Is Tony Gwynn the Greatest Hitter in Baseball History?
Leavy, Walter, Ebony
If--as it is often said--hitting a baseball is the most difficult thing to do in sports, then Tony Gwynn does it better than anyone else.
Like Rembrandt, Picasso and Van Gogh, the San Diego Padres right fielder; too, is a legendary artist. His canvas is a baseball field; his brush is a 30 1/2-ounce bat. In a 14-year stretch, his masterpieces include seven batting titles (three of those in a row), 14 straight seasons of hitting more than .300 and 13 All-Star Game appearances.
Now in his 15th year and at age 37, it appears that Father Time hasn't appreciably diminished Gwynn's skills, and--barring injury or some other catastrophe--he could win his eighth batting title. But what's raising everyone's eyebrows is the fact that he's poised again to make a run at becoming the first player to hit .400 since Ted Williams did it in 1941. In the strike-shortened 1994 season, he was hitting .394 when the season shut down on August 12 due to a labor dispute.
This year's hitting spree has reignited the debate about whether Gwynn is the greatest hitter of all time. Some fans say there's no question about it. Others, however, aren't totally convinced. Whenever the discussions about history's greatest hitters erupt in barber shops, bars and on Little League and major league fields, the names tossed around most include Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Ted Williams. In recent years, Tony's name has been thrown into the mix more often than not. Perhaps the fact that he hit .394, .368 and .353, respectively, in the past three years has done a lot to convince fans of his place among the game's greatest.
As has been the case in other sports, though, one of the most difficult things to do--tougher than hitting a 95-mile-per-hour slider--is to compare players from different eras. There are just too many variables. For example, Cobb, Wagner and Williams often got late-inning hits off exhausted starting pitchers because, in their eras, there wasn't as much emphasis placed on relief pitching as there is today. In this era of marquee, multimillionaire relief pitchers, starting pitchers rarely go beyond six innings before a fresh hurler is brought in, sometimes to pitch to only one batter.
In a game where you are considered a success if you get a hit three out of 10 times, it's obvious that pitchers have a definite advantage. That being the case, when Gwynn steps into the batter's box, what's the secret that allows him to distinguish himself from the rest of the best in the major leagues? For him, it's simple--hard work. "I know my swing better than anybody, so I do all of my preparation before I get into the batter's box--and then it's just about seeing the ball and hitting it," says Gwynn, one of baseball's classiest ambassadors. "The biggest thing is being consistent--consistent with your work ethic, consistent with your preparation, consistent with your approach. If you are able to be consistent, then you have a chance to be successful."
Much of what Tony knows about the connection between success and hard work has come as a result of lessons he learned from his father, Charles, while he was growing up in Long Beach, Calif. His father, who often pointed out how Jackie Robinson succeeded under the worst conditions, repeatedly told Gwynn about the importance of dedication, determination, character and the desire to win. Tony listened, and those qualities began to pay off when he was still a youngster. Later, bigger dividends were being paid by the time he arrived at San Diego State University on a basketball scholarship. Although he eventually chose baseball, he was good enough in basketball to make history when he was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers in 1981. "I'm still the only guy ever to be drafted by two teams in two different professional sports on the same day," he says.
Since Gwynn has been in the major leagues, he has been a study in brilliance. On the field, his numbers speak for themselves. …