Tony Gwynn, the Hall of Famer with a sweet left-handed swing who spent his entire 20-year career with the Padres and was one of the game’s greatest hitters, died of cancer Monday. He was 54.
Gwynn, a craftsman at the plate and winner of eight batting titles, was nicknamed “Mr. Padre” and was one of the most beloved athletes in San Diego.
He attributed his oral cancer to years of chewing tobacco. He had been on a medical leave since late March from his job as baseball coach at San Diego State, his alma mater. He died at a hospital in suburban Poway, agent John Boggs said.
“He was in a tough battle and the thing I can critique is he’s definitely in a better place,” Boggs told The Associated Press. “He suffered a lot. He battled. That’s probably the best way I can describe his fight against this illness he had, and he was courageous until the end.”
In a rarity in pro sports, Gwynn played his whole career with the Padres, choosing to stay rather than leaving for bigger paychecks elsewhere. His terrific hand-eye coordination made him one of the game’s greatest contact hitters. He had 3,141 hits, a career .338 average and won eight NL batting titles. He excelled at hitting singles the other way, through the “5.5 hole” between third base and shortstop.
Gwynn’s wife, Alicia, and other family members were at his side when he died, Boggs said.
Gwynn’s son, Tony Jr., was in Philadelphia, where he plays for the Phillies.
“Today I lost my Dad, my best friend and my mentor,” Gwynn Jr. tweeted. “I’m gonna miss u so much pops. I’m gonna do everything in my power to continue to … Make u proud!”
Gwynn 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.
Gwynn had said he believed the cancer was from chewing tobacco.
Gwynn had been in and out of the hospital and had spent time in a rehab facility, Boggs said.
“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,” Commissioner Bud Selig said.
Gwynn was last with his San Diego State team on March 25 before beginning a leave of absence. His Aztecs rallied around a Gwynn bobblehead doll they would set near the bat rack during games, winning the Mountain West Conference tournament and advancing to the NCAA regionals.
Last week, SDSU announced it was extending Gwynn’s contract one season.
San Francisco Giants third base coach Tim Flannery, who played with Gwynn and then coached him with the Padres, said he’ll “remember the cackle to his laugh. He was always laughing, always talking, always happy.”