What Tony Gwynn did even better than “carving” base hits through “the 5.5 hole” between third base and shortstop — something he did so often and so well he owned the concept the way Willie Mays did the basket catch and Sandy Koufax the curveball — was to make people smile. Gwynn loved baseball through and through. He could not hide his enthusiasm for feeling the dirt and grass under his feet, which is why after hitting .338 over 20 years of major league baseball and earning $47 million he went to San Diego State to coach college kids on how to play and love this beautiful game.
Quick: name another Hall of Famer in baseball’s era of economic boom who took to coaching college kids. Stuck? Thought so.
Today baseball is a little less beautiful. Tony Gwynn and that sweet smile and infectious, childish giggle of his are gone. Gwynn died at age 54 after a four-year battle against cancer in his salivary gland, a vicious disease that people will connect to his use of smokeless tobacco, the vile habit that is still too common in the game.
Gwynn’s Hall of Fame plaque calls him “an artisan with the bat,” and one of the great pleasures for anybody covering baseball in the 1980s and ’90s was to sit down with the artisan and talk hitting. Gwynn was as prolific a talker as he was a hitter, the observations and theories flying from him like line drives sprayed around the outfield.
Only once did I see Gwynn’s cherubic face turned sour. It was after Game 1 of the 1998 World Series. Batting against New York’s David Wells in a tie game in the fifth inning, Gwynn crushed the first pitch into the upper deck in rightfield at Yankee Stadium. The renowned singles hitter had just made like the Bambino himself. Jaws dropped in the press box. The Padres would lose the game, but the writers made their way to Gwynn afterward to learn more about this uncharacteristic home run. Now, Gwynn was the go-to guy in the San Diego clubhouse whether the Padres won or lost, whether he went 4-for-4 or 0-for-4. He was always available, insightful and courteous. And yet this time, when reporters didn’t hide their astonishment that Gwynn had hit a ball so high and so far, Gwynn barked back a bit. He barely looked up and gave a clipped answer. His pride was hurt.
After the group session broke up, I walked up to Gwynn and complimented him on showing the restraint that he did.
“Have they seen me play before?” he said to me. “It’s not like it’s the first home run I’ve ever hit. I’ve hit a few before and I’ve hit a few longer than that. Give me a break.”
Indeed, while the singular skill of shooting line drives through the hole into leftfield defined him, it also overshadowed his athletic excellence. In 1987, Gwynn hit .370 while stealing 56 bases. It remains the only time in the past 92 years anybody hit .370 with at least 50 steals. The only other players to ever do so were George Sisler, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Benny Kauff.
Gwynn played 20 years and never struck out more than 40 times. He had more doubles than strikeouts in his career. In fact, he is one of only five players in the history of the game with more than 500 doubles and fewer than 500 strikeouts, keeping company with Hall of Famers from eras long gone: Paul Waner, Charlie Gehringer, Tris Speaker and Nap Lajoie. He had the bat control of a deadball star in the modern game while still flashing extra-base power.
Gwynn enjoyed a great friendship with Ted Williams and talked hitting with his fellow San Diegan on levels only the virtuosos understand. Williams loved to talk about the barrel of the bat coming up to met the baseball with a slight angle; Gwynn simply dropped the barrel down and through the baseball with a bat so small he used to refer to it as his “peashooter.”
Gwynn was a fervent student of the game. He was one of the first players who dove into the video age. His wife would travel around with a video cassette player — the old Betamax used in those days was as big as a suitcase — and tape his at-bats. Gwynn would watch the tapes after games in his hotel room on the road. Sometimes he would cover the TV set with a sheet of plastic wrap and draw with a wax marker, often to make sure his head didn’t move during his swing or that his body kept its center of balance.
Gwynn seemed to have the mysteries of hitting figured out better than most, like one of those Rubik’s cube masters who can solve the puzzle blindfolded in seconds. And yet he worked and studied at his craft more than most. Baseball never seemed to be work for the man who was called “Mr. Padre.”
All of his amazing numbers, however, don’t tell the true story of Tony Gwynn. He was an ambassador not just for the game of baseball but for mankind. His dignity and modesty were remarkable in any age, but especially this one, in which the individual who shouts the loudest about himself gets the most fame, and we have confused fame with character. Gwynn won the 1995 Branch Rickey Award, the 1998 Lou Gehrig Award and the 1999 Roberto Clemente Award, all honors given to baseball players for their character and humanitarianism, not just their batting skills.
Gwynn will be missed by those who never met him for his extraordinary skills at a very difficult game. He will be missed by those who knew him, whether for a minute or a lifetime, for his smile and his generosity. He is gone much too soon, and deserves every one of the tributes and honors that will mark his passing, none of which would be greater than the next ballplayer who gives up smokeless tobacco.
This article originally appeared on SI.com.