No hitter was eager to bat against Early Wynn (1920-1999). One of baseball's most feared pitchers, he pitched 23 seasons, refusing to quit until he had won 300 games.
Wynn learned how to pitch in an era when managers instructed their pitchers to knock batters down deliberately. That seemed to suit Wynn's temperament perfectly. Mickey Mantle said Wynn was so mean "he'd knock you down in the dugout." Ted Williams called him "the toughest pitcher I ever faced." Wynn made his feelings clear in one interview when he said: "That space between the white lines—that's my office, that's where I conduct my business. You take a look at the batter's box, and part of it belongs to the hitter. But when he crowds in just that hair, he's stepping into my office, and nobody comes into my office without an invitation when I'm going to work."
Established a Presence
Early "Gus" Wynn was born on January 6, 1920 in the cotton-picking region of rural Hartford, Alabama. Like most Alabama children coming of age in the Great Depression, he faced a future of picking peanuts and working in the cotton fields. Wynn had a love for baseball, though, and he was determined to use his talents as a pitcher to make his way out of poverty. While still a junior in high school, Wynn went to a tryout camp held by the Washington Senators in Sanford, Alabama. His leg was hurting from a fracture suffered in a football game, but his pitching still impressed the scouts. Signing for $100 a month to play in the Florida State League, he never considered finishing high school. In 1937, his first season in professional baseball, he won 16 games and lost 11.
Wynn made his big league debut for the Senators in 1939 at the age of 19. It is said that manager Bucky Harris ordered him to knock down any batter that he got two strikes on. If he didn't, he'd be fined $25. "I was making $350 a month," Wynn recalled later. "I couldn't afford giving up $25." Another story has it that Wynn already arrived in the big leagues unafraid to throw inside pitches. Before Wynn's first game, Cleveland's Ben Chapman stopped by the Washington dugout and asked who was pitching. When Harris pointed out Wynn, Chapman boasted: "I'll get five hits." Wynn replied: "If you get five hits, the last three will be from a prone position." The brush-back pitch soon became part of his standard repertoire.
A burly 6-feet, 200 pounds, with a barrel chest and thick legs, Wynn was sent down for more seasoning after bunting into a triple play during a crucial late-inning situation. He was 9-7 at Charlotte in 1940. In 1941, he was 16-12 at Springfield (MA) in the Eastern League and was called up late in the season. Sporting a blazing fastball, in five starts he had an impressive 1.58 earned run average. But tragedy struck when his wife, Mabel, was killed in a car accident. She left behind an infant son, Joe. In 1944, Wynn married Lorraine Follin. They had a daughter, Sherry.
Washington was a perennial losing team and Wynn quickly became one of their top starters. He had a disappointing season in 1942, with 10 wins, 16 losses, and a 5.12 earned run average (ERA). But in 1943 he was the staff ace, leading the league with 33 starts, posting an 18-12 won-lost record and an impressive 2.91 ERA and leading the Senators to a second-place finish, their best showing since 1933. The roller-coaster ride continued in 1944, as the war-weakend club dropped all the way to last place and Wynn had a league-leading 17 losses to go with eight wins. The Senators were so bad that achieving a .500 record with them was a triumph; Wynn managed to do that in 1946 (8-5) and 1947 (15-13) but fell to a frustrating 8-19 in 1948 with a career-worst 5.82 ERA.
Coached to Greatness
At 28, Wynn seemed to be headed nowhere. He had a career 72-87 record and relied too much on his fastball because his breaking pitches were mediocre. On December 14, 1948, he was traded with first baseman Mickey Vernon to Cleveland. In baseball terms, it was like going from hell to paradise. The Indians had won the World Series in 1948 and were developing one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, with Bob Feller and Bob Lemon as their aces. Their pitching coach, Mel Harder, a 1930s mound star, took Wynn under his wing and taught him to throw a better curveball, slider and knuckleball, making him into a more complete pitcher. "The biggest thing that ever happened to me in baseball was Mel Harder," Wynn later said. "He taught me fundamentals, so I could find the trouble when my curve and slider weren't breaking. Harder made me realize that nothing concerns a pitcher except the player at bat."
Wynn threw all his pitches with the same easy motion and began to establish himself as an ace. In 1950, he led the league with a 3.20 ERA and had an 18-8 record. The next year, he won 20 games for the first time. Always a workhorse, Wynn led the league with 274 innings pitched and 34 starts, which included 21 complete games. In 1952, his record was 23-12.
In 1954, Wynn was part of perhaps the most effective starting pitching rotation in major league history. Besides him, it included Feller, Lemon and Mike Garcia. The Indians won 111 games, which stood as the American League record until the New York Yankees broke it in 1998. Wynn led the league with 36 starts and 271 innings pitched and tied Lemon with 23 victories. In the World Series, however, the Indians were swept in four games by the New York Giants, and Wynn took the loss in Game Two.
Wynn made the American League All-Star team for six straight seasons starting in 1955 and was the winning pitcher in the 1958 All-Star Game. At the height of his career, Wynn's reputation helped him as much as his talent. He was notorious for his meanness and for his blunt, outspoken comments to reporters. He never failed to retaliate if an opposing batter hit a ball at him. After his former roommate and friend Vernon was traded back to Washington, he got four hits against Wynn the first time he faced him in a game. The last hit knocked the glove off Wynn's hand. "When I got to first base, he was steaming," Vernon recalled. "He looked over and said, Roommate or not, you've got to go in the dirt seat next time I see you. Sure enough, the next time I faced him, the first pitch was up over my head."
In one game, a rookie tried to move up in the batter's box when Wynn threw a curveball. Wynn called out: "What's the matter, Sonny, the ball not getting there fast enough for you?" On the next pitch, he plunked a fastball into the batter's rib cage. His teammates loved playing when Wynn was pitching, because they knew the opposing pitcher would not try to throw inside to them, for fear of inviting Wynn's retaliation.
Wynn again won 20 games in 1956 but the next year posted his first losing record with Cleveland, 14-17, even while leading the league in strikeouts, starts and innings pitched. Cleveland traded him to the Chicago White Sox with Al Smith for Fred Hatfield and Minnie Minoso. With the White Sox, Wynn again led the league in strikeouts in 1958 but posted another losing record.
His son Joe was a promising young ballplayer and would often go out early to Comiskey Park to take batting practice against his father. One day, the son hit a couple of sharp line drives to the fence. Then he was sent sprawling in the dirt by a parental fastball inside. Wynn allegedly was asked if he would throw at his own mother, and he replied: "It would depend on how well she was hitting."
Chased a Milestone
In 1959, at the age of 39, Wynn led the White Sox to a rare pennant, with a league-leading 22 wins, 37 starts and 255 innings. The team was known as the "Go-Go Sox" because they had so many accomplished base stealers. Wynn received the Cy Young Award as the top pitcher in the American League, and finished third in the voting for the league's Most Valuable Player behind teammates Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio. "If there was one game I absolutely had to win, Early would be my pitcher," said manager Al Lopez. In fact, Wynn started the pennant-clinching game and the opener of the World Series, in which he pitched seven shutout innings as Chicago beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, 11-0. But Wynn's arm stiffened in the cold and when he returned in Game Four, he was knocked out of the game in the third inning. The White Sox relied on him, though, and made him come back on two days' rest. He only lasted into the fourth inning in Game Six, as the Dodgers won the series.
Wynn's glory days were behind him, and he was struggling with chronic gout. But he kept pitching into his 40s and remained effective. He was 8-2 in limited appearances in 1961. But the next season he slid to 7-15. He was determined to pitch until he won his milestone 300th game, which at the time only 13 other pitchers had achieved. He won his 299th game on September 8, 1962, but failed in three tries to win another. The White Sox released him.
Wynn was 43 when his old club, the Indians, signed him on May 31, 1963, to give him a chance to get his 300th victory. After more failed attempts during his 23rd major league season, he finally achieved his goal on July 13, pitching the minimum required five innings for a victory against the Kansas City Athletics. He did it after a night of sleeplessness induced by gout. He said he was glad to be taken out of the game because "I might have fallen on my face. I was exhausted."
With a career record of 300 wins, 244 losses, and a 3.54 ERA, Wynn finally retired and became the Indians' pitching coach, replacing his own tutor, Harder. Later, he was a coach for the Minnesota Twins and a broadcaster for the Toronto Blue Jays and the White Sox. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1972.
In his retirement, Wynn was an outspoken campaigner for increased pension benefits for players who played before free agency. Wynn had been instrumental in starting the retirement fund for players in 1947. But after retirement he received only about $11,000 a year in benefits. Wynn was livid that current players didn't allocate more to veterans like him. "Modern ballplayers tell us, Too bad, you should have invested better," Wynn said. "But on salaries of ten thousand to fifteen thousand dollars a year, how many investments could you make?"
Wynn died after suffering a stroke on April 4, 1999. At the time of his death, he was living in an assisted-living center in Venice, Florida.
The Baseball Encyclopedia, Macmillan, 1997.
Condon, Dave, The Go Go Chicago White Sox, American Sports Publishing, 1960.
Ryan, Nolan, Kings of the Hill: An Irreverent Look at the Men on the Mound, HarperCollins, 1992.
New York Times, April 6, 1999.
Sports Illustrated, September 2, 1985. □