I was taking a brief break around 11 a.m. Monday when I saw the breaking news about the passing of Tony Gwynn. While subconsciously I remembered the battle Gwynn had been fighting with oral cancer, I had forgotten how serious his condition was until I read about his death. This one hits a little closer to home because he was one month and a couple of days older than I was and his leaving us is another reminder of our mortality.
And while all the pundits are talking or writing about what a great hitter he was, my hobby memory of Gwynn is totally different. I don't ever remember meeting him. However, everyone I knew who did meet him while chasing autographs or even in general conversation always said what a pleasant person he was.
I recall a fun baseball card commercial he taped with teammate Bip Roberts that aired across the country back in the 90's. Tony was a serious hitter but off the field he was a fun-loving guy who treated everyone the same and was known for his kindness toward fans.
Gwynn also has a special place in hobby history for a reason which is basically forgotten today.
Back in the day, Gwynn was in the San Diego Padres hobby shop and noticed some of the autographs they had for sale of him did not look correct. From an official report on Operation Bullpen from the FBI: "The San Diego Office of the FBI also sought and received the assistance of professional baseball players Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres and Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals. Both athletes assisted the FBI by identifying forgeries of their autographs and thus provided investigators significant leads regarding the identities of individuals involved in this illegal activity."
Gwynn had signed legitimate autographs for Smokey's in Las Vegas and they mixed those with fake autographs of Gwynn. It was a marketing ploy: Sell good autographs so you can set up for bad autographs later: Gwynn to his credit was furious about this and helped identify the good from the bad.
As Kevin Nelson wrote in his book about Operation Bullpen:
”Gwynn helped to expose the forgeries being sold by Doc and Phil Scheinman, the father and son team that operated Smokey’s Sportscards in Las Vegas. The Scheinmans – Doc received house arrest for his activities in the ring, while his son got 10 months in prison – were one of Greg Marino’s biggest customers and sold counterfeit material across the United States."
So while we mourn the greatest left-handed hitter of his generation (and if he played in today's Yankee Stadium he probably would have hit 25 homers or as a Red Sox would have used the Green Monster to probably hit over .400 for a season), I prefer to remember Gwynn for his concern for all collectors past and present and give him a final tip of the cap for everything he did to attempt to clean up the autograph collecting world.
On our Facebook page: Collectors Remember Tony Gwynn