Tony Gwynn, who had a Hall of Fame career as a player and a successful one as San Diego State’s head baseball coach, died Monday at age 54, losing a long battle with cancer in his salivary glands that he attributed to his longtime habit of chewing tobacco.
Gwynn died at Pomerado Hospital in Poway, Calif., surrounded by his family, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Gwynn had taken a leave of absence from the Aztecs program on March 24, though prior to that date his health had caused him to be away from the program at times. Just five days ago, San Diego State announced Gwynn had signed a contract extension through 2015, with Mark Martinez promoted from associate head coach to executive head coach and extended through 2017. The move seemed to indicate Gwynn wanted to keep coaching, but that his stint would not last much longer.
Gwynn, born in Long Beach, had become synonymous with San Diego since attending San Diego State to play basketball and baseball in the late 1970s. A third-round pick in 1981, he chose baseball over basketball, where he had played point guard and was drafted in the 10th round by the then-San Diego Clippers. Gwynn reached the majors a year later, and led the Padres to both of their National League pennants, in 1984 and 1998.
He finished with 3,141 hits in 20 seasons and was the 22nd player to get 3,000 hits. He batted .338 in his career, the 18th-best average in major league history. He also had 319 stolen bases and a .388 on-base percentage. Gwynn was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007, having received 97.6 percent of the vote.
“Tony was synonymous with San Diego Padres baseball,” MLB commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement, “and with his .338 career batting average, and eight batting titles, he led his beloved ballclub to its greatest heights, including two National League pennants.
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“Tony loved our game, the city of San Diego and his alma mater where he starred and coached, San Diego State University, and he was a part of a wonderful baseball family. His commitment to the children of San Diego made him a deserving recipient of our game’s highest off-field honor, the Roberto Clemente Award, in 1999.”
Gwynn won eight batting titles, including four straight from 1994-97, from ages 34-37, as well as five Gold Gloves. He was a premium athlete early in his career, before knee injuries began to sap his speed, but his power jumped later in his career, with four of his five double-digit home runs seasons coming after age 34. Gwynn was on pace for one of the great seasons of all time in 1994, batting .394/.454/.568 with 12 home runs through 110 games before the strike and ensuing labor war ended the season in early August.
Amazing stats are easy to find on the back of Gwynn’s baseball card. He never struck out more than 40 times in a season, and never struck out more than he walked after a 14-16 ratio in his rookie season. The only season from 1984-99 that he didn’t earn an all-star nod was in 1988, a year in which he nevertheless won another batting title.
His coaching career could not have been as successful as his playing career, but Gwynn made his mark on the college game as well. He retired from the major leagues in 2001 and became a volunteer coach at his alma mater in 2002, assisting his former coach, Jim Dietz, for a season before becoming head coach in 2003. He got to coach his son Anthony in his junior season; they shared the Baseball America college preview issue cover in 2003, and his son has gone on to a long pro career. He’s currently a member of the Philadelphia Phillies and has spent parts of eight seasons in the majors.
In 2009, Gwynn led the Aztecs to their first regional bid since 1992, with the ’09 team going 41-23. For all his accomplishments as a hitter, his greatest pupil as a coach was a pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, whom he coached from 2007-2009.
Strasburg’s tenure there helped give the program a boost, and the Aztecs won back-to-back Mountain West Conference tournaments in 2013-14, earning consecutive NCAA regional bids. Gwynn was the Mountain West coach of the year in 2004 wen had a 363-363 overall record, according to the school.