08/09/12 1:46 PM ET
Winfield urges fans to visit Negro Leagues Museum
Rich story of American sports is on display
By Robert Falkoff, special to MLB.com /
"If you haven't been there, you've got to go," said Winfield, the Hall of Fame outfielder who amassed 3,110 hits in an illustrious 22-year Major League career. "The museum is part of American history, not just baseball history."
As he was making a name for himself in baseball, Winfield had an opportunity to mingle with former great players from the Negro Leagues. Then he watched the documentary interview that Ken Burns did with Buck O'Neil, and Winfield's fascination with the Negro Leagues continued to grow.
"I got a chance to meet Cool Papa Bell, Joe Black, a variety of guys," Winfield said. "There were tremendous players, men of color, who weren't allowed to play in the Major Leagues. "
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, but it was too late for many of the great Negro Leagues players to experience the Major Leagues. In recent years, Winfield has been leading the charge for the surviving Negro Leagues players to receive their due. In 2008, he had the idea for a special draft in which each Major League team drafted someone from the Negro Leagues.
"It was my vision, my dream," said Winfield, now an executive vice president/senior adviser for the San Diego Padres. "To a person, they all said it was either the best day of their baseball life or the best day of their life."
Those pioneers from the Negro Leagues paved the way for stars like Winfield, who was drafted in three professional sports. He signed with the Padres after attending the University of Minnesota and went straight to the big leagues. Winfield became an All-Star with San Diego and then made headlines by signing with the New York Yankees. By accepting a 10-year, $23 million contract in 1981, Winfield became the game's highest-paid player and a huge celebrity who was often at odds with owner George Steinbrenner.
Winfield delivered big numbers in pinstripes, but it wasn't until he went to Toronto in 1992 that Winfield was finally able to earn a world championship ring.
"Playing for the Toronto Blue Jays that year was a great thing," Winfield said. "It was the first time any team drew four million fans. I had played 20 years to reach my goal of being on a World Series champion. We could line up on the baseline Opening Day, look over at the opposing team that was lined up and say 'we're better than them.'" Although he finished his career with 465 homers, Winfield never considered himself a home run hitter.
"I was a line drive hitter," Winfield said. "My home runs were extended singles and doubles that just kept going." Winfield played in 12 All-Star Games and was selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, his first year of eligibility. Although he feels he could have thrived as a Major League manager, the 6-foot-6 Winfield chose not to go down that path.
"Managing is full-time, all-consuming," Winfield said. "It hasn't been my thing."
Instead, Winfield focuses on philanthropic work and his duties with the Padres. Whenever he talks with kids, his message is to have fun with sandlot baseball at an early age and participate in a variety of sports if they are so inclined.
"Some kids are ushered into a very disciplined baseball program right away and they wind up getting burned out by the time they are 12 or 13," Winfield said. "I think it's good to play whatever sport is in season. And if you play baseball, it's good to play a variety of positions as a youth. You never know how you are going to grow."
While in Kansas City for All-Star Fanfest, Winfield wore a contented smile as toured Bartle Hall and celebrated a sport that has been a lifelong love.
Whether he's talking Negro Leagues, his own storied MLB career or youth baseball, Winfield is still a bundle of enthusiasm at age 60.
"When I was 8 years old, I found something I really liked and that's baseball," Winfield said. "Baseball has been my passion and I really enjoy sharing my experiences with people wherever I go."
Robert Falkoff is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.