COMMENTARY | The sports world was stunned by the loss of Tony Gwynn to health related cancer than he blames on chewing tobacco. It’s a shame, because Gwynn is arguably the best two-sport athlete ever.
When you think of such two-sport stars, you consider Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders. Some might consider Charley Ward and Dave DeBusschere. Even Herschel Walker was able to succeed in two sports (football and track), as did Jackie Robinson (football and baseball). And we may one day talk about what Jameis Winston will accomplish in the future in baseball and football. But for now, Gwynn reigns supreme.
When I was growing up in El Paso, I remember a star guard for San Diego State University giving the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) fits, scoring in double figures and even hitting a half-court shot that was waved off, incorrectly, by the referee. Just a few months later, at an El Paso Diablos Double A minor league baseball game, that same guy went four-for-five, scoring several runs for the Amarillo Gold Sox. I made a point of remembering that player, Tony Gwynn.
Sure enough, just a season or two later, I was at the 1984 World Series in Detroit, watching the Tigers tangle with the lowly San Diego Padres. But they had Tony Gwynn, who willed the team to their first postseason appearance every, beating the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS. Though the Padres fell to the Tigers, Gwynn stayed on, even getting the team to another World Series in 1998.
Gwynn was a first ballot hall-of fame selection (in 2007); can any other two-sport athlete make the same claim? He’s in the top 20 all time in batting average with a career mark of .340, amassing eight batting titles, more than 300 stolen bases, and led the league in total hits several times. He almost had twice as many walks as strike outs. He made 15 all-star games, five Gold Gloves, more than 1,000 RBIs.
When hearing the old joke that Ted Williams could read the words on a spinning vinyl record, a sportswriter quipped that Gwynn could do that with a CD.
But Gwynn was a star collegiate basketball player too. He set the SDSU mark for most assists in a game (a whopping 18 against Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV team in their prime) and still holds season and career records for assists and assists per game, which is the gold standard for a point guard. He was all-Western Athletic Conference twice in basketball, and in baseball. No wonder he was drafted by the San Diego Clippers (now the Los Angeles Clippers), as well as the Padres. And SDSU has had many stars since Gwynn who could not break his records, including Michael Cage and Kawhi Leonard, the newest NBA Finals MVP for the champion San Antonio Spurs.
Jackson a two-sport star in baseball and football, was pretty good, but nowhere near the baseball talent of Gwynn, and sadly had his career in both cut short by injuries. Sanders was a media celebrity, but did not accomplish in football and baseball combined as Gwynn did in baseball (and eventually quit baseball due to a lack of success).
Ward was a Heisman Trophy and NCAA Football National Championship in football, and made two NBA finals with the New York Knicks, but was not a star with the latter. DeBusschere was a good defender with the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks (winning two NBA Championships), and made the NBA Hall-of-Fame 12 years after retiring, but abandoned the Chicago White Sox minor league team early in his career to focus only on basketball.
Let us not forget, as we celebrate Gwynn’s talent, work ethic, loyalty (he only played for one team), and humility, what felled the greatest two-sport star. Let’s all take a greater effort to let kids and adults know about the dangers of chewing tobacco, which can kill even the most fit human being.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.