Winfield had a fantastic throwing arm and he was also a very good runner, with those long legs. He could hit and hit for power, and he was one of the best right fielders in the game for a while. He toiled in obscurity a bit in San Diego, where the club was mediocre during his tenure. But in 1981 he signed a 10-year, million contract with George Steinbrenner’s Yankees. The deal made him the highest paid athlete in any team sport. It also placed a target on his back for the boo birds. Winfield was expected to deliver titles in The Bronx.
But during his nine seasons as a Yankee, despite the team posting the best record in baseball over that stretch, there was only one pennant. That came in the first season of the Winfield Era, in 1981, when the Yanks were defeated by the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games in the World Series. Winfield was 1-for-22 with one RBI in the Series, and that poor performance really haunted him for the remainder of his years in New York. Though he did not shy from the big lights and scrutiny of New York City like other ballplayers, Winfield never became a great Yankee in the mold of Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and the rest of the legends who wore pinstripes. Instead, he put up superstar numbers: topping 30 homers twice and 100 RBI six times. But during that era he was actually overshadowed on the club by Ron Guidry, Don Mattingly, and Rickey Henderson. The lack of respect he had from fans became clear at the end of the 1984 season – his best in pinstripes – when Winfield was battling teammate Mattingly for the batting title. Fans openly rooted for Mattingly, the much-loved “Donnie Baseball” over Big Dave.
When Winfield missed the entire ’89 season due to injury, his relationship with the front office became strained to the point of outright animosity. Steinbrennber refused to buy tickets for Winfield’s charitable foundation, something written into the slugger’s contract, which prompted the injured ballplayer to file a lawsuit against the owner. The sides eventually settled, but Winfield was persona non grata to the Yankee brass. The following spring he was traded to the California Angels for starting pitcher Mike Witt.
After leaving the Yankees, Winfield seemed to relax. At 38 years old he started to love baseball again, and it showed. He became a much coveted veteran bat and leader as he spent time with the Angels, Toronto Blue Jays, Minnesota Twins, and Cleveland Indians in his final seasons. Still a feared slugger, he had his best post-Yankee season in 1992 as a DH for the Jays, helping to lead them to the World Series. In the Fall Classic, Winfield exercised some demons, driving a two-run double in the 11th inning to score the winning runs and give the team their first title.
Winfield retired with more than 3,100 hits, including more than 1,000 in each league. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year if eligibility, in 2001.
Baseball Fastball Fact
Dave Winfield never played a game in the minor leagues.