The Legacy of Early Wynn

by john on June 2, 2003

Roger Clemens has failed in his second attempt to win the 300th game of his career, first last week against the Red Sox and then yesterday against the lowly Tigers, who erased a 7-1 deficit to send Clemens to the showers and another game ended in frustration. That the Yankees ended up winning in 17 innings probably didn’t mean as much to the Tigers – nobody likes seeing someone set records against you in your home ballpark and they at least assured that would not happen.

Next up in his third attempt for the coveted 300 mark are the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, a park where Clemens has never pitched. As each game goes by that Clemens does not win his 300th (which no doubt will eventually come) he comes closer to one milestone he would rather not be associated with – most attempts at 300, the record which currently stands at 8. That’s the mark put up by Early Wynn. His is one of two pictures Clemens has in his locker (the other is Lefty Grove) as Clemens posts the pictures to remind him of the people he passes in the record book with each win. Both Wynn and Grove ended their careers with exactly 300 wins.

Early Wynn was a Hall of Fame pitcher who ended his career with a 300-244 win/loss record pitching in 23 seasons from 1939 to 1963. Wynn was one of the most intimidating pitcher of his time, prompting Micky Mantle to once say of him, “That s.o.b. is so mean he would $^#&ing knock you down in the dugout.” His record in the decade of the 50’s was 188-119 with more strikeouts than any other pitcher during that period, with 1,544.

He started his career in 1939 with the Washington Senators where he would pitch 8 rather uninspiring seasons, only twice winning more than 10 games. After the 1948 season he was traded to the Cleveland Indians where he began a string of 12 straight seasons with double-digit wins including five 20-win seasons.

After the 1957 season Wynn was traded to the Chicago White Sox and in 1958 became the first Major League pitcher to lead the league in strikeouts two consecutive years for different clubs. In 1959 Wynn won 22 games and the Cy Young Award as the league’s top pitcher. He also accomplished an extremely rare feat that has to this day only been done 10 times – winning a 1-0 game where he hit the homerun for the only score of the game. After a couple of sub-par seasons Wynn came into the twilight of his career, entering what he hoped to be his last season of professional baseball, 1962, needing only 8 more wins for the coveted 300 mark.

Wynn went 7-15 that season, ending the season one shy of 300. After giving him 3 shots at that last victory the White Sox released Wynn, allowing the Cleveland Indians to pick him up for the 1963 season and to hit the milestone for the team where he earned the most wins in his career. In his first start with the Indians he pitched a complete game gem, only to lose in the 9th on a home run by the Orioles’ Ron Hansen. That was typical over the next few games as Wynn would pitch well only to see poor run support from the Indians. Finally on July 13th in Kansas City the Indians staked Wynn to a 5-0 lead and Wynn made it through the fifth inning with a 5-4 lead and an eventual 7-4 win for the 300th win in his last start and 8th attempt of his career.

Back in the era he played players were famous for delivering great quotes to the press, Wynn being no exception based on these gems:

A pitcher is only as good as his legs.
That space between the white lines-that’s my office. That’s where I conduct my business.
A pitcher will never be a big winner until he hates hitters.
I don’t like losing a ballgame any more than a salesman likes losing a sale.
I’ve got a right to knock down anybody holding a bat.
I would if she were crowding the plate. – in response to whether he would knock down his mom on Mother’s Day.

The legacy of Early Wynn is the importance of that 300th win to not only a pitcher but to a team. It’s why Cleveland would pick Wynn up again at the end of his career. It’s why Wynn would keep going to the mound for that elusive victory. It’s why the focus is on Clemens this month and while it’s different for the Rocket who clearly has some spring left in his step, it’s the same until he actually gets that 300th win. A few more losses or no decisions and the ghost of Early Wynn will be nearing.

I’m wondering if those photos are still in his locker.

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