Tony Gwynn, the 1994 Strike and Baseball's Last Real Shot at .400

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
Tony Gwynn, the 1994 Strike and Baseball's Last Real Shot at .400
Tim Johnson/AP Images

From the corner of a Cooperstown, New York, memorabilia shop last month, one of the premier experts on hitting the game has ever produced, considered Ted Williams and the absolute, utter absurdity of .400.

A lot was lost when the players walked out 20 years ago this week to begin what would become the longest work stoppage in the history of a North American professional sports league. The 1994 World Series, millions upon millions of dollars and the last vestige of baseball in Montreal were among the casualties.

What we didn’t know then was that we also were watching baseball’s last great run at .400.

Indeed, when Seattle’s Randy Johnson fanned Oakland’s Ernie Young at 9:45 p.m. PT on Aug. 11, 1994, the players struck and San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn was left hanging at .394.

Gwynn, and those close to him at the time, forever believed that if given the chance to play it out that September, he could have gotten .400.

Nobody since has come close. And most in today’s game now view Williams’ .406 in 1941 as an antique relic from a forever bygone era.

Al Behrman/Associated Press

“Here’s the way I feel about .400,” Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time leader with 4,256 career hits, told Bleacher Report. “I think a guy could hit .400, but I don’t think anybody in the world can get 200-for-500.

“I think you can get 350 at-bats, 300 at-bats and hit .400, but to get 200-for-500, that’s .400.”

The possibilities for Gwynn, who was 34 in ’94, remain the most tantalizing aspect of a summer that receded far too soon.

In the 73 years since Williams’ epic .406, only four times has a player even hit as high as .380: Williams in 1957 (.388), Minnesota’s Rod Carew in 1977 (.388), Kansas City’s George Brett in 1980 (.390) and Gwynn in 1994.

Not only was Gwynn at .394, but he was hitting .423 during the second half of the season and .475 during the month of August. Over his final 14 games, he hit an astounding .439.

“Let’s put it this way: In every player’s career, there’s that real big blip where the statistics rocket. And that was his,” Hall of Famer Dave Winfield says. “Perhaps he would have done it. It’s like George Brett, he had that one year. These guys were always great hitters. Rod Carew.

“It would have been possible, looking back. It was possible. That was his year to do it.

“Once it’s interrupted, sometimes you never get it back.”

In 110 games that summer, Gwynn went hitless in back-to-back games only twice, and never after May 15-16.

"Hot" did not even begin to describe Gwynn, as both the temperatures and tensions steadily increased that August.

Frank Polich/Associated Press

“It was the dangdest thing I’ve ever seen,” Gwynn told me for a story for the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press the next spring as he sat at home still waiting for the strike to end. “Until you get in that zone, I can’t even describe to you the feeling I had going to the plate. There was no doubt ... it didn’t matter who was pitching, or what park we were in.”

Hitters never forget that feeling and, truth be told, few ever feel it to that extent, or for the length of time Gwynn did in ’94.

Brett did in 1980, reaching .400 on Sept. 19, with just 14 games left in the season—the latest anyone has hit .400 since Williams.

And Carew did three years earlier, landing on the July 18, 1977, cover of Time magazine (“Baseball’s Best Hitter”).

“It was one of those uncanny seasons where everything I seemed to hit found a hole,” Carew says. “My objective every time I stepped to the plate was to get a hit. I never thought of .400. I figured it if happens, it happens.

“I got into August and I was so tired. My arms were tired. Mentally, I was drained. A lot of that goes into not helping [to hit .400]. Going after .400 at times is just mind-boggling.”

Anonymous/Associated Press

By the time the Time cover landed on newsstands and in mailboxes, Carew nearly was at his wit’s end. The outside noise drove him into Minnesota manager Gene Mauch’s office, seeking counsel.

“It was nuts,” Carew says. “It was nuts because I was getting people calling me from all parts of the country, outside the country also. Telephone calls at the hotel.”

Finally, Carew instructed Minnesota’s traveling secretary to register him at the team hotels under a pseudonym, the first two names of his eldest daughter: Charryse Britt. Mauch helped construct a firewall between Carew and the press, ordering his second baseman incommunicado too close to batting practice or too close to game time.

These were some of the tips Carew passed on to Gwynn during Mr. Padre’s searing summer of ’94. Ever the student of the Science of Hitting, Gwynn spoke with both Carew and Brett that summer, seeking advice from two Hall of Famers, the two hitters who have come closest to .400 over a full season.

Count Carew on the side of those who think Gwynn would have done it had be been given an entire, uninterrupted season.

“I think so,” Carew says. “Because of the type of hitter Tony and I were. Going in that late, I thought he had a pretty good chance.

“We talked about it. He called me. 'What do you think, Rod?' You know, with the way you’re swinging the bat, I think you have a good chance. 'What’s the difference for me?' Maintaining your focus. You’re going to be surrounded by the press the closer you get, and sometimes that affects what you do on the field because you’re thinking about it.”

On and on their conversations went that summer.

“What were you thinking?” Gwynn asked.

“I tried to get base hits and not worry about it too much,” Carew answered.

Two artists speaking the same language.

Surely, fans throughout the game would have cheered for Gwynn down the September stretch in ’94 had there been one.

Just as they would if anybody—anybody—approached that magic number today.

CWH/Associated Press

“My own personal opinion is, no, nobody can do it,” says Atlanta Braves first base coach Terry Pendleton, the 1991 NL batting champion at .319. “The one guy who I thought might have a shot in the last 10 years was Barry Bonds, but he could care less about .400.

“It got to the point with the shift on that every time he was up, he could have bunted toward third base and got a hit every time.”

Pendleton, like so many others, thinks .400 has forever gone the way of the jitterbug and flannel uniforms for a variety of reasons. The game now tilts to specialization. Modern bullpens. A media crunch that would make the September spotlight impossibly blinding.

“Good hitters don’t think about that stuff,” Carew scoffs. “We didn’t care how many times a guy was out there, long man, short man, it didn’t affect us. You ask Wade Boggs or anybody else, it wouldn’t affect us.”

Gwynn? Pendleton does say Gwynn had a legitimate chance to do it in ’94. And one of his Braves teammates that summer agrees: Hall of Famer Tom Glavine cites Gwynn as the hitter he least wanted to face with two out and a runner on second base, including Bonds.

It was more, Is he going to get himself out, not, Are you going to get him out,  Glavine says. “There’s nobody in today’s game you can compare him to. Him, Rod Carew, there’s nobody like that in today’s game.”

By Rose’s 500 at-bats acid test, Gwynn would have had to go 35-for-81, a .432 clip, over the season’s final weeks to hit .400. When the stoppage started, he was 165-for-419. The year before, he hit .358 in 489 at-bats. The next season, 1995, he won his sixth batting title, hitting .368 in 535 at-bats.

“He could get base hits like nobody I’ve ever seen,” booms Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda, who had a front-row seat to Gwynn’s exploits while managing the Los Angeles Dodgers all those years.

“Do you know what Tony was so good at? I’d play my shortstop there, and he’d hit it just outside of my shortstop. Next time up I’d move my shortstop over, and he’d hit it back where he was in the first place.

“I said this to him: Hey, Tony, don’t you ever hit into a double play? I never saw him hit into a double play.”

This is the place where truth becomes all dewy and sepia-toned and is overtaken by legend. Truth? Gwynn bounced into 20 double plays in ’94 to lead the NL.

What would have aided Gwynn down the stretch, aside from his unmatched hand-eye coordination and quick wrists, was his ease in dealing with the media—the very thing Carew struggled with. Until the day he died this summer, Gwynn believed .400 was attainable in ’94. Which certainly says more about the zone he was in at the time than the ease of it.

“If anybody was going to do it, it would have been him,” Glavine says. “There was still a good chunk of the season left. That’s one of the byproducts of the whole thing that you wish you could have seen play out.”

During our conversation the next spring for the Pioneer Press, Gwynn still marveled at .394.

“That’s .394 out of 1.000,” he told me then. “To hit at that level all year long, to me, is the most difficult thing. You can talk home runs, RBI...to hit .400 for six months has got to be one of the most difficult things in sports. To give it a run like I did, to me, is an amazing feat. I’ve never hit the ball that good for four months. For four-and-a-half months, I was just locked in.

“Whether you’re capable of having another year like that, I seriously doubt it.”

As usual, Gwynn was right on target there, too. Over his final seven seasons after ’94, he never reached higher than .372, when he won his eighth and final batting title in 1997. His average also never fell below .321. He hit .324 in his final season at age 41 in 2001. 

“I remember one month I played, I got 52 hits in a month,” Rose says. “And I got 4-for-5 on the last day of the month, and 4-for-5 on the next day of the month. So I got 60 hits in, like, 30 games. That’s the best streak I ever had.

“I just don’t think it’s humanly possible to get 200 hits in 500 at-bats.”

The route to .400, Rose says, is with a couple of stopovers on the disabled list in a season.

“If a guy gets hurt and bats 370 times, he could get 175 hits or so,” Rose says. “You can hit .400, but you’ve got to go on the DL a couple of times.”

Of course, 175-for-370 computes to .473, so there’s a little wiggle room in Rose’s numbers. Or a lot.

CHRIS PARK/Associated Press

There was precious little for Williams as 1941 ended: Going into the final day of the season, he was at .39955, which rounded up to .400 on the button. Still, Williams elected to play in both games of a season-ending doubleheader, and he went 6-for-8 to land at .406 (185-for-456).

In the spring of ’95, Gwynn, who had met Williams for the first time over the winter at the Splinter’s Hitters Hall of Fame in Florida, already had rolled that thought around in his head. Had he been right at .400 going into what was supposed to be the final day of the ’94 season?

“I’d play,” Gwynn told me that spring day. “No question. No question. I’d have been out there.

“We would have been playing Colorado. As a matter of fact, that’s the last thing Ted Williams said to me [over that winter in Florida]: ‘If you make a run at .400, I’ll be there to see it.’ ”

Sadly, Williams and Gwynn both are gone now. And as for .400, these days, there’s just nothing to see.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball here.

Load More Stories

Follow B/R on Facebook

Out of Bounds

MLB

Subscribe Now

We will never share your email address

Thanks for signing up.