When the 1983 Topps Tony Gwynn baseball card first found its way into collectors’ hands that Spring, Mr. Padre and his mediocre team were low on our lists of hobby priorities.
After all, the San Diego Padres had finished the 1982 season in fourth place in the NL West with an 81-81 record and would end up in exactly the same spot with exactly the same blah win tally in 1983.
And Tony Gwynn was likely more of a known commodity to NBA fans than to baseball enthusiasts. After a standout hoops career at San Diego State University, Gwynn was selected in the 10th round of the 1981 NBA draft by the San Diego Clippers on June 10 — the same day the Padres took him with the seventh pick in the fourth round of the MLB draft.
Those were hardly auspicious slottings, but Gwynn put his analytical mind to work, reasoning that a stocky, 5’11” guy drafted deep in the NBA selection process had a better shot at success if he stuck with the diamond.
So that’s what he did, inking a deal with the Fathers on June 16.
The City So Nice, They Had to Name It Twice
That foresight and early signing landed Gwynn in low-A Walla Walla, where he hit .331 with 12 home runs in just 42 games, numbers good enough to earn him a promotion to Double-A Amarillo in the Texas League. Another four dingers and a .462 average in 23 games there convinced Padres brass that Gwynn was ready for Triple A, and he started the 1982 season in Hawaii.
After hitting .328 over 93 games, the Padres called Gwynn to the Big Leagues for the first time late that summer, but early enough for him to log 54 appearances in San Diego.
For the first and only time in his professional career, Gwynn would finish a season hitting below .300, managing “just” a .289 mark in his official rookie year.
Though most collectors and fans took little notice of Gwynn’s rise through the minors and short but solid stay in San Diego, he managed to catch Topps’ attention, as well as making an impression on Fleer and Donruss.
As 1983 dawned, all three major card manufacturers were drawing up their inaugural Tony Gwynn pasteboards.
A Breakout Performance
In the Summer of 1983, as the Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies built toward an eventual World Series showdown, many fans were focused on the exploits of all-world rookie outfielder Darryl Strawberry of the New York Mets.
But while Strawberry was making a splash with his flamboyance and mammoth home runs, another youngster emerged from seemingly nowhere with a batting average that hovered north of .350 as the season made its final turn.
Wade Boggs, a 25-year-old upstart who was largely unknown outside of Boston, would finish the year with a gaudy .361 average to take the American League batting crown. He also established a new model for superstardom that might serve other low-power, pure-hitting young players well: learn all you can about your opponents, focus on solid contact, don’t be afraid to take a walk, hold strikeouts to a minimum, and make your gravy on a monster batting average.
One of the guys who fit well into the Boggs mode spent his own 1983 season split between Triple-A Las Vegas and his hometown San Diego Padres. By the time October rolled around, Tony Gwynn had another 86 Major League games under his belt, raking to the tune of .309.
Gwynn was ready for his own breakout, even if nobody east of the Strip knew who he was.
1984: Next Year?
For most baseball fans who grew up at least partly in the 1980s, the 1984 season was a magical time.
The Detroit Tigers, thanks to the combination of young talent they had been building since the mid 1970s, gelled from the beginning of the campaign, and their 8-0 start turned into 35-5 on their way to a 104-58 finish.
And, after what seemed liked decades of frustration, the Chicago Cubs became the darlings of the National League. That they had to beat back an old nemesis — Strawberry’s New York Mets — just to win the NL East made them even more beloved to baseball fans across America.
In the AL West, the Kansas City Royals clawed their way to the top of a mediocre division for the right to be eaten by the Tigers in the ALCS — which they were three games to none.
In the NL West, meanwhile, it seemed none of the usual suspects — Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros –wanted the crown, so the Padres stepped up and trounced the rest of the division by 12 games.
By that point, Steve Garvey was in his second season with the Padres, and they rounded out their lineup with a nice mix of veterans (Graig Nettles, Garry Templeton) and up-and-comers (Kevin McReynolds, Carmelo Martinez, Alan Wiggins).
The San Diego rotation was solid if not spectacular with Eric Show, Ed Whitson, and Mark Thurmond leading the way, and a still-prime Goose Gossage anchored a stingy bullpen that also included Craig Lefferts and Dave Dravecky.
But by mid Summer, it was clear that San Diego was home to one of baseball’s rising young stars.
In fact, by the time the leagues broke for the All-Star break in San Francisco the week of July 9, Tony Gwynn had been voted a starter for the National Leaguers. When he lined up in left field, flanking Dale Murphy in center and across from Darryl Strawberry in right, Gwynn served notice that he had fully arrived at age 24.
For most collectors, Gwynn’s climb up the batting-average standings was as surprising as the emergence of Ryne Sandberg in Chicago.
And as, with Sandberg, the scramble for Gwynn’s rookie cards sent us to the commons bins and our shoe boxes full of forgotten 1983 pasteboards.
While all three of the major companies had issued their first Gwynn cards the previous summer, Topps was the undeniable king of the hobby in those days — funny how things change (or not), huh? — and so #482 was the Gwynn card to chase.
“Behind” in the Count
Truth be told, even relatively unsophisticated hobbyists identified that 1983 Topps Tony Gwynn card as something of an artistic atrocity.
While Fleer and Donruss both opted for posed shots of the growing legend with a bat on his shoulder, Topps went straight to the action.
Unfortunately, that action involved Gwynn running away from the camera, with his backside powertrain the most prominent feature of the large photo.
Thank goodness for the classic design of the Topps set that year, because the inset circular head shot not only showed us what Tony really looked like, but it also distracted us just enough to make us swallow the idea that this was the cream of Gwynn’s rookie-card offerings.
Tony Gwynn won the batting title that summer, hitting .351, and his Padres squeaked past the Cubs in the NLCS only to be trounced (4-1) by Detroit in the World Series.
That magical season was only the beginning for Gwynn, of course, as he went on to capture seven more batting crowns in a 20-year career spent entirely with the Padres.
He ended his MLB journey in 2001 having collected 3141 hits, good for a .338 lifetime average. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007 and remains one of the most popular players from the 1980s and, really, of all time.
Along the way, Gwynn’s 1983 Topps rookie card has risen and fallen in value and popularity along with the market as a whole and Gwynn’s public visibility.
Today, it’s a bargain in graded NM-MT condition at under $20, but you can expect to pay several hundred dollars for a slabbed GEM MT copy.
When Gwynn passed away prematurely in 2014, the baseball world gasped at our lost gem, but in the beginning, in 1984, Mr. Padre and his rookie card were treasures just waiting to be discovered.