Gwynn was often considered the best pure hitter of his era. His remarkable total of eight batting titles (tying him with Honus Wagner for the most in NL history) included five of the top eleven single-season batting averages compiled since the end of World War II. A fan favorite in San Diego, where he played seventeen straight years with the Padres, Gwynn’s loyalty was exceeded among his contemporaries only by Cal Ripken’s eighteen-year streak in Baltimore.
In San Diego or on the road, day or night games, right or left handed pitching, nothing seemed to stop the most consistent hitter in the game. He never hit below .300 in any full major league season, and his season-low .313 in an injury-plagued 1988 was still good enough to win the NL batting title.
Gwynn’s success in the big leagues was no accident. He always was an avid student of hitting, and it was evident in his entire approach to the game. He made his living going the other way with pitches, and seemed capable of practically placing the ball where he wants to hit it — usually to his preferred spot in the hole between the shortstop and third baseman, an area Gwynn calls the “5.5 Hole.” He maintained an extensive videotape collection of his previous at-bats and studied them religiously. For Gwynn, batting practice was not for fun, but to work on specific hitting situations, and All-Star Games become an opportunity to study the sweet left-handed swing of players such as Don Mattingly or Ken Griffey, Jr. Likewise, Gwynn worked hard to turn himself into a Gold Glove outfielder.
Perhaps the most vivid evidence of Gwynn’s dedication to hitting was housed in a former storage closet at Qualcomm Stadium. There, he maintained an extensive videotape collection of his previous at-bats. Dubbed “Captain Video” Gwynn bought his first VCR for $500 in 1983; a decade later, he spent nearly $100,000 to install a state-of-the-art taping facility in the Padres’ clubhouse. The investment paid off for Gwynn’s teammates as well — so much so that when slugger Greg Vaughn was traded from San Diego to Cincinnati in February 1999, he fell into a slump after unsuccessfully trying to lure the Padres’ video technician to the Reds.
During his college days at San Diego State, it was obvious Gwynn could hit. But scouts were concerned about his throwing arm and his commitment to baseball, since Gwynn also starred as a guard on the SDSU basketball team. As a result Tony slipped in the third round of the June, 1981 draft, where he was selected by the Padres — on the same day that he was drafted by the San Diego Clippers of the National Basketball Association. Gwynn chose baseball over the hardcourt and quickly moved to the majors after capturing a batting title and Most Valuable Player honors at Walla Walla (Rookie Northwest League).
Gwynn’s first major-league hit was a double off a 1-2 curveball from Philadelphia left-hander Sid Monge at Jack Murphy Stadium on July 19, 1982. Playing first base for the Phillies was Pete Rose, who at the time was still chasing Ty Cobb‘s career hits record. “Don’t catch me in one night,” Rose facetiously called out as he trailed Gwynn to second base — and then shook the rookie’s hand. “That comment hit me like a ton of bricks,” Gwynn later remembered.
But neither Rose nor a broken left wrist suffered during Gwynn’s first year in the majors could affect Gwynn’s hitting. After posting a .309 average in 1983, Gwynn enjoyed his first superstar season in 1984, when he became the first Padre to reach 200 hits and captured the first batting title for the franchise with a .351 average. Gwynn was voted into the All-Star Game, finished third in the NL MVP voting, and also delivered the game-winning RBI in the fifth game of the Championship Series that sent San Diego to its first World Series.
The wrist injury again hampered Gwynn in 1985, but he led the NL in hits the following two years nonetheless. His 1987 season, featuring a .370 batting average — the best in the NL since Stan Musial‘s .376 in 1948 — was the greatest offensive performance in Padres history. Gwynn added another title in 1988 despite a terrible first half, ending up with a .313 mark that is the lowest ever to lead the NL.
Gwynn tied a major-league record with five stolen bases on September 20, 1986 in Houston. He was also part of the first trio to hit consecutive home runs to start a major league game, in 1987.
The strike of 1994 may have robbed Gwynn of the opportunity to hit .400. He was hitting .475 for the month of August when the season was halted. His .394 mark was the highest in the NL since Bill Terry hit .401 in 1930 and the highest in the majors since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. (Despite his shot at .400 and the Padres’ mediocre record, Gwynn offered to sacrifice bunt in a meaningless game late in the season. Manager Jim Riggleman refused.) In 1996, a severe Achilles tendon injury limited Gwynn to 116 games, but he still hit .353 to win his seventh NL batting crown.
At the start of the 1998 season, Gwynn had a little gray in his beard and a couple more pounds around his waist. Still, he was coming off four consecutive NL batting titles and what may have been his finest all-around season. After a chat with Ted Williams, Gwynn started turning on the inside pitch and posted 17 home runs and 119 RBIs. This display of power was a new wrinkle for Gwynn, who had always been labeled a singles hitter. The new power stroke didn’t hurt his batting average either; his .372 batting average ranks as his highest for a full season, and his 220 hits were a career best.
Although Gwynn slumped to a merely mortal .321 clip in 1998, the season ranked as one of his most exciting. After claiming their second NL West title in three years, the Padres reached the World Series for the second time in Gwynn’s career by defeating the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves. Returning to the Fall Classic after a fifteen-year absence, Gwynn stroked eight hits and a home run in 16 at-bats. His efforts were not good enough to stop the AL Champion Yankees, who won in four straight games.
With the Padres out contention the following season, attention focused on Gwynn’s quest for 3,000 hits. Only 72 safeties shy of the magic figure at the start of the year, Gwynn was hampered in his pursuit by a lingering calf injury which forced him onto the disabled list in late May.
The inevitable result was merely delayed until August 6, however, when Gwynn hit a soft line drive into right field off Expos’ rookie Dan Smith at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. 2462 miles away, 5,000 fans watching in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium roared as Gwynn became the 22nd player to reach the magic number — and the first to collect number 3,000 outside the United States. He required the third fewest number of games to reach the milestone; only Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie got there faster.
Single-spaced, a list of Gwynn’s hits published by the Padres’ PR department to commemorate the event was half an inch thick and ran 49 pages. Each hit held a memory for Gwynn, who pointed out his 1,000th hit against Nolan Ryan to the San Diego Union-Tribune: “That list doesn’t tell you Ryan jammed the (bleep) out of me and Jose Cruz lost it in the lights.”
Later in that interview, Gwynn talked about the worst at-bat of his career. It came in a 1987 game that saw the Padres blowing out the Expos and Montreal infielder Vance Law on the mound. As Gwynn remembered: “You know the crowd’s into it, because their third baseman’s on the mound. He’s throwing knuckleballs, curveballs, sliders, everything. I’m 0-for-4 and everybody else is rakin’, so I go up saying, ‘I’ve got to get a hit.’ Talk about abusing somebody. Knuckleball, swing and miss. Slider, foul it off the foot. Ball one. Law throws a batting-practice heater right down the middle and I ground out to second base. You talk about livid. I hit it and I didn’t even want to run. Law was smiling at me as I was heading back to the dugout, but I wasn’t smiling back. Everybody was laughing at me.”