(Reuters) – Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, one of the greatest hitters of his generation, has died at the age of 54 after a battle with cancer, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum said on Monday.
Gwynn, a San Diego native who played his entire career with the San Diego Padres, died early on Monday morning at Pomerado Hospital in Poway, California, surrounded by his family, the museum in Cooperstown, New York, said in a statement.
Gwynn, who had two operations for cancer in his right cheek, had signed an extension this month to continue working as baseball coach at San Diego State University, according to ESPN. He had been on medical leave since late March while recovering from cancer treatment.
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The man nicknamed “Mr. Padre,” who took over the program at his alma mater after the 2002 season, had said he believed the cancer was from chewing tobacco, a habit he shared with many major leaguers.
The sweet-swinging lefthanded hitting outfielder amassed 3,141 hits over 20 seasons, compiling a career batting average of .338 that is 18th best all-time. He also claimed a record-tying eight National League batting titles.
A 15-time All-Star, Gwynn also won five Gold Glove Awards in recognition of his defensive skills and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007 in his first year of eligibility.
Gwynn, a rare hometown player who thrived in the majors with his local team, was a key member of the 1984 and 1998 San Diego Padres National League pennant-winning teams that reached the World Series and he batted .371 in the Fall Classic.
“He was beloved by so many … for his kindness, graciousness and passion for the game,” said Jane Forbes Clark, chairman of the board of the Hall of Fame. “Tony was one of baseball history’s most consistent hitters and most affable personalities.”
Gwynn’s Hall of Fame plaque called him “an artisan with the bat.”
“Major League Baseball today mourns the tragic loss of Tony Gwynn, the greatest Padre ever and one of the most accomplished hitters that our game has ever known,” Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.
— MLB (@MLB) June 16, 2014
Gwynn’s career-high .394 average during the strike-shortened 1994 season remains the highest to lead either league since fellow San Diegan Ted Williams batted .406 for the Red Sox in 1941.
Gwynn, whose No. 19 was retired by the Padres in 2004, was inducted into the Hall of Fame along with another first-ballot member, former Baltimore Orioles infielder Cal Ripken Jr.
“This is an extraordinarily sad day,” Ripken said in a statement.
“Tony always had a big smile on his face and was one of the warmest and most genuine people I have ever had the honor of knowing.”
The San Diego Padres tweeted: “We are terribly sad to say goodbye to our teammate, our friend and a legend, Tony Gwynn. Rest in peace, Mr. Padre.”
We are terribly sad to say goodbye to our teammate, our friend and a legend, Tony Gwynn. Rest in peace, Mr. Padre.
— San Diego Padres (@Padres) June 16, 2014
(Reporting by Curtis Skinner and Larry Fine in New York; editing by Eric Beech, David Gregorio and Matthew Lewis)