The Real Home Run Champion of 1967
Statistical analysis has done much to correct misguided perceptions and accurately adjust the performance of players in heavily favorable or unfavorable conditions. Even with continual advances in the field, one slugger has never received full credit for an impressive season in hostile territory.
Jimmy Wynn's career-high 37 home runs in 1967 may not seem like a big deal 40 years later, but the 5'9", 160-pound "Toy Cannon" put on one of the great power shows of the decade. That's because Wynn played half of his games in the Astrodome, which featured an unappealing (to sluggers) combination of spacious dimensions with the heavy, humid atmosphere of Houston.
It was more than the Dome that held Wynn's power numbers down. Pitching dominated the game in 1967, and road trips often provided Wynn with little relief from warning track fly outs. Shea Stadium, Forbes Field, Busch Stadium, Dodger Stadium and Candlestick Park were unfriendly to power hitters, and Wrigley Field could be a challenge when the wind was blowing in from nearby Lake Michigan.
Wynn finished a close second to Hank Aaron, who passed the Cannon late in the season and finished with 39 home runs. Not to take anything away from one of baseball's all-time greats, but Aaron was operating at a big advantage to his rival that season.
"The Hammer" was in his second season at Atlanta Stadium, later renamed Fulton County Stadium. Known as "The Launching Pad," the southern park was the Coors Field of its time, as flyballs cleared the fences with relative ease. While Atlanta's altitude of 1057 feet is hardly thin air territory, it was the highest park of its time and far above Houston's barely sea level terrain.
Home and road statistics prove that Wynn was operating at a distinct disadvantage. By slugging 22 homers on the road versus 15 at home, the congenial centerfielder isn't boasting when he says, "I could have hit 44 or 45 that year if I wasn't playing in the Dome." Meanwhile, Aaron came through with 23 dingers in Atlanta and added another 16 on the road.
Atlanta may have helped Aaron's batting average more than his home run total, as he hit a sizzling .350 at home versus but .268 elsewhere. Wynn actually had a higher average at the Astrodome, hitting .261 indoors versus .237 on the road for a .249 season. He had 53 RBI at home and 54 RBI outdoors.
"Judge [Roy] Hofheinz built the Dome because people wouldn't come to support the Astros if they had to be outside. It's too hot in Houston," Wynn said during a February 22 phone interview. "They should have made it smaller. The Dome was a real pitcher's park." Despite the disadvantages of playing in "The Eighth Wonder of the World," Wynn didn't change his swing-from-the-heels approach at home.
"I kept my original swing and mindset in the Dome," he insists. "The only thing I might do differently was to try and get the ball up in the air a little more on the road. Guys like Willie Mays and Willie McCovey would say they couldn't hit it over the fence in the Dome even during batting practice. A lot of the balls I hit really well were caught on the warning track there."
No stadium could have contained the bomb Wynn smacked on June 10, 1967. Playing in his hometown of Cincinnati, Wynn crushed a pitch from Mel Queen. It sailed over Crosley Field's 58-foot high scoreboard in left-centerfield and landed on adjoining Interstate 75.
"I usually didn't play that well in Cincinnati, since I was trying too hard to impress my family and friends," Wynn said, "but that one was one of the greatest home runs of all time." He followed that up with a three-homer performance in the Dome on June 15.
How did the compact Wynn hit with such power? The right-handed hitter was one of the first players to work with weights despite 1960s stereotypes that claimed such exercise was detrimental to baseball players.
"It wasn't heavy lifting," he said. "I did some curls with my hands, arms and wrists. Most players didn't do weights then. My father taught me how to hit and use my legs."
Both Wynn and Aaron lost their power stroke at the end of the season, which may have lessened the drama of the National League home run race. Wynn's last homer came in Game 146 off Bill Hands of the Cubs on September 11. Aaron hit his 38th bomb in Game 152 at home against the Reds on September 20. His 39th home run came in Game 157 on September 26 in Cincinnati. Milt Pappas served up the long balls that gave Aaron the margin of victory over Wynn.
"Hank said, 'Jimmy Wynn should be the home run champion because he had to play in the Astrodome,'" Wynn remarked. "The title never crossed my mind until after the season when people started saying, 'Jimmy, you could have led the league.' I got some publicity that year, but Houston wasn't a media capitol. Being number two to Hank Aaron - the greatest home run hitter of all time - is truly an honor."
Wynn is a player who looks far better to the serious baseball devotee than the casual fan. A .250 lifetime average may not be an eye grabber, but Wynn's 1224 career walks combined with 1665 hits gives him a career .366 on-base percentage, which is well above the combined league .323 OBP during his time in the majors.
Add 293 career home runs, dependable defense in centerfield and nine seasons played at the death to hitters Astrodome, and Wynn's value as a player quickly becomes apparent. His stat line includes six seasons with 100 or more walks topped by a National League record-tying 148 walks in 1969. The Toy Cannon had three seasons with more walks than hits.
Hitting 37 homers in the worst power stadium in the majors during a pitching-dominated era raises an obvious question: What could a young Jimmy Wynn do at Minute Maid Park in the 21st century?
"I look at Minute Maid and just visualize myself tearing those walls down," Wynn said with a smile. "The fans want home runs, and that's what they're getting with the new stadiums."