Born in Los Angeles, California on May 9, 1960, Anthony Keith Gwynn grew up in nearby Long Beach, where he attended Polytechnic High School. After graduating from Polytechnic, he moved on to San Diego State University, building a reputation for himself during his time there not only as a star baseball player, but also as a standout point guard on the Aztecs’ basketball team. Gwynn’s outstanding play in both sports ended up providing him with multiple career opportunities when the San Diego Padres (third round) and the NBA’s San Diego Clippers (tenth round) both drafted him in June of 1981.
After signing with the Padres, the lefthanded hitting outfielder spent the next season honing his skills in the minor leagues, before making his debut in San Diego a little over one year later, on July 19, 1982. Gwynn spent the final three months of the season with the Padres, compiling a batting average of .289 – the only time in his career he failed to hit over .300.
A fractured wrist suffered while playing in the Puerto Rican Winter League caused Gwynn to miss the first two months of the 1983 campaign. He struggled at first upon his return to the lineup, sinking as low as .229 by July 29. However, after using video recording to review his at-bats for the first time, Gwynn heated up over the final two months of the season to finish the year with a batting average of .309.
After splitting his time between all three outfield positions his first two seasons, Gwynn developed into a star in 1984 when he became San Diego’s regular rightfielder. The 24-year-old outfielder helped lead the Padres to the National League pennant by topping the senior circuit with a .351 batting average and 213 hits, en route to earning a third-place finish in the league MVP voting.
Gwynn performed extremely well in each of the next two seasons, compiling batting averages of .317 and .329, respectively, and leading the N.L. with 211 hits and 107 runs scored in 1986. More than just an exceptional hitter, Gwynn continued to develop into one of the league’s best all-around players, stealing 37 bases, compiling 21 outfield assists, and winning the first of five Gold Gloves in 1986. Gwynn took his game to the next level, though, the following year, when he topped the senior circuit with a .370 batting average and 218 hits, while also establishing career highs with 119 runs scored and 56 stolen bases.
Gwynn won each of the next two batting titles as well, posting marks of .313 and .336 in 1988 and 1989, respectively, while also stealing a total of 66 bases. Knee problems and a gradual gain in weight limited Gwynn’s effectiveness as a base stealer in subsequent seasons, but he remained an exceptional hitter and a solid defensive outfielder. The San Diego rightfielder continued his string of 19 consecutive years with a batting average in excess of .300, establishing a new National League record in the process (Honus Wagner held the previous N.L. mark with 17 straight .300-plus seasons). After hitting .358 the previous year, Gwynn flirted with the magical .400-mark throughout the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, ending the season with a career-high .394 batting average and .454 on-base percentage. He followed that up with league-leading marks of .368, .353, and .372 the next three seasons, with the last of those years being the most productive of his career.
In addition to leading the N.L. with a .372 batting average and 220 hits in 1997, Gwynn established new career highs with 17 home runs, 119 runs batted in, and 49 doubles.
At the age of 38, Gwynn batted .321 and hit 16 home runs for the National League champion Padres in 1998. Although San Diego lost the World Series in four straight games to the New York Yankees, Gwynn compiled a .500 batting average during the Fall Classic, totaling eight hits in his 16 times at-bat, with one home run and three runs batted in. He played three more years, batting well over .300 each season, before ending his career as a part-time player in 2001. Gwynn retired at season’s end having played his entire 20-year career with the Padres. In addition to batting .338 and accumulating 3,141 hits, he scored 1,383 runs and stole 319 bases. Although the Padres were a mediocre team for much of Gwynn’s career, he managed to finish in the top ten in the league MVP voting seven times. He also appeared in 15 All-Star games.
One of the game’s truly great hitters, Gwynn batted over .350 each year from 1993 to 1997, joining Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Al Simmons as the only players ever to top the .350-mark in five consecutive seasons. Gwynn also won a record-tying eight National League batting titles (Honus Wagner also won eight for Pittsburgh). Only Ty Cobb, who led the American League in hitting 12 times, won more batting titles. A superb contact hitter, Gwynn struck out only 434 times in 10,232 total plate appearances over the course of his career, never striking out more than 40 times in any single season.
Gwynn’s extraordinary plate coverage and exceptional hitting ability prompted former major league pitcher Al Leiter to suggest, “The only way to pitch to Tony (Gwynn) is to throw the ball down the middle and hope he hits it at someone.”
A person of great character off the field as well, Gwynn received the Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award in 1999 for combining sportsmanship and community service with excellence on the field. That same year, he received the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, presented annually by Phi Delta Theta fraternity to the major league player who best exemplifies the character and leadership of the Hall of Fame first baseman both on and off the field.
Gwynn was elected to the Hall of Fame himself in 2007, the first time his name appeared on the ballot. He took over the coaching reins at San Diego State University some five years earlier, in July of 2002, after previously serving as a volunteer assistant coach with the Aztecs during the 2002 campaign under former head coach Jim Dietz, who retired at the end of that season. Gwynn continues to coach at his alma mater, while also occasionally providing analysis of Padres games during local telecasts.
Health Problems and Death
In 2010, he was diagnosed with cancer of a salivary gland and had lymph nodes and tumors from the gland removed. The operation left his face partially paralyzed on the right side, leaving him unable to smile. Later that year, he underwent eight weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He was declared cancer free afterwards, and also regained his ability to smile. Additional surgery was performed in 2012 to remove more cancerous growth and address nerve damage. Gwynn attributed the cancer to the dipping tobacco habit that he had since playing rookie ball in Walla Walla in 1981. Doctors, however, stated that studies had not linked parotid cancer with use of chewing tobacco.
After his playing career ended, Gwynn’s weight peaked at 330 pounds (150 kg), and he underwent adjustable gastric banding surgery in 2009 in an attempt to lose weight. He did not closely adhere to the diet, and his weight loss began to stall. In 2010, his weight problem led to a slipped disc in his back that affected a nerve down his leg. He needed a walker before he had the damaged disc removed to cure the pain while walking. Later, he experienced a loss of taste for food during radiation therapy for his cancer, and while being limited to a liquid diet, he lost 80 pounds (36 kg), all of which he regained after he resumed eating solid foods.
During another round of cancer treatments in April 2014, a mishap occurred in which Gwynn lost oxygen and was barely able to move. He was sent to rehabilitation to learn how to walk again. On June 16, 2014, Gwynn died at Pomerado Hospital in Poway due to complications from his cancer. He was 54 years old. The night before, on Father’s Day, he had gone into cardiac arrest, and he was rushed from his home to the hospital.
A public memorial service was held for Gwynn at Petco Park on June 26, 2014. The service was attended by 23,229 fans, who heard tributes to Gwynn from baseball and civic leaders, and from Gwynn’s family.