricks and mortar. It was symbolic of their city's possibilities.

Wynn is profoundly proud that his name has become synonymous with the Astros, especially those first teams when his towering home runs made him one of the franchise's first real stars.

Wynn was also one of Houston's first prominent black athletes, and he is thrilled to be representing the hometown team at several events leading up to Major League Baseball's eighth annual Civil Rights Game, this one between the Astros and Orioles at Minute Maid Park on Friday.

"This is a great event," Wynn said. "I hope we all come together and gain a better understanding of why this is important. Baseball is proud of its role in the civil rights movement in this country, and it should be."

Wynn played 11 seasons for the Astros and was a member of the 1967 National League All-Star team. He hit 37 home runs in 1967 and 33 in '69. He hit at least 20 homers five other times.

Those numbers are more impressive when weighed against the Astrodome's original spacious configuration -- 340 feet down the foul lines, 375 to the power alleys and 406 to center. Wynn became the first Astros player to homer three times in a game, and he finished his career with 97 home runs in 678 career games at the dome.

"That ballpark was built for defense and speed," Wynn said. "If you hit one there, it wasn't a cheapie."

Wynn received the ultimate tribute from the Astros in 2005 when then-owner Drayton McLane retired his No. 24 and asked him to go to work for the franchise as an ambassador.

"The Astros have been my life," Wynn said. "They gave me an opportunity to bring my skills out. It gave me a chance to realize my dream."

It's in this new role with the franchise that Wynn has learned how much he still means to Astros fans, especially those of a certain age who remember him as the "Toy Cannon." That was the nickname given him by a local newspaper reporter, John Wilson, as a nod to his incredible power and 5-foot-10 frame. In the beginning, Wynn hated it, because he thought it implied all he could do was hit home runs.

But as he heard fans around the NL chanting for the Toy Cannon, Wynn came to see it as his identity.

"At times, I forgot my real name," Wynn said. "If I hit a ball hard -- or out of the park -- I'd go back to the bench and look out to the mound to see the pitcher saying, 'How in the world can that little man hit the ball so far and so hard?' And then I got the reputation of being a power hitter and a home run hitter, so they pitched me a lot different.

"I lifted weights without people knowing about it. I kept my upper body, my hands and my wrists strong. That's where I got my power."

Players, including Mays and Willie McCovey, would tease Wynn about his ability to make the Astrodome's huge confines seem small. When Mays asked what his secret was, Wynn joked, "If I knew, I'd sell it to you."

It's also in this new role with the Astros that Wynn has begun to understand the impact he can have on people. When he speaks to schools, Wynn urges kids to stay in school, to get their degree and prepare themselves for the world that's waiting.

"Three or four years ago, a kid stopped me and asked if I was Jimmy Wynn," Wynn said. "He said he wanted to let me know that two years ago, I came to his high school and spoke. He said he understood what I meant by education and sports. He said thanks to me, he'd turned his life around, that he was staying out of trouble and concentrating on getting a degree.

"Those things mean a lot to me. If I can get to one kid, I've done my job. That's as good as it gets."

On a recent day a couple of hours before game time, the 72-year-old Wynn was sitting in the right-field seats at Minute Maid Park near his favorite spot to sign autographs. As he chatted, his eyes gazed toward the No. 24 displayed prominently above the huge video board.

"You know, it makes me feel I've done something in baseball and here in Houston," Wynn said. "As I get older, it means more to me. When I sign autographs at games, people point to that number. It's just a special feeling to be appreciated."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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