Dave Winfield Biography

Biographies, Hall of Fame | 0 comments

It could be argued that of all the remarkable players enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame, none was a more diversely talented athlete than Dave Winfield.  A multi-sport star at the University of Minnesota, the sinewy 6-foot-6 Winfield was drafted by the San Diego Padres, the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL, the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA, and the Utah Stars of the ABA.  More than 30 years after the fact, it would appear that Winfield made the right choice by sticking with baseball.  Over the course of a brilliant 22-year career (and without spending a single day in the minor leagues), Winfield established himself as one of baseball’s most prodigious run producers and premier defenders.  A twelve-time All Star and seven-time Gold Glove winner, Winfield is one of only seven players in baseball history with over 3,000 hits and 400 home runs.

While success between the lines may have come naturally to Winfield, his career is as marked by controversy and conflict as it is by on-field heroics.  This is especially true of his troubled tenure with the New York Yankees, who made Winfield one of the sport’s first multi-million-dollar superstars by signing him to a ten-year, $23 million contract in 1981.  Winfield put up his best numbers while in pinstripes, but it was his regular feuding with querulous owner George Steinbrenner that became the focal point of the New York media’s back pages.  After leaving the Yankees under cloudy circumstances in 1990, Winfield resuscitated his career with the California Angels.  In 1992, he drove in the deciding runs in the Toronto Blue Jays’ World Series victory over the Atlanta Braves, and the following year he collected his 3,000th hit as a member of his hometown Minnesota Twins.

Although it was Winfield’s hitting that made him a star, it was his powerful throwing arm that first attracted the attention of big league scouts.  A star pitcher at the University of Minnesota, Winfield was named All American and was voted College World Series MVP in his senior year.  Wishing to utilize Winfield’s bat as well as his arm, the Padres placed him in right field when he broke into the majors in 1973.  Winfield put up respectable numbers and developed steadily in his first few years with the Padres, but his breakout year came in 1976, when he earned his first All Star selection by hitting 25 home runs and driving in 92 runs.  He was named team captain two years later even though he was still only 26 years old.  Winfield went on to break the 100-RBI mark for the first time in 1979 by knocking in 118 runs, en route to earning a third-place finish in the N.L. MVP voting.

After filing for free agency at the conclusion of the 1980 campaign, Winfield was courted by a number of teams.  Having spent his first eight seasons with a second-division team, Winfield elected to sign a mammoth ten-year deal with the New York Yankees, who had been to the World Series three times in the previous five years.  The signing made Winfield a media sensation in the Big Apple, but the right fielder found himself embroiled in controversy before he even saw his first pitch in pinstripes.  Owner George Steinbrenner apparently misinterpreted a flexible cost-of-living clause in Winfield’s contract that brought its total value up to $23 million; Steinbrenner was under the impression that he was signing the outfielder for $7 million less.  The contract dispute was settled before spring training began, but the misunderstanding drove a wedge between Winfield and Steinbrenner, and tensions between the two men continued to mount in the years to come.

Shrugging off his off-season troubles, Winfield performed admirably during the 1981 campaign, which was interrupted for almost two months by a players’ strike.  Due to the split schedule, a special series was set up at season’s end to determine each division winner.  Winfield excelled during New York’s first-round series versus the Milwaukee Brewers, batting .350 to help his team eliminate Milwaukee in five games.  However, Winfield failed to experience the same level of success against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.  With stars Reggie Jackson and Graig Nettles out of the lineup due to injuries, Winfield had only one hit in 22 at-bats in the Series, which the Yankees lost to Los Angeles in six games.  As a result of his performance that October, he was subsequently characterized by the media as someone who had difficulty performing in key situations.

In the face of this criticism, Winfield bounced back in 1982 with the best offensive season of his career up to that point, finishing the year with 37 home runs and 106 RBIs.  He matched those numbers in 1983, but his accomplishments in the batter’s box were overshadowed by a bizarre incident at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium on August 4th of that year.  While warming up between innings, Winfield threw a ball that struck and killed a sea gull that had swooped onto the field of play.  Though the incident was clearly an accident, Winfield was relentlessly jeered by the fans in attendance and, much to his surprise, was actually taken into custody by Ontario authorities after the game and charged with animal cruelty.  Those charges were dropped the following day, but the episode, along with continued squabbling with Steinbrenner, provided regular fodder for New York’s tabloid press.

As the Yankees continued to fall short of advancing to the postseason throughout the 1980s, Steinbrenner became increasingly famous for taking out his frustrations on a rotating cast of doomed managers.  But it was the high-priced Winfield who came to be the main focus of his ire.  Following the 1983 season, Steinbrenner carped that Winfield, who had led the Yankee attack with 32 homers and 116 RBIs during the regular season, could not hit for average.  Winfield responded by shortening his stroke and increasing his average almost 60 points in 1984.  He would have won the battle title that year, were it not for a breakout season by teammate and future MVP Don Mattingly.  In a strange echoing of the home run chase that took place between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris more than 20 years earlier, Winfield and Mattingly battled each other for the batting title the entire summer.  On the last day of the season, Mattingly overtook Winfield by going 4-for-5, to win the batting title by a scant .003 points.  Just as Yankee fans of the previous generation favored Mantle over Maris during their great home run race, Yankee fans now rooted for the young, home-grown Mattingly over the imported superstar Winfield.

In the face of this ambivalence by the New York media and fan base, Winfield continued to put up numbers that placed him among the game’s greatest sluggers.  In 1986, he became the first Yankee since Joe DiMaggio to drive in 100 runs in five consecutive years.  However, even though the Yankees won more than 90 games in both 1985 and 1986, they failed to reach the playoffs.  Although the Yankees’ inability to advance to the postseason rested squarely on the shoulders of their inadequate pitching,  Winfield became a lightning rod for ownership’s frustrations.  In an interview with the New York Times, Steinbrenner derisively referred to Winfield as “Mr. May”, a harsh play on Reggie Jackson’s “Mr. October” sobriquet, meant to convey Winfield’s alleged inability to perform in the clutch.  For the remainder of the decade, Steinbrenner waged a personal assault against Winfield through the New York media.  At one point, the Yankee owner became so obsessed with vilifying his rightfielder that he hired a figure with ties to organized crime to dig up dirt on Winfield.  Steinbrenner’s secret machinations against Winfield factored heavily in Major League Baseball’s decision to ban the Yankee owner from baseball in 1990.

After sitting out the entire 1989 season with a back injury, Winfield was traded to the California Angels without his prior knowledge or consent.  Winfield, whose major league tenure entitled him to veto such a move, blocked the deal at first, but he ended up accepting the trade.  Freed from the distractions that plagued him in New York, Winfield had a bounce back season in 1990 with 19 home runs and 72 RBIs, earning him AL Comeback Player of the Year honors.

In 1992, the 40-year-old Winfield signed with the surging Toronto Blue Jays. Though Winfield had been consistently taunted in Toronto since his sea gull fiasco ten years earlier, he quickly became a popular figure both in the stands and in the clubhouse. He was also a force on the field, finishing fifth in the MVP voting with a .290 average, 26 homers, and 108 RBIs.  But it was in the postseason that Winfield really shined.  In the eighth inning of the deciding game of the World Series against the Atlanta Braves, Winfield made a diving catch to keep the tying run off base.  The Braves eventually tied the game in the ninth, but Winfield broke the deadlock with a two-run double in the 11th inning to give the Blue Jays their first World Series championship.

Following this World Series triumph, Winfield signed with his hometown Minnesota Twins for the 1993 season.  He hit 21 home runs that year, setting a record for players over the age of 40.  More significantly, he stroked his 3,000th career hit on September 6th  in front of a hometown crowd at the Metrodome.  He was traded to the Cleveland Indians during the 1994 season, but a player’s strike prevented him from seeing any playing time with his new club.  After suffering a rotator cuff injury and missing significant playing time, Winfield decided to retire after the 1995 season.

Dave Winfield was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, in his first year of eligibility.  He made the controversial decision to be inducted as a San Diego Padre, in spite of incessant lobbying by his former adversary George Steinbrenner to have him enter Cooperstown in pinstripes.  Since his retirement, Winfield has been involved in a number of baseball-related activities, spearheading initiatives to celebrate the game’s history and to honor the achievements of unheralded Negro Leagues players.  A well-known philanthropist throughout his career, Winfield continues to fund and promote various charities through his Winfield Foundation.