Tony Gwynn hits in this undated photo taken in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
SAN DIEGO — Tony Gwynn could handle a bat like few other major-leaguers, whether it was driving the ball through the ‘‘5.5 hole’’ between third base and shortstop or hitting a home run off the facade in Yankee Stadium in the World Series.
He was a craftsman at the plate, and his sweet left-handed swing made him one of greatest hitters in baseball history.
Gwynn, a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest athletes in the history of San Diego, died Monday of oral cancer, a disease he attributed to years of chewing tobacco. He was 54.
‘‘Our city is a little darker
today without him but immeasurably better because of him,’’ San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a statement.
Gwynn played his whole
career with the San Diego
Padres, choosing to stay in the city where he was a two-sport star in college — he also played basketball — rather than leaving for bigger paychecks elsewhere. His terrific hand-eye coordination made him one of the greatest pure hitters in history. He had 3,141 hits and a .338 career average and won eight batting titles.
Gwynn struck out only 434 times in 9,288 career at-bats. He played in the Padres’ only two World Series in 1984 and 1998, batting a combined .371, and was a 15-time All-Star. He hit a memorable home run in Game 1 of the 1998 World Series against New York Yankees left-hander David Wells and scored the winning run in the 1994 All-Star Game despite a bum knee.
Gwynn never hit below .309 in a full season. He spread out his batting titles from 1984, when he batted .351, to 1997, when he hit .372. Gwynn was hitting .394 when a players’ strike ended the 1994 season and denied him a shot at becoming the first player to hit .400 since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941.
‘‘Tony Gwynn was the best pure hitter I ever faced! Condolences to his family,’’ Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux said.
Gwynn was known for his hearty laugh and warm personality. Tim Flannery, who was teammates with Gwynn on the Padres’ 1984 World Series team, said he’ll ‘‘remember the cackle to his laugh. He was always laughing, always talking, always happy.’’
Gwynn had been on medical leave since late March from his job as the baseball coach at San Diego State, his alma mater. He died at a hospital in Poway, Calif., agent John Boggs said. Gwynn’s wife, Alicia, and other family members were at his side when he died, Boggs said.
Gwynn had two operations for cancer in his right cheek between August 2010 and February 2012. The second surgery was complicated, with surgeons removing a facial nerve because it was intertwined with a tumor in the cheek. They grafted a nerve from Gwynn’s neck to help him regain some facial movement.