For the better part of a decade, Early Wynn was a prolific and dependable pitcher, regularly at the top of the list of American League pitchers in wins, strikeouts, starts and innings.
He was a mainstay in the Indians’ rotation for the 1954 team that won 111 games and the pennant, and won the Cy Young Award five years later as he led the White Sox to the American League flag.
But by the fall of 1962, Wynn was running on fumes, but trying to reach what at the time was an elusive milestone: 300 wins. It took him eight tries with two teams, but 53 years ago today, he finally did it.
Nobody had won 300 games in the American League since Lefty Grove won his 300th in 1941. At the time, Wynn was a 21-year-old pitcher for the Senators, not that far removed from the Alabama cotton fields. He didn’t come into his own as a pitcher until he was dealt to the Indians after the 1948 season. There, under the tutelage of Mel Harder, Wynn developed a curveball and slider.
Wynn’s rise coincided with one of the best eras in Indians history. For seven straight years, from 1950 until 1957, he was good for at least 17 wins, four times winning at least 20 games and leading the league with 23 wins in 1954. In that span, he led the league in innings three times and innings pitched twice.
After the 1957 season, he was dealt to Chicago. In 1959, he went 22-10, again leading the league in starts and innings pitched, as the White Sox won their first pennant in 40 years.
His final win for the Pale Hose came on September 8, 1962. By then, he was 43, the oldest player in the major leagues. He got three more starts for the South Siders, and took the loss each time. Finally, after the season, he was released.
In April 1963, he was a man without a team – and it was difficult for him.
“I would like to get my game, but it’s kind of hard to work hard without a direct incentive,” Wynn said in an interview in April. He was trying to keep in playing shape by throwing batting practice for the White Sox’ minor league team in Sarasota, and said fans were pulling for him to get that 300th win – even the ones that hated seeing him on the mound opposing their favorite teams. Bill Veeck, then out of baseball, said he had no doubt Wynn could still be an asset to a team.
Wynn said he’d had talks with the Cardinals and the Houston Colt .45s, and rumors surfaced that he was headed to Kansas City. But on May 31, 1963, the Indians signed Wynn. Legendary Plain Dealer sports editor Gordon Cobbledick said it was good move, even if it was just for public relations purposes. But Birdie Tebbetts said he thought it was a good move for baseball purposes, and Wynn said his goal was to pitch through 1964.
But he really didn’t have a lot left. After three starts – a loss and two no-decisions – Wynn was scheduled to pitch a nightcap against the Kansas City Athletics. Wynn said later his gout kept him from sleeping. He went five innings – the minimum to get the win – and left with a 5-4 lead, having gotten tagged for three runs in his final frame of work. Wynn was grateful to Tebbetts for lifting him for a pinch-hitter. “I might have fallen on my face,” he said later. “I was exhausted.”
Mercifully, Jerry Walker threw four innings of shutout ball to preserve the win. Wynn got one more start for the Indians, but the end was at hand. The end was also at hand for his mentor, Harder, who was fired as pitching coach. Tebbetts offered the job to Wynn, who was reluctant to take it for fear of making it look like he’d pushed Harder out. But Tebbetts said there was going to be a new pitching coach the next year regardless. “It was then, and only then – after some deliberation – that he took it.”
Of course, Wynn was taken off the active roster as a result. Like Grove, he retired with exactly 300 wins – but 103 more losses than Lefty. “He does have a miraculous arm, and if he wanted to dedicate himself to actively pitching again he could do it,” Tebbetts said. “I’m not so sure the challenge is there any more now that he has reached his goal.”
Wynn served as Indians pitching coach for three years, and served as a coach and broadcaster for other teams as well. In 1972, he was elected to the Indians and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Also that year, Gaylord Perry won 24 games for the Indians – the last 20-game winner for the Tribe for 36 years. Perry would be the next 300-game winner in the majors – in 1982, another 19 years after Wynn pulled off the feat.
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project