SAN DIEGO - San Diego Padres Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn, the head baseball coach at San Diego State University, died Monday following a battle with salivary gland cancer, which he blamed on his career-long habit of chewing tobacco. He was 54.
Gwynn died at Pomerado Hospital in Poway, the San Diego Padres announced.
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A right-fielder who came to be known as Mr. Padre, Gwynn belted 3,141 hits in his 20 seasons with Padres, had a .338 career batting average and was a 15-time All Star. His playing career ended in 2001, and he was subsequently picked as head baseball coach for SDSU, his alma mater.
During his playing career, Gwynn won seven Silver Slugger Awards and five Gold Glove Awards. His eight batting titles tied for second-most in Major League Baseball history.
Gwynn was inducted into the Pro Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007 -- the first year he became eligible. The Padres -- the only professional baseball team for which he ever played -- retired his number, 19, in 2004.
"There are no words to express what Tony means to this organization and this community," said Ron Fowler, the Padres' executive chairman. "More than just Mr. Padre, Tony was Mr. San Diego. He cared deeply about our city and had a profound impact on our community. He forever will be remembered not only for his tremendous on-field accomplishments, but also for his infectious laugh, warm, outgoing personality and huge heart."
Another member of the Padres' ownership group, Peter Seidler, said, "Tony was not only one of the greatest hitters the sport has ever seen, but also one of the greatest men to ever play the game. As a player who committed his entire career to one team and led the Padres to two National League pennants, Tony was admired and respected by all fans of the game. His smile will be forever etched in our hearts."
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig called Gwynn "the greatest Padre ever and one of the most accomplished hitters that our game has ever known," while recalling "his exuberant personality and genial disposition in life."
"For more than 30 years, Tony Gwynn was a source of universal goodwill in the national pastime, and he will be deeply missed by the many people he touched," Selig said. "On behalf of all of our clubs, I extend my deepest condolences to Tony's wife Alicia, their son Tony Jr. of the Phillies, their daughter Anisha, the Padres franchise, his fans in San Diego and his many admirers throughout baseball."
The Padres announced that the statue of Gwynn in the Park in the Park will be open to the public until 11:30 p.m. tonight and Tuesday to allow fans to pay their respects.
A memorial of flowers, cards and candles continues to grow at the base of the statue in Gwynn’s honor.
As fans gathered Monday on the lawn near the outfield to watch highlights of Gwynn's baseball career, many were there with personal stories to share.
Rick Sainz was a baseball coach for a team of underprivileged children. He will never forget when he asked Gwynn for one signed ball. He signed for the whole team.
"Tony stood there graciously and signed every ball and told me, 'Make a lot of money for those kids,'" said Sainz.
Tony Castro was just 10 when he begged his mother to take him to a store where Gwynn was signing autographs. Castro was in a wheelchair with two broken legs.
"His limo parked next to us, and he's like, 'What are you doing here?'" said Castro. "I'm like, 'I'm here to see you.' He just got behind me, pushed my sister away, took my wheelchair and pushed me all over the store. That was back in 1988."
After learning of Gwynn's death, Castro printed t-shirts as a way to honor his hero.
"How many players have donned the Padres uniform since 1969?" he said. "There’s only one Mr. Padre."
Tony Jr., who starred at Poway High School and San Diego State before embarking on his own major league career, took to Twitter to say, "Today I lost my Dad, my best friend and my mentor. I'm gonna miss u so much pops. I'm gonna do everything in my power to continue to ... make u proud! Love u pops!"
Gwynn had a malignant tumor removed from his right cheek in 2009. He said he chewed smokeless tobacco throughout his career with the Padres and for many years after and blamed the substance for his condition.
10News spoke with legendary umpire Doug Harvey, who battled the same of type of cancer also after years of chewing. Harvey says he tried to warn Gwynn.
"I told him, 'Tony, this is evil. It's tough and you don’t want it 'and he said, 'Yeah, yeah, OK.' I knew it was going in one ear and out the other," said Harvey.
The cancer returned twice, and in 2012 he underwent radiation treatment in an effort to shrink the tumor, according to the Padres. He had surgery that year, in which the nerve that the tumor was wrapped around had to be replaced with one from his shoulder.
Gwynn missed the second half of the recently completed season while he continued to deal with health problems. He had been on medical leave since March, but signed a one-year extension only Wednesday.
SDSU President Elliot Hirshman expressed his "deepest sorrow" upon hearing of Gwynn's death.
"Tony's extraordinary athletic abilities and achievements were matched by the kindness, support and mentoring he gave to countless members of our community," Hirshman said. "His impact on our baseball program and the entire university was profound, and he will be deeply missed. The thoughts, prayers and condolences of the entire Aztec family go out to Tony's family in this very sad time."
Athletic Director Jim Sterk said Gwynn was a "great ambassador" for the baseball program, athletic department and university.
"We are terribly sad to say goodbye to our teammate, our friend and a legend, Tony Gwynn," the Padres said in a statement via Twitter. "Rest in peace, Mr. Padre."
Shortly after Gwynn's death was announced, city officials and other admirers issued statements via email or social media sites mourning the loss.
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer described Gwynn as "hard-working, passionate and always pursuing excellence."
"Tony Gwynn was a true San Diegan," he said. "The only thing greater than Tony's love for baseball was his love for San Diego. Our city is a little darker today without him but immeasurably better because of him."
Faulconer ordered that flags at city facilities be flown at half-staff.
City Council President Todd Gloria said Gwynn "was an outstanding baseball player, family man and human being. Our city is better because of him and he will be sorely missed."
Councilman Scott Sherman called it a "very sad day for our city" and said his "thoughts and prayers go out to Tony Gwynn's family."
Chargers President Dean Spanos said the city lost someone very special.
"Tony was an icon and one of San Diego's greatest sports legends," Spanos said. "He was beloved by so many for his passion for life, his generosity and, of course, his laugh. I will always remember his laugh. He represented the Padres, San Diego and Major League Baseball to the highest standard."
Marshall Faulk, the football Hall of Fame running back who played at San Diego State, said on Twitter, "RIP....Tony Gwynn. Thank you for your friendship. Aztec Legend!!!"
One of the most heartfelt tweets was sent by former Padre and Dodger Steve Garvey, who responded to Tony Jr. by writing, "I love your dad and everything he stood for. I started off his mentor then he became mine. My sincere condolences to you all."
Dodgers owner and Lakers basketball Hall of Famer Earvin "Magic" Johnson wrote, "My friend Tony Gwynn had one of the sweetest swings in MLB history and he was one of the nicest men on the planet!"
Fan Betty Abbruscato told 10News, "Integrity; he stuck with us. He could have gone anywhere. Anyone would have taken him and he'd probably have a ring, but he chose his family and his adopted family, like he referred to us."
Don Hansen brought an autographed Tony Gwynn baseball bat and a picture of himself as a youngster with Mr. Padre to Petco Park today.
"What he did for this city and on the field, no one's going to see this kind of talent ever again. It's devastating; miss him very dearly," said Hansen.
"Great loss for sport of baseball, just devastating when we heard the news this morning," said fan Jermaine Hart.
Fans include San Diego Chargers; several players and the head coach paying respects. Head coach Mike McCoy remembers how much he treasured his Tony Gwynn baseball cards, growing up.
"When his rookie card came out; through the 80s, always trying to find that Tony Gwynn baseball card every year, so ... one of the best players of all time," said McCoy.
Jane Mitchell, a broadcaster with the Padres for many years, said, "He was so humble, so giving, so genuine, such a big heart; it's why all our hearts are breaking today."
Gwynn also played basketball, starring as a point guard for the Aztecs in college. He was drafted by the then-San Diego Clippers on the same day he was chosen by the Padres.
Memorial services were pending.