SAN DIEGO(Reuters) - Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, one of the greatest hitters of his generation, died on Monday at age 54 after a battle with cancer, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum said.
Gwynn, who grew up in Long Beach, California, and played his entire major league career with the San Diego Padres after playing baseball and basketball at San Diego State University, died surrounded by family at Pomerado Hospital in Poway, California, the museum in Cooperstown, New York, said in a statement.
Gwynn, who had two operations for cancer in his right cheek and had been on medical leave since late March, signed an extension this month to continue working as baseball coach at San Diego State University, according to ESPN.
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.
Gwynn 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 two Fall Classics.
“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.
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 won 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.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said Gwynn was “the greatest Padre ever.” Gwynn’s Hall of Fame plaque called him simply “an artisan with the bat.”
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer ordered flags on city property to be flown at half-staff.
“Our city is a little darker today without him but immeasurably better because of him,” Faulconer said.
Bouquets of flowers were laid at Gwynn’s statue outside San Diego’s Petco Park, where about 150 fans paid their respects. Many were wearing his No. 19 jersey, including local Little League coach Tony Castro and his son.
“I tell them to play with a heart like Tony,” Castro said. “What better athlete to idolize on and off the field?”
Gwynn’s career-high .394 average in the strike-shortened 1994 season remains the highest to lead either major league since San Diego native Ted Williams batted .406 for the Boston Red Sox in 1941.
Gwynn, whose number 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.
“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,” Ripken said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Curtis Skinner and Larry Fine in New York; Editing by David Gregorio, Matthew Lewis, Jim Loney and Peter Cooney