The natural answer to that statement is to expect that it is simply an exaggeration. When somebody dies, it is natural for the living to put the recently deceased on a pedestal. While many have taken the time to remember Tony's impact on MLB as well as the city of San Diego, a lot has also been said about his use of smokeless tobacco and how it was likely one of the causes of the cancer that took his life. I think it is a shame that few have looked at his accomplishments and given him the credit he deserves. When Gwynn left this earth, he knew he was one of the better pure hitters of his generation. Perhaps even he did not know he was a once in a generation player. In fact, there has not been a better pure hitter since Ted Williams played from 1939-1961.
The sabermetrics community has changed what is deemed good in the game of baseball. The saberers tell players, "Don't swing the bat" and you will be considered a good ballplayer. Players now a days get rewarded for hitting .220 and striking out 150 times for not swinging a bat and taking more walks. They get rewarded with a contract and stay around in the major leagues just because of their on base percentage. What many would not see in Tony Gwynn by simply looking at his stats was his "hit first" mentality which led to his high career batting average. Though he did have a keen eye on the strike zone, his thought was to always look for a pitch to hit. Something a player is looked down upon in the game today.
Of course, one thing that stands out about the career of Tony Gwynn is the fact that he barely struck out. In 10,232 plate appearances, he struck out just 434 times. You had to go back to the days of Williams and Joe DiMaggio to see a player strikeout at such a low rate.
His career .388 OBP gets some credit from the saber community, but not for the popular reason. Gwynn hit himself to his career OBP, which happens to be the 112th all time. Outside of his 82 walk 1987 season, his highest career total was 59 in 1984. He walked 760 times in his 19 year career, an average of 40 times a season. He averaged just 23 strikeouts a season, so the conclusion can be made that Gwynn hit his way on base and took pride in making contact. That is what makes his career batting average so impressive.
Gwynn hit .3382 for his career. That ranks in a tie for 18th all time in MLB history. Gwynn is tied with Jesse Burkett and Napoleon Lajoie for the 18th-19th and 20th highest batting averages in the history of major league baseball. That does not seem like a big deal. But look at the players who rank ahead of him. Take Ted Williams (.3444- tied to 7th all time) out of the equation and there is not another player that ranks in the top 20 all time averages that played passed the year 1939! Lou Gehrig (.3401- 16th all time) retired during the 1939 season. 6 players in the top 20 (Rogers Hornsby, Lefty O'Doul, Babe Ruth, Bill Terry, George Sisler and Harry Heilmann) retired between the year of 1930-1936. Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker stopped playing after the 1928 season. Shoeless Joe Jackson was banned for life after the 1920 season. Napoleon Lajoie retired after the 1916 season. Willie Keeler after 1910. 4 players in the top 20 stopped playing from 1900-1905 (Billy Hamilton, Jesse Burkett, Dan Brouthers and Ed Delahanty). Dave Orr and Pete Browing stopped playing before 1900.
If that does not put Gwynn in a category by himself, I do not know what else will. Where is the player that compiled a .338+ career batting average since 1961? And other than Williams, where is that player that compiled a .338+ career batting average since 1940? That player does not exist. The problem is that we judge a baseball player's playing career based on home runs. Now, because of the use of PEDs in the game, even some of the all time home run hitters are not getting the credit they deserve. Perhaps the difficulty of hitting for such a high career average is something we now take for granted. Because of that, we lump Gwynn in the same category as Paul Moltor, Cal Ripken, Dave Winfield, Derek Jeter and others who finished with around the same career hits. Yes, players like Rod Carew (.3279) and Wade Boggs (.3278) should get nearly as much credit as Gwynn, but in my opinion, the prior 4 mentioned are not nearly as accompilshed hitters as Gwynn was.