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The Legacy of Tony Gwynn

by Photo of Sam Cohen

In light of his passing, we look at the impact Tony Gwynn had as a player and a person.

The Legacy of Tony Gwynn

In this article…

Editor's Note: Tony Gwynn is the type of player whose greatness I didn't quite appreciate for far too long. He certainly left us far too soon. - Ross

Over the weekend, the sports world lost not only one of its greatest athletes, but one of the greatest people. Tony Gwynn passed away at age 54 after a lengthy battle with salivary gland cancer. Gwynn played for 20 seasons from 1982-2001, all for the San Diego Padres, and is widely considered to be one of the best pure hitters ever. While he surely would have been much more recognized if he played in a bigger market or if he were a home run hitter, his numbers are unbelievable, literally.

Gwynn's career average was .338. That's a career average that few have ever or will ever exceed or even come close to reaching. According to baseball-reference.com, he finished in the top five in average every year from 1984-1997 except for 1990, when he was one batting average point away from fifth place. In three of those seasons, he hit at least .370, including the 1994 lockout-shortened season when he hit .394. Many believe he would've hit over .400 if the season didn't end early.

The 2007 Hall of Fame inductee had 3,141 hits and according to Jayson Stark of espn.com, out of all the players with 3,000 hits since 1900, Gwynn had the highest career average. What's more impressive is that his outs were rarely via the strikeout. Baseball-reference.com shows that he had eight seasons in which he struck out fewer than 20 times. His 40 strikeouts in 1988 were the most he had in any season. Three players had at least 40 strikeouts in April of 2013. He only had 34 multi-strikeout games and one three strikeout game in his entire career. 

Gwynn was such an amazing hitter, in fact, that according to Stark, he hit at least .400 against eight different Cy Young winners, a list that includes Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Dennis Eckersley. He hit over .300 against seven other Cy Young winners. He was so good against Maddux that the Hall of Fame pitcher never struck him out in 94 at-bats. Neither did Pedro Martinez in 35 at-bats. 

The 15-time All-Star also won five gold gloves, proving to be one of the game's premier defensive outfielders during his career. 

Gwynn's most historic contributions to baseball, however, were through his personality, attitude, and work-ethic. Known as one of the game's biggest video junkies, he would asked his wife to record him hitting during his at-bats. He would use the video tapes to correct his swing, spending hours after games dissecting all of his at-bats and taking notes on what he needed to improve on. Watching video after games has become commonplace in baseball at every level of the game and Gwynn is one of the main reasons why.

Gwynn was also a great man. He was always open to talking to the media and treated all reporters as if they were his friends. He loved to learn about others while sharing his own background. Tyler Kepner of The New York Times wrote a great piece about how Gwynn noticed he was wearing a Vanderbilt shirt when Kepner was a young reporter working for a magazine he published from home. He was so excited that he introduced him to another Vanderbilt alum, reporter Buster Olney, after the interview was over. Olney ended up helping Kepner get a job at The Times.

That is only one story of many about Gwynn's outgoing personality. He was a star, but you wouldn't know it by watching how he conducted himself. He was loyal and unselfish, as he turned down more money to play elsewhere on multiple occasions so that he could spend his entire career in San Diego. But most of all, he was inspirational, as he dedicated his whole life to the game he loved and played and taught the game beautifully. He will be missed.

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