SAN DIEGO – Tony Gwynn could handle a bat like few other major leaguers, whether it was driving the ball through the 5.5 hole between third base and shortstop or hitting a home run off the facade in Yankee Stadium in the World Series.
He was a craftsman at the plate, whose sweet left-handed swing made him one of baseball’s greatest hitters.
Gwynn, a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest athletes in San Diego’s history, died Monday of oral cancer, a disease he attributed to years of chewing tobacco. He was 54.
Our city is a little darker today without him but immeasurably better because of him, Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a statement.
In a rarity in pro sports, Gwynn played his whole career with the Padres, choosing to stay in the city where he was a two-sport star in college, rather than leaving for bigger paychecks elsewhere. His terrific hand-eye coordination made him one of the game’s greatest pure hitters.
He had 3,141 hits – 18th on the all-time list – a career .338 average and won eight batting titles to tie Honus Wagner’s NL record.
He struck out only 434 times in 9,288 career at-bats. He played in San Diego’s only two World Series – batting a combined .371 – and was a 15-time All-Star. He had a memorable home run in Game 1 of the 1998 World Series off fellow San Diegan David Wells, and scored the winning run in the 1994 All-Star Game despite a bum knee.
Gwynn never hit below .309 in a full season. He spread his batting titles from 1984, when he batted .351, to 1997, when he hit .372.
Gwynn was hitting .394 when a players’ strike ended the 1994 season, denying him a shot at becoming the first player to hit .400 since San Diego native Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941.
Gwynn befriended Williams and the two loved to talk about hitting. Gwynn steadied Williams when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the 1999 All-Star Game at Boston’s Fenway Park.
Fellow Hall of Famer Greg Maddux tweeted, Tony Gwynn was the best pure hitter I ever faced! Condolences to his family.
Tim Flannery, who was a teammate of Gwynn on the Padres’ 1984 World Series team and later was on San Diego’s coaching staff, said he’ll remember the cackle to his laugh. He was always laughing, always talking, always happy.
The baseball world is going to miss one of the greats, and the world itself is going to miss one of the great men of mankind, Flannery said. He cared so much for other people. He had a work ethic unlike anybody else, and had a childlike demeanor of playing the game just because he loved it so much.
Gwynn had been on a medical leave since late March from his job as baseball coach at San Diego State, his alma mater. He died at a hospital in suburban Poway, agent John Boggs said.
Gwynn’s wife, Alicia, and other family members were at his side when he died, Boggs said.
Gwynn’s son, Tony Jr., was with the Philadelphia Phillies, who later placed him on the bereavement list.
Today I lost my Dad, my best friend and my mentor, Gwynn Jr. tweeted. I’m gonna miss u so much pops. I’m gonna do everything in my power to continue to ... Make u proud!
Gwynn had two operations for cancer in his right cheek between August 2010 and February 2012. He had been in and out of the hospital and had spent time in a rehab facility, Boggs said.
Gwynn was born in Los Angeles on May 9, 1960, and attended high school in Long Beach. He was a two-sport star at San Diego State, playing point guard for the basketball team – he still holds the game, season and career record for assists – and in the outfield on the baseball team.
He was drafted by both the Padres (third round) and San Diego Clippers (10th round) on the same day in 1981.
In a career full of highlights, Gwynn had his 3,000th hit on Aug. 9, 1999, a first-inning single to right field at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
Gwynn retired after the 2001 season and became a volunteer assistant at SDSU in 2002. He took over as head coach after that season.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007.
Gwynn also is survived by a daughter, Anisha.