Hall of Fame baseballer Tony Gwynn has died. Gwynn, nicknamed "Mr. Padre," played for the San Diego Padre for 20 years and was considered by some to be the league's greatest hitter since Ted Williams. Richard Justice of MLB.com comments on Gwynn's legacy.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now, we remember one of the best hitters ever in baseball, a Hall of Famer, a 15-time all-star with more than 3,100 hits to his name. Tony Gwynn has died at the age of 54. He had salivary gland cancer. Gwynn played his entire 20-season career with one team, the San Diego Padres. And when he announced his retirement in 2001, he reflected on that.
TONY GWYNN: I'm happy that I played 20 years. I've played them all here in San Diego. And so the back of my bubblegum card from here to eternity will look pretty good, I think.
BLOCK: For more on Tony Gwynn's career, I'm joined by Richard Justice of MLB.com. Richard, are you there?
RICHARD JUSTICE: Yes, I am.
BLOCK: OK. Great to talk to. Tony Gwynn was not a big home run hitter. He was not hitting for power. But he had incredible position. How did he do it?
JUSTICE: He did it - he made it an art, really, in that he had the ability, the hand-eye coordination. He was a fanatic at video preparation before it was fashionable. He would have his wife sometimes DVR the games. And he would come back and watch where his hands were, where his feet were. He was very meticulous in that. And he simply knew what the - knew the pitchers strengths and weaknesses. And his specialty was the single. He had 135 career home runs and 2,378 singles.
BLOCK: He had a number embossed the tongue of his baseball shoes - 5.5. Why don't you explain why that was?
JUSTICE: Well, baseball neurology - the third baseman is five, shortstop is six. And Tony Gwynn's area was that space between the third baseman and the shortstop. When he got the pitch he wanted, he would go. And it was amazing how adept he was at hitting it right between those two guys, and he came to embrace that - 5.5.
BLOCK: Tony Gwynn used apparently a very tiny bat, relatively speaking. Why was that?
JUSTICE: He was born and raised in San Diego. His father, Charles, played with him in the backyard, threw him figs he hit with a broomstick. And he became most comfortable swinging a very small bat. And he did joke about it through the years - that that was the bat he grew up with. It was basically a broomstick, and he felt most comfortable with that.
BLOCK: Well, it says a lot about Tony Gwynn that when he was voted into the Hall of Fame, it was on the first ballot, and it was almost unanimous.
JUSTICE: Yeah. Ninety-seven-point-six percent of the vote - seventh highest ever. He was right behind Henry Aaron and right in front of Johnny Bench and Mike Schmidt. And that reflects the perfect - it reflected the level he played the game at. And also, there's, you know, there's an emotional attachment to this, in that he was a guy that was beloved. He had this high-pitched voice, a cackling laugh. And people that have been around him - you can - you - in baseball, you heard that laughter from one side of the dugout to the clubhouse. Opposing players, umpires - people really loved Tony Gwynn.
BLOCK: I mentioned that Tony Gwynn died of salivary gland cancer. And he blamed that on the fact that he chewed tobacco throughout his career. Did he speak out about that and the dangers of that - of tobacco?
JUSTICE: Yes, and he tried to kick it. He's not the first. Baseball now has a large effort. They bring around doctors every spring to talk about it. But it's an addiction not unlike cigarettes, and it was a very tough thing. It became part of the ritual. He was one of hundreds of players to use it, and he paid the price for it.
BLOCK: OK. Richard Justice, executive correspondent with MLB.com, remembering Tony Gwynn, who died at age 54. Richard, thanks so much.
JUSTICE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.