When I was younger and cared about things like baseball cards and autographs, Tony Gwynn, who passed away today at the age of 54 after a battle with cancer, upended his own market. He signed so many balls and bats and ticket stubs that his autograph became worthless around Southern California. He elevated his legacy above the cheap transactional scheming of 11-year-old boys and card dealers through sheer generosity and niceness. The kids I ran with all had shoeboxes full of perfectly legible Tony Gwynn autographs.
Legible also describes Tony Gwynn's career. There was never any doubt about what he brought to the Padres. He played joyful baseball that transcended time and space. It seemed uncomplicated: he always hit, he always smiled, he never had a bad season. When baseball disappointed him by blocking his run at .400 in 1994—he was hitting .394 when the player's strike began in August—Gwynn simply came back the next year and hit .368. He would have hit in the 1950s and he would have hit in the 1930s; he would have hit under water or on the moon. There was something automatic about a Tony Gwynn line drive. He was so consistently good that you almost forgot to appreciate it.
Writers tend to call Gwynn a sweet swinger or a pure hitter, but I never saw him that way. Ted Williams compared him to Houdini with a baseball bat. But Williams knew as well as anybody that what Tony Gwynn did was not magic: he was too meticulous, too serious for that. He was an obsessive for preparation, a video junkie. He didn't swing long and pretty like Ken Griffey Jr. He swung efficiently, matter-of-factly, leaving little room for baseballs to avoid his bat, even as his speed and limited power left him. In a column for ESPN, Gwynn wrote about facing Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
"Compared to most hitters, I had relatively good success against them—.429 against Maddux and .312 against Glavine. Why? I took a counter-punching approach to hitting; I hit whatever they threw me. I never tried to get too big—in other words, to make something happen instead of just letting it happen. Over and over again, I have seen hitters get themselves out against Maddux and Glavine because they tried to force the issue."
That was Tony Gwynn: He leveraged humility into success against two of the greatest pitchers of all time. The sweetness and pureness were not necessarily in the aesthetics of his swing, but in his personality. He was a kind man with a respectful approach to his craft, and all the better for it. He ran around the ballfield like there was no better place to be on earth—a living, breathing advertisement for baseball as national pastime, laughing through the fatal wad of tobacco in his cheek, swinging through so many dismal Padres seasons.
It is impossible to imagine baseball in San Diego without Tony Gwynn. Never in baseball has a single player lent credibility to a franchise the way Tony Gwynn did for the Padres. Without him they are an anchor-less franchise, a minor league club dressed up in major league uniforms with a murky history and a shoddy track record. Gwynn changed all that. He was a first-rate baseball hero in the classic mold, who played ball at San Diego State and then coached there, sticking around the city after he retired. San Diego will forever love him, and forever admire him.
Even when I was a kid getting his autograph, he seemed like an imagined hero. I didn't know what nostalgia was, but Tony Gwynn was nostalgia. The way he laughed, the way he looked, the way he played. There are a million things a ballplayer can be good at. Tony Gwynn's skill was the most basic, pleasing, and fundamental of those things. Hitting baseballs better than anybody else on earth could, in a vacuum, be a meaningless achievement. Tony Gwynn made sure it wasn't.
Eric Nusbaum has written for Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, Deadspin, and other publications. He is an editor of The Classical. Reach him @ericnus.