Padres great Tony Gwynn, who amassed 3,141 hits during a Hall of Fame career with the San Diego Padres, died Monday at the age of 54. Gwynn had been battling salivary gland cancer.
Gwynn — who had been called the greatest hitter since Ted Williams by many in baseball — had a career .338 batting average, the highest of any retired player since 1939. He won eight National League batting titles, primarily a singles hitter, but in 1997 as his career was winding down, Gwynn showed his power when he hit a career-high 17 homers to go with 119 RBIs.
We are terribly sad to say goodbye to our teammate, our friend and a legend, Tony Gwynn. Rest in peace, Mr. Padre.
— San Diego Padres (@Padres) June 16, 2014
The 15-time All-Star had been signed to a one-year contract extension as the baseball coach at San Diego State on June 11. Gwynn retired after the 2001 season and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007 with 97.6 percent of the vote. Gwynn’s son, Tony Gwynn Jr., plays for the Philadelphia Phillies.
‘‘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,’’ Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said.
Gwynn had been on medical leave since late March while recovering from cancer treatment. He took over the program at his alma mater after the 2002 season. He had two operations for cancer in his right cheek between August 2010 and February 2012. The second surgery was complicated, with surgeons removing a facial nerve because it was intertwined with a tumor inside his right cheek. They grafted a nerve from Gwynn’s neck to help him eventually regain facial movement. He had said that he believed the cancer was from chewing tobacco.
Gwynn had a special bond with fellow Southern California slugger and Red Sox legend Ted Williams.
“When I was a kid, man, my dad used to buy me the Ted Williams glove at Sears with the Ted Williams shoes with the eight stripes on ’em,” Gwynn said in a 2001 interview. “I used to play Little League, and I was Ted Williams-ed out.
“I had to go find out about Ted Williams. Ted Williams is one of the best hitters ever to play the game, and I didn’t get a chance to see him play, so all I could do was read books and look at pictures.”
Not since Williams batted .406 in 1941 has a baseball player finished a season over the .400 mark. The closest anyone came was Gwynn, who was batting .394 when the players went out on strike on Aug. 11, 1994, with 45 games left in the season.
Gwynn and Williams first met at the 1992 All-Star game in San Diego.
“I always felt like since the All-Star Game of ’92, the first time I met him, I was a much better hitter from that point on,” Gwynn said. “Those eight, nine years after that, I was a much better hitter than I was my first 10 or 11.”
At the 1999 All-Star game at Fenway, Gwynn help escort Williams on the Fenway infield during the pregame ceremony and assisted him in throwing out the first pitch.
Listen to Gwynn and Williams talk hitting in this 1997 interview:
“I was a contact hitter my whole career but I learned how to handle the ball inside,” Gwynn said in an interview after sitting down with Williams. “And Ted Williams played a big part in that. He gave me the advice on how to handle inside pitches.
“Over my first 14 or 15 years in the big leagues, the pitchers knew I was going to get the bat on the ball, but didn’t really consider me a threat to hit the ball out of the ballpark. And when they came inside, they didn’t expect me to be able to handle that pitch, either.
“Toward the end of my career, after I learned how to handle the inside pitch, it changed. When pitchers came inside, I knew I had a chance to hit it out of the park. It made me a completely different type of player. And if you look at my numbers from 1993 on, they were much better than they were for the first 13 years of my career. I hit for a higher average and put some numbers on the board–I hit some homers and drove in some runs.”