Tony Gwynn was an anomaly of a baseball player.
A naturally gifted athlete in both baseball and basketball, Gwynn never let his talent alone dictate how he performed on the diamond and the court.
He was one of the hardest workers in Major League Baseball, pioneering the art of examining video and scouting reports. This helped him to use his talent to hit for a high average and on-base percentage when the rest of the major leagues focused their efforts on trying to hit home runs.
Gwynn’s hard work ethic and belief in himself made him an icon in the city of San Diego and an ambassador for the game of baseball.
He had one of the most prolific careers in all of Major League Baseball history, challenging records held by players like Ted Williams and Honus Wagner.
Tony Gwynn tied Honus Wagner's record by winning his eighth National League batting title. Gwynn finished at .372, 1997. pic.twitter.com/mjqmaSxEnF
— Baseball In Pics (@baseballinpix) September 30, 2021
When they think of San Diego, baseball fans can’t help but think of Tony Gwynn.
Anthony Keith Gwynn was born in Los Angeles, California on May 9, 1960, to parents Charles and Vandella.
A middle child, Gwynn grew up with his two brothers in Los Angeles until moving to Long Beach when he was nine years old.
The Gwynns grew up playing sports in their neighborhood and were big fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Charles and Vandella were working-class people and instilled values of hard work and perseverance in each of their children.
Tony was interested in all kinds of sports including baseball, basketball, and football.
At Long Beach Polytechnic High School, Gwynn was a multi-sport athlete, excelling in baseball and basketball, and was heavily recruited by colleges for both sports.
Gwynn chose to attend San Diego State University despite offers from Cal State Fullerton and Texas Christian University.
Once at San Diego State, Gwynn chose basketball as his preferred sport.
He showed immense talent on the court and was viewed as one of the premier players in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) for the Aztecs.
Following his freshman season, Gwynn decided to give baseball a shot again. He joined the Aztec baseball team as a sophomore.
Just as in basketball, Gwynn made an immediate impression and became the best hitter in the WAC for three seasons.
He was named an All-American twice and batted over .400 for his college career even as he continued to excel on the basketball court.
Once again, Gwynn’s two-sport dominance drew considerable attention from professional scouts from Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.
Gwynn was drafted by his adopted-hometown San Diego Padres and by the Los Angeles Clippers. Tony had a tough choice to make.
Gwynn would choose the Padres and made an immediate impact when he reported to the Northwest League to begin his professional baseball career.
Splitting time between rookie ball and Double-A, Gwynn showed incredible bat control and earned MVP honors for his play in the Northwest League in 1981.
He began 1982 with the Padres in spring training and hit well, but the Padres had an established Major League outfield at the time.
— Padres On This Day (@PadresOTD) July 19, 2022
Gwynn struggled defensively, which inclined the organization to start him in Triple-A.
Going to the Bigs
Gwynn was in the midst of batting .328 when the Padres called him up that July to make his big league debut against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Gwynn split time among all three outfield positions for the Padres until injuring his wrist, causing him to miss three weeks of the season.
He finished the 1982 season batting .289 with one home run in 54 games.
Spending the first couple of months of the 1983 season on the disabled list due to his wrist injury, Gwynn struggled to keep up with Major League pitching while battling his injury and went into a terrible slump.
Looking to get out of this funk, Gwynn began watching film of his at-bats and of opposing pitchers.
He carefully studied his swing, his stance, the pitches that were thrown to him in certain counts and situations, and anything else one could think of regarding hitting.
His studying changed his season and possibly his entire career.
After he began to view the film, Gwynn turned into one of the hottest hitters in baseball and ended the season with an average over .300 and a 25-game hitting streak thrown in.
The Padres would finish both of Gwynn’s initial two seasons in the Major Leagues with an 81-81 record.
Both the Padres and Gwynn had the most successful season to date in 1984.
1984 NL Batting champ
Tony Gwynn (.351) pic.twitter.com/ZyUOuehrLr
— OldTimeHardball (@OleTimeHardball) May 14, 2022
Finishing with a 92-70 record, the Padres won the NL West and subsequently defeated the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS in five games.
They faced off against the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
The Tigers were led by veteran manager Sparky Anderson and had won an astounding 104 games on the year.
The newcomer Padres were no match for the powerhouse Tigers. They were overpowered in just five games in their first-ever World Series appearance.
Gwynn collected five hits in the series, but his regular season was remarkable.
At 24 years old, Gwynn was selected to his first All-Star team and won the NL batting title with a .351 batting average.
Playing in 158 of the Padres’ games that season, Gwynn collected 213 hits and had an on-base percentage of .410.
The Padres’ success and Gwynn’s performance on the field led to an increase in notoriety for the young outfielder. That renown did not wane for the next 17 seasons.
After establishing himself as one of the top young stars in the league the previous year, Gwynn continued to impress with another All-Star season in 1985.
Gwynn batted .317 with a .364 batting average manning the outfield for the Padres.
The team followed up their National League championship season in 1984 with a disappointing 83-79 record, good for just third in the NL West.
While a disappointing season, the Padres and Gwynn had much to be excited about moving forward.
The Perennial All-Star
Gwynn went to his second straight All-Star game, and the Padres still had a solid team surrounding him.
Gwynn improved on an already promising start to his career in 1986.
Notching his third straight All-Star selection, Gwynn hit a career-high 14 home runs to go along with an impressive .329 batting average.
He also led the entire National League in Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
Never considered a very good outfielder, Gwynn won his first Gold Glove Award in 1986 for his excellent defense in the outfield, something he had been working hard to improve since he entered the league just four seasons prior.
Tony Gwynn gave the Padres another consistent year in 1987.
That season saw him hit a staggering .370, winning his second batting title.
Along with incredible skills in the batter’s box, Gwynn flashed his speed and base-running abilities with an impressive 56 stolen bases. His previous career high was 37.
Gwynn was also beginning to show more extra-base power, notching 36 doubles.
He got on base nearly 50% of the time with a .467 on-base percentage.
After six seasons in the big leagues at age 27, Gwynn had been selected to four All-Star games, won two batting titles, and won a National League championship.
He was now considered a premier hitter despite his lack of home run power.
Injury and Recovery
In his seventh season in 1988, Gwynn began to run into some injury problems.
After spraining his thumb in Pittsburgh, Gwynn spent some time on the disabled list and struggled to hit up to par.
He was able to find his groove in the second half of the season and ended up winning another batting title with a .313 average.
His on-base percentage hovered in the .370s as well. He remained an imposing hitter despite missing games and struggling to begin the year.
Tony Gwynn missed the All-Star game and wasn’t able to play in as many games as in previous years, but his reputation did not diminish.
Gwynn won his third straight batting title in 1989, becoming the first National League player to accomplish such a feat.
An early advocate of using video to study hitting, Gwynn maintained his hard work off the field to be the best hitter he could possibly be.
He spent hours in the batting cage and hours in the film room.
Many viewed Tony Gwynn as perhaps one of the greatest contact hitters of all time before age 30 entering the 1990s.
Despite Gwynn’s excellent play, he was beginning to come under fire for what some considered “selfish” play, including some teammates.
Gwynn’s stolen base totals were going down as he gained weight, much to the chagrin of some teammates. Some even believed he cared more about his batting average and personal stats than helping the Padres win games.
Among these teammates was Will Clark, a controversial personality on his previous teams as well.
The criticism and trade rumors weighed on Gwynn, but he still hit over .300 in 1990 and was named to another All-Star team.
Despite Gwynn’s excellent career to this point, the Padres were routinely disappointing and had not made the postseason since their World Series appearance in 1984.
On top of this, the team refused to negotiate a new contract for Gwynn, who had been underpaid considering his performance for his entire career.
The strife between Gwynn, his teammates, and the Padres did little to hinder his abilities on the diamond.
Gwynn continued to dominate in the early 1990s, averaging a .324 batting average from 1990 to 1993, making All-Star appearances in each season.
Gwynn was having his best season to date before the infamous 1994 player’s strike ended the season in August and canceled the entire postseason.
At the time of the work stoppage, Gwynn was batting .394, knocking on the door of .400.
The last player to hit .400 in a season was Red Sox great Ted Williams in 1941, more than 50 years earlier.
While the work stoppage ended Gwynn’s historic chase for Williams’s crown, he did not let that stop him from continuing to work as hard as possible to be the best player he could be.
He followed up 1994 with another All-Star season in 1995, batting .368 with a .404 on-base percentage.
Gwynn had cemented himself as one of the most consistent players in all of baseball, rarely landing himself on the disabled list and routinely batting well above the .300 mark.
Another Shot at a Ring
The 1996 and 1997 seasons were more of the same: All-Star selections, batting averages in the mid-.300s, on-base percentage hovering around .400.
Gwynn never seemed to fade or decline even as he got older and the wear and tear mounted.
Gwynn and the Padres finally reached the postseason again in 1998, 14 seasons after their 1984 World Series loss.
The team went 98-64 and won the NL West by almost 10 games over the San Francisco Giants.
They defeated the 102-win Houston Astros in four games in the Division Series. Next, the Padres beat the 106-win Atlanta Braves in the Championship Series in six games to win the second National League pennant of Gwynn’s historic career.
Unfortunately for Gwynn and the Padres, their opponent in the World Series was the New York Yankees, who were considered one of the greatest teams to ever play.
The Yankees had won 114 games during the regular season and easily defeated both the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians on their way to the World Series.
Their march did not stop with the Padres as they swept San Diego en route to a World Series win.
Gwynn had an outstanding series, batting .500 and striking out just once in the four games.
The End of an Era
In the seasons after the World Series loss, Gwynn was never quite the same player.
Injuries had finally started to catch up with Tony, and he would play in fewer and fewer games for San Diego.
From 1999 through 2001, his last Major League season, Gwynn batted .328 with a .376 on-base percentage in just 218 games across those three seasons combined.
He notched his 3,000th hit in 1999, with only Wade Boggs accomplishing the feat in fewer at-bats and only Roberto Clemente doing it in fewer games.
— Padres On This Day (@PadresOTD) August 6, 2021
Gwynn retired following the 2001 campaign, saying:
“I knew this would be my last year before the year started. It was predetermined. No matter what I did this year, I knew it would be my last. I’ll have a press conference to get it off my chest, and then I’ll be at peace.”
At the time of his retirement, Gwynn had made a remarkable career for himself.
He totaled 69 WAR, had more than 3,000 hits, hit 135 home runs, and had a career .338 batting average.
He had been named to 15 All-Star games, won five Gold Glove Awards, and was named the National League batting champion eight times. That last feat tied Honus Wagner for the most in National League history and only trailed Ty Cobb for most in history.
Life After Baseball
Tony Gwynn was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007, his first year of eligibility.
He was joined by Cal Ripken Jr., who had started and ended his career the same seasons as Gwynn did.
The two players were honored in Cooperstown, New York in a ceremony on July 29.
In his speech, Gwynn spoke about the importance of hard work and perseverance, values that were instilled in him from a young age by his parents.
“I had to go about my business and do things the way I did. I think people, we make a big deal about work ethic. We make a big deal about trying to make good decisions and doing things right, and you know what, we are supposed to.”
From the moment Gwynn retired, he wanted to remain involved in the game of baseball.
He was named the head coach at his alma mater, San Diego State University, starting in 2003.
Gwynn spent 12 years as head coach of the Aztecs, compiling a 363-363 record.
His tenure included multiple trips to the NCAA tournament.
He also became in broadcasting after his playing days, intermittently calling games for ESPN and TBS.
Gwynn’s son, Tony Gwynn Jr, played in the Majors for nine seasons.
He had stints with the Milwaukee Brewers, the Padres, The Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Philadelphia Phillies from 2006 to 2014.
The elder Tony Gwynn passed away on June 16, 2014, from complications due to cancer.
Like many baseball players, he had used chewing tobacco ever since he began playing professionally in the 1980s.
It is difficult to think of San Diego sports without immediately remembering Tony Gwynn.
From his time at San Diego State University through his entire big league career spent with only the Padres, Gwynn proudly represented this beautiful city with his talent and hard work.
Undoubtedly the greatest Padre of all time, Gwynn was also one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game of baseball.
Throughout the steroid era of the 1990s, Gwynn refused to change his approach and continued to work hard to improve his game the way he thought best.
His hard work and perseverance allowed him to have a 20-year career playing the game he loved in the city he loved.
Tony Gwynn will always represent the city of San Diego and will be remembered as one of baseball’s all-time greatest players.