Wynne, Will

Primary Position: Starting pitcher
Birthplace: Neuse, Wake County

First, Middle Names: William Andrew

Date of Birth:  March 27, 1869          Date and Place of Death: Aug. 7, 1951, Raleigh, NC
Burial: Oakwood Cemetery, Raleigh

High School: Undetermined
College: Wake Forest University, Wake Forest, NC

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-11, 161
Debut Year: 1894       Final Year: 1894          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Washington Senators, 1894

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
1          0          1          0          6.75     8.0       2          -0.2

Bill Wynne was the first North Carolinian to pitch in the major leagues. Only outfielder Charley Jones of Alamance County preceded him to the majors – by about 20 years. Jones was a party-loving ladies’ man, known as the Knight of the Limitless Linen, and a superstar of early baseball. Wynne had a forgettable career that lasted all of eight innings. He didn’t hang around long enough to acquire a reputation or earn a nickname. If it centered on the baseball diamond, Wynne’s story would end about here. Baseball, however, was little more than a footnote in the life of this unconventional man.

Telephones and radios and, of all things, bicycles, play far larger roles in Wynne’s story. He was North Carolina’s most-famous cyclist of the 19th century, riding thousands of miles and capturing headlines wherever he went and thrilling audiences with daredevil stunts. A tinkerer with electricity since childhood, Wynne started a telephone company after his brief baseball career that provided some of the first phone service in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he waged a decades-long and, in the end, quixotic fight against his main competitor, the grasping monopoly that was Southern Bell. Wynne then operated the first radio station in the capital and in several Eastern North Carolina towns. Oh, and he also found time to open a drug store up in the mountains.

This eccentric life started on a farm along Barton’s Creek in central Wake County where William Andrew Wynne was born in 1869, four years after Appomattox. His parents, William and Elizabeth, or Lizzie, moved to Raleigh two years later. Except for long-distance jaunts on his bicycle or summers in the minor leagues, Wynne would never leave.

There’s nothing in the surviving archives that hints of Wynne’s early baseball exploits – no accounts of high-school no hitters or fond recollections of games in cow pastures. Wynne tells us in a newspaper interview in 1930, when he was 61, about some of the other things that helped form him. The telegraph, for instance. “They couldn’t keep me away from there,” he said of the local telegraph office. “They had a few old sets they would let interested boys work with and I spent most of my time down there when I wasn’t out on the streets trying to build a line of my own.”[I]

In a hint of what was to come, Wynne succeeded, when he was 10, in building a crude, but working telephone system for his neighborhood. He strung tin cans that his uncle custom made for the project into every house along two blocks of South Hillsboro Street. Rubber bladders from snuff cans served as speakers. “Just wet it and stretch it over the can and when it got dry you could talk around the block with it, if the string was dry,” he explained.[II]

We know that Wynne played baseball at Wake Forest College, then still in Wake County. The rules being what they were at the time, he once pitched Wake Forest to a victory over Trinity College, now Duke University in nearby Durham, and then pitched for Trinity the next day against a different opponent.

It was the bicycle, though, that initially brought Wynne to prominence. The first contraption that resembles a bicycle dates to the late 18th century. Bike design proceeded along – peddles were added and wheel size got smaller and then bigger – until the 1870s when the so-called high wheeler was the dominate bike. We’ve all seen photos of this odd vehicle with the huge front wheel and the tiny rear one. The rider, usually a daring young man, sat high above the street where he could reach breakneck, literally, speed. Quickly stopping one of those things was near impossible, and a rut or bump in the road could have devastating results. Sensible people and most horses shied away. “That bicycle has scared more horses than the automobile,” Wynne remembered.[III]

The advent of the bike we know today — chain-driven with uniform-sized wheels — in the 1880s changed everything. In a couple of decades before the coming of automobiles, people suddenly had a safe, fast way to get around that they didn’t have to feed, shelter, and clean up after. The golden age of bicycles, short-lived in America, dawned.

They became a popular form of personal transportation, thanks in part to promoters like Bill Wynne. He rode everywhere on one, or so it seemed, because his name appears in newspapers wherever he stopped. He rode from Raleigh to Maine in 1891, stopping along the way to pitch in local baseball games at $5 a game. That was good money for a young man then, since it amounts to about $140 today. Wynne covered the 1,100 miles in about six weeks and was welcomed with a parade in Bangor.  

Like avid bikers John D. Rockefeller, John Jacob Astor and 100,000 other Americans, Wynne belonged to the League of American Wheelman, the most-prominent advocacy group for road improvements before the arrival of automobiles. He, for instance, repeated his trip to Maine in 1909, starting from Atlanta that time, to highlight the route of a highway that the league proposed.

Though he may have shared a love of bikes with Rockefeller and Astor, Bill Wynne rode one like Evel Knievel. For much of the 1890s, Wynne traveled the Southeast thrilling crowds at county fairs, conventions and holiday celebrations with aerial, acrobatic displays of daring do on a bicycle. He rode down the long steps at the Customs House in Norfolk, Virginia, and the U.S. Capitol and was chased away from doing the same at the Washington Monument. At the Atlanta Exposition in 1895, he showed a real streak of Knievel wackiness. He raced a boat down a 500-yard-long chute into a lake. Mathematicians on the scene estimated that he reached speeds approaching 60 miles an hour. “Even before a cheer could be given or the dazed onlookers realized that the start had been made, all was over,” the newspaper reported. “They had whizzed by, blurred and indistinct, in the twinkling of an eye.”[IV]

The boat hit the water and bounced high in the air. Wynne hit the water and sank. He was safely pulled from the lake and was disappointed to learn that the boat had beat him by two seconds.

This, though, is supposed to be a story about a baseball player, but that’s the part of Wynne’s life that hardest to decipher. There is a smattering of newspaper clips about his time in the minor leagues but nothing before 1894 when Wynne debuted with the Washington Senators. Professional baseball then consisted of the 12-team National League. Why Wynne was standing on the mound to start the second game of a doubleheader against the Phillies in Philadelphia is a mystery. He completed the game, an 11-5 losing effort to a powerful Phillies team that featured three future Hall of Famers. Wynne gave up six earned runs and walked eight. He left the mound in the eighth inning that afternoon and was out of big-league baseball.

Wynne’s baseball career ended the following year after he pitched for four minor-league teams.

He got married in Raleigh that year to Mary Avera of Smithfield in adjoining Johnston County.  The wedding featured a special effect that displayed Wynne’s skills at manipulating electricity while highlighting 19th century America’s view of a woman’s role in society. “There will be a novel electrical effect,” the newspaper reported. “The initial letter of the contracting parties will be above the pulpit and when the preacher says the words which unite, the bride’s initial fades away.” The couple would remain married for more than 50 years and raise four children.[V]

Wynne started the Raleigh Telephone Company in 1902, one of four companies that provided phone service in the city. Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company, the largest provider, would be a Wynne target for the next 20 years. To fight the Bell monopoly, Wynne helped organize 61 other small, independent companies into a trade group and served as its president. He joined state lawsuits charging that Bell was violating antitrust law. In the end, it didn’t matter. Raleigh Telephone went out of business in 1921 after Bell refused to transmit its customers’ long-distance calls over its lines.

Wynne partnered with a local businessman to open a drugstore in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He managed a tire shop for a while and then opened a radio-repair store in Raleigh in 1922. From there it was a short hop to broadcasting. He and his son, Avery, started the first permanent station in Raleigh. An earlier station broadcasting from the campus of North Carolina State College quit in less than a year. Wynne later had stations in Rocky Mount and Wilson.

He was still in the radio business when he died of pneumonia in 1951.

[I] Reynolds, Carolyn L. “Will Wynne Has Pioneer Streak.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), April 20, 1930.
[II] Ibid.
[III] Ibid.
[IV] “Raced on the Chute.” Roanoke News (Weldon, NC) November 21, 1895.
[V] “State News.” Roxboro (NC) Courier, May 27, 1896.