Standing 6′ 6″ tall and weighing well over two hundred pounds, Dave Winfield looked like a Goliath in the batter’s box and his offensive statistics certified his menace. Over his 22-year career Winfield amassed 3,110 hits, 465 home runs and 1,833 RBI, putting him in a class with the great modern sluggers. Furthermore, Winfield’s personality helped carry baseball through the 1980’s. Few players had the largesse to be as involved with fans, ownership, the press and the local community as much as Winfield, and number 31 seemed to wear the drama of his off-field triumphs and snares as a grand prelude to each at bat.
Winfield was born on October 3, 1951 — the day Bobby Thomson hit the famous “Shot Heard Round the World” for the New York Giants. Although Winfield excelled on the diamond in his youth, a career in professional baseball was never a certainty — he had a bevy of professional sports from which to choose. He was drafted by the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, the ABA’s Utah Stars, and the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings — even though he never played college football. Yet after starring as both a pitcher and outfielder for the University of Minnesota’s Golden Gophers in the 1973 College World Series (he was named MVP), Winfield elected to stick with baseball and sign with the San Diego Padres in 1973. Bypassing the minor leagues, Winfield joined the Padres immediately and hit .273 in 56 games.
Winfield’s play betrayed both his incredible natural talent and his multi-sport heritage. Whether bearing down to break up a double play, climbing the wall to pull back a home run, or executing the painstaking sass of his unmistakable batter’s box routine, Winfield often appeared as though he didn’t really belong on a baseball field. Yet in his seven full seasons with the Padres (1974-1980) Winfield established himself as a powerful offensive and defensive force, consistently driving in runs and throwing out runners from right field with his lethal right arm. He continued to improve at the plate and during the 1979 season batted .308 with 34 home runs and 118 RBI. A coveted free agent, Winfield signed a lucrative 10-year contract with the New York Yankees after the 1980 season.
His career with the Yankees was tumultuous from the start. Soon after he signed, conflict arose between Winfield and George Steinbrenner when the Yankee owner realized he had incorrectly interpreted the contract’s first cost-of-living escalator and that the deal would probably cost him $23 million rather than the $16 million he had expected. After hitting .294 with 13 HR and 68 RBI in only 105 games in his first season in the Bronx, Winfield excelled during the divisional playoffs against Milwaukee and Oakland. But Winfield started out 0 for 15 against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, finally collecting his first (and only) hit of the series in the fifth inning of Game Five. The Yankees lost the series in 6 games after winning the first two at home, and an irate Steinbrenner directed much of his frustration at Winfield, whom he dubbed “Mr. May” — a snide reference to his inability to fill the shoes of “Mr. October” Reggie Jackson.
Unfavorable comparisons to teammates and legends beleaguered Winfield during his time with the Yankees. Winfield was criticized for failing to lead the team to a world championship like so many great Yankee sluggers — Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Jackson — had done before him. Although he was denied much of the media recognition that was his due when with San Diego, there was no question that Winfield was the certifiable star of the Padres. Joining the Yankees, Winfield found himself on a team famous for controversy and big player egos, Reggie Jackson‘s among them. Shortly after Jackson’s departure to the Angels, came the arrival of first baseman Don Mattingly, a fan favorite known locally as “Donnie Baseball” who quickly inherited Jackson’s place in Yankee fans’ hearts.
Winfield was maligned by the fans and the media for a variety of other reasons. In 1983, he accidentally beaned and killed a seagull between innings at a game in Toronto, after which he drew vitriolic criticism from Canadian fans and environmental groups. He also continued to feud with Steinbrenner over money, specifically regarding the owner’s allegedly delinquent payments to the Winfield Foundation, Winfield’s charitable organization for children.
In 1984, after Steinbrenner had contended that Winfield could not “hit for average,” Winfield shortened his swing and made a run for the batting title. He found himself in a neck-and-neck duel with Mattingly, and, during the last game of the season, he was booed by Yankee Stadium fans for attempting to best their favorite son. Mattingly’s .343 average defeated Winfield’s .340, and Winfield’s relationship with the fans and media soured.
Despite constant off-the-field battles with Steinbrenner and the New York media, Winfield enjoyed several more productive seasons at the plate for the Yankees. The club failed to make it back to postseason competition in the 1980s, but Winfield had tremendous individual success. He drove in over 100 runs from 1982 through 1986 to become the first Yankee since Joe DiMaggio to do so in five consecutive seasons. He came up three shy of 100 in 1987, but collected 107 RBI in 1988. Winfield’s defensive play was superb and featured his innovative way of digging his cleats into the padding to climb the outfield wall and snatch home runs from the seats. With the Yankees, he garnered six AL Gold Gloves to go with his NL Gold Glove.
Back surgery forced Winfield out of the Yankee lineup in 1989, and after a slow start to the 1990 season he was traded to California for starter Mike Witt. Expected to anchor the Yankee rotation, Witt faded away with elbow problems. Winfield kept hitting, slugging 49 homers in his two years in Anaheim.
After signing a free agent contract with the Blue Jays in 1992, Winfield achieved sweet vindication. Playing in Toronto — the city in which he was once reviled — Winfield demonstrated that he could still hit, field, and carry a team. He hit .290 with 26 home runs and 108 RBI and led the team to its first-ever World Series appearance against the Atlanta Braves. His greatest moments came, ironically, in October. In the eighth inning of Game Six, he demonstrated that he still had game-saving range when he robbed Atlanta’s Ron Gant of a base hit on a sliding shoestring catch. Then in the top of the eleventh inning, Winfield came to the plate with men on first and second and two outs and the scored tied at two. Facing a full count against fellow veteran Charlie Liebrandt, the slugger choked up and laced a double down the third base line, driving in two runs and catapulting Toronto to a 4-3 victory and their first World Series Championship ever.
The following year, Winfield signed with the Minnesota Twins. He spent two seasons with his hometown club and collected his 3,000th hit in 1993. Winfield retired after playing sparingly for Cleveland in 1995. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2001, his first year of eligibility.