Tony Gwynn, the greatest pure hitter of his generation whose perfect left-handed swing won him eight batting titles and a litany of admirers across baseball, died Monday after years of battling cancer. He was 54.
Gwynn, who spent his entire 20-year Hall of Fame career roaming right field for the San Diego Padres, underwent multiple surgeries to remove cancerous tumors from his mouth over the past four years, blaming a smokeless tobacco habit. He took a leave of absence from his job as San Diego State's baseball coach in March to undergo further treatment.
He finished his major league career with 3,141 hits and a .338 batting average, the highest mark for a hitter since Ted Williams, whose career started in 1939. Gwynn arrived in the major leagues in 1982, a year after the Padres drafted him out of San Diego State, and never stopped hitting, spraying singles throughout stadiums across baseball, adding power as he grew into a 15-time All-Star and striking out at an almost inconceivable rate today, just 434 for his career over 9,288 at-bats.
Gwynn ushered in the era of players poring over video of opposing pitchers as well as their own swings, logging thousands of hours in front of a VCR and wearing out the rewind and play buttons. The ubiquity of video analysis today is just part of a legacy that includes a son in the major leagues (Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr.), an indelible stamp on a franchise (Gwynn was called "Mr. Padre"), and year after year of batting averages that redefined how good a hitter could be against specialized bullpens and pitchers throwing harder than ever.
A .351 average in his first full season was one of seven years in which he finished with a batting average above .350, the same number as Williams, widely acknowledged as baseball's greatest pure hitter, the sort of sobriquet given to someone whose smooth actions produce brilliant numbers at which people gawk years later.
The marriage of Gwynn and bat was one of kismet more than convenience. He enjoyed hitting home runs, certainly, looping 135 for his career, though most came toward the latter end. When he debuted, Gwynn lived off his speed – which helped him thrive as a point guard for San Diego State's basketball team – as well as his hitting ability. As his frame bloomed and he morphed from slim rookie into pleasantly plump 30-something, Gwynn lost neither his supreme plate discipline nor the bat speed that helped him lace balls from foul line to foul line until his retirement in 2001 at 41 years old.
Almost immediately Gwynn took over at San Diego State, where he coached future No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg as well as Cleveland starter Justin Masterson and Arizona closer Addison Reed. Writers inducted him into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007 with one of the highest voting percentages ever at 97.61 (532 of 545 ballots).
In 2010, doctors diagnosed Gwynn with a malignant tumor in his cheek, more than a decade after a non-malignant tumor was removed from his parotid gland. Salivary-gland cancer recurred in 2012 and required a lengthy surgery. It came back again this year and prompted his leave from San Diego State, which nevertheless last week rewarded him with a one-year contract extension, an homage to somebody whose infectious laugh, humor and kindness affected so many around him, his family chief of all.
"I always try to get in an I love you," Gwynn Jr. told CSN Philadelphia during an interview prior to his dad's passing. "For a while that was uncomfortable for me, I don't know why. But since 2010, it hasn't been uncomfortable. It's something I want to make sure I get in because you never know what's going to happen."
In a statement, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said: "For more than 30 years, Tony Gwynn was a source of universal goodwill in the National Pastime, and he will be deeply missed by the many people he touched."