He's catching on real fast

The youngest major-leaguer, Minnesota Catcher Butch Wynegar, 20, is the biggest overachiever to date in the precocious rookie class of '76
June 20, 1976

When rookie Catcher Butch Wynegar of the Minnesota Twins hit into the first triple play of the season last week, it was typical of the kind of fortune that often plagues first-year men. But in his next time at bat against the Cleveland Indians, Wynegar did something else that was typical—of Wynegar: he hit a home run. And this by a 20-year-old who expected to spend the season in the minor leagues at Tacoma or Orlando. The youngest player in the majors, Wynegar has been an overachiever in a class that has produced some notable underachievers.

A switch hitter, Wynegar already has hit six home runs, five left-handed. His first homer was against the Yankees in New York, and he hit it off Catfish Hunter. His batting average has been around .300 all season; his performance behind the plate has been very creditable; and despite his youth he already has been tagged as a "team leader" of the revived Twins.

All this is heady stuff for a young man who two years ago was playing for Red Lion (Pa.) High School and writing "Dear Mr. Palmer" fan letters to Baltimore's esteemed righthander. In his first time at bat against "Dear Mr. Palmer," Wynegar hit a home run.

While Wynegar is not the only rookie who has done well so far, he is the most surprising. Yankee Second Baseman Willie Randolph, 21, was supposed to be outstanding, but he has exceeded even that expectation by hitting .287, leading New York with 19 stolen bases and plugging the credibility gap at second base. If the Yankees remain atop the AL East and Randolph continues his present level of play, he could be a live candidate for MVP.

White Sox Centerfielder Chet Lemon, 21, started off so slowly that it was hard to see any signs of movement. Lemon hit only .191 for a month and seemed ready for a return to the minors, but he has raised his batting average to .278 and leads the Sox in stolen bases.

In Cincinnati, righthander Pat Zachry, 24, has a 5-1 record and a 1.93 ERA, not bad for a man who worked six years in the minors and almost quit in 1973 when he gave up game-losing home runs three nights in a row. The other rookie pitcher on the Cincinnati staff, righthander Santo Alcala, 23, has cruised to a 6-1 record.

In San Francisco, Centerfielder Larry Herndon, 22, has hit .357 since being recalled from Phoenix six weeks ago and, says Giant Manager Bill Rigney, "turned us around with the excitement he created." In Houston Joaquin Andujar, 23, a righthander who had a reputation for ill-temper when he was with the Cincinnati organization, pitched successive two-hitters in recent starts. "I am a good guy," Andujar says. "I am not a hot dog."

The flake of the class of '76 is right-handed pitcher Mark Fidrych, 21, of the Detroit Tigers. Before his starts, Fidrych swings from the dugout water pipes like a gorilla, then races to the mound and molds the turf with his hands. He also talks to the baseball and waves his arms to direct it. So far the ball has paid strict attention; Fidrych has a 4-1 record, including two 11-inning victories.

As often happens, the two biggest busts among the rookies have been the two most touted prospects. St. Louis Third Baseman Hector Cruz, 23, the 1975 Minor League Player of the Year when he hit .306 with 29 home runs and 116 RBIs at Tulsa, was supposed to be a cannon but has been a cap gun for the Cardinals, hitting only .203 with five home runs and 19 RBIs. And Atlanta Third Baseman Jerry Royster, 23, the Pacific Coast League batting champion (.333) in 1975 at Albuquerque, may wear the biggest smile in baseball but his .226 batting average has generated only frowns.

For Wynegar, though, the major leagues have been a glorious place. Nicknamed Butch by a grandmother who stared into the crib of Harold Delano Wynegar, Jr. and declared, "You look like a Butch," Wynegar has been the most exciting rookie to arrive in Minnesota since Rod Carew, and already the Twins' faithful expect him to lead the club out of its five-year stretch in oblivion. Says Twins Manager Gene Mauch, "Adversity never fazes him. He just keeps grinding away."

Maybe that explains why Wynegar not only survived his triple-play disaster in good humor, mumbling only "Aw, shoot," but also was able to cope with the problems he encountered when the Athletics stole seven bases against him in one game. As a catcher, Wynegar's main flaw seems to be an occasional slowness in getting the ball out of his mitt. He is also a trifle draggy afoot himself. Still, so minor are these deficiencies that to harp on them is like criticizing Hemingway for the misuse of a comma. "Butch is a great hitter," says great hitter Tony Oliva, now a first-base coach and an occasional pinch hitter for the Twins, "and he's going to get better."

At spring training, Wynegar figured that an impressive showing for Mauch might get him a job at Tacoma, Minnesota's top farm club. Once there, maybe the locals would have latched onto him the way they did last year in Reno, Nev., where he hit .314 with 19 home runs and 112 RBIs and where a restaurant now sports the sign: "Butch Wynegar Ate Here." Or like they did in 1974 in Elizabethton, Tenn., where Wynegar led the Appalachian League in hitting (.346) and where a restaurant will soon sport a sign: "Butch Wynegar Ate Here First."

All this could not happen, as they say, to a nicer guy. Wynegar already is an All-Star goody-goody, never pausing to drink, smoke, curse, chase women or even do anything as questionable as go to a PG rated movie. He did lose his head once in Reno and went gambling. "I lost $10," he says, "and I almost died."

A bachelor, Wynegar feels that his $16,000 a year salary, even though it's the major-league minimum, puts him in tall clover. "Shoot, that's a lot of money, for sure," he says. He signed with the Twins two years ago and received a $25,000 bonus. "Shoot, maybe I could have gotten more," he says, "but money isn't that important. Besides, I don't ever want to cause anybody any trouble."

Oh, yes, Wynegar does confess to one awful habit. "I bite my nails," he says, biting his nails. Which is exactly what pitchers like "Dear Mr. Palmer" and Catfish Hunter are starting to do when Wynegar strides to the plate and spits into the dirt, just like the big boys.


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