Making a Difference: MLB Hall of Famer Dave Winfield

UPDATED: August 18, 2011
PUBLISHED: August 18, 2011

When he talked with a boy’s parents after a Major League Baseball game in the 1970s, budding star Dave Winfield realized his power off the field. “I’ll never forget what the father told me that night. He said, ‘My son wants to grow up and be just like you.’

“Being a young player, that really stuck with me and made me think of the person I needed and wanted to become. I committed myself,” says Winfield, now 59. “I would give my time, money, whatever I could, in helping make a difference.”

In his 23-year career with five major-league teams, Dave Winfield collected 3,110 hits and 450 home runs, earned seven Gold Gloves, was a 12-time All-Star and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001, his first year of eligibility. But what most people don’t know about Winfield are his “hall-of-fame” credentials off the field. Winfield is the first pro athlete to have launched his own charitable foundation, setting an important precedent for generations of athletes to come.

Starting in 1973, his rookie season with the San Diego Padres, Winfield began giving back by befriending neighborhood kids living near the stadium. “Many of these kids couldn’t afford tickets to a game, so I started buying tickets, bought them hot dogs and souvenirs, and gave them the full ballpark experience,” Winfield says.

He began purchasing more tickets for youngsters, and publicity about his efforts inspired help from volunteers and donations from local businesses. To track contributions and expenditures, Winfield’s agent helped him start the nonprofit Winfield Pavilion program, the first 501(c)(3) established by an professional athlete.

Perhaps surprisingly, his efforts weren’t universally embraced. “When I started my charity there were a lot of people and media that questioned my motives,” he says. “Many of them thought it was just a tax write-off, and they didn’t know where I was coming from—my head, heart and background.”

Although Winfield, a native of St. Paul, Minn., grew up with modest means, he says, “My mother made it very clear to me and my brother that in her home education came first.” Extended family living nearby gave him additional support and confidence. “Our family looked out for one another.”

Blessed with a triple threat of size, speed and strength, Winfield attended the University of Minnesota, where he played baseball and basketball. In 1973 he was voted the MVP of the College World Series as a pitcher, and later became the first person to be drafted in three sports: baseball by the Padres, basketball by the Atlanta Hawks and (without playing a single down) by the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL. After deciding on baseball, he became one of the few players who completely bypassed the minor leagues.

Ignoring the naysayers, he steamed ahead with the charity. “Since most of our games are at night, I spent most of my days finding people to sit on the board of directors and really learning how to run a foundation.”

He became a role model for other players as well as kids through the Winfield Pavilion. Fellow players soon replicated the program in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Houston. And beyond its mission of helping disadvantaged children, the Pavilion program exposed thousands of youngsters to the sport. (Interestingly, one beneficiary was Winfield’s Toronto Blue Jays teammate David Wells, a San Diego native who attended one of the Pavilions as a boy. As Winfield put it, “You know you’ve been playing a long time when your teammates start telling you they looked up to you when they were kids.”)

But Winfield sought to widen the scope of the foundation beyond ballpark outings. “We had these kids for the entire afternoon and we wanted to give them more than just a baseball game.” He identified the keys to his own success—health, fitness and education—and established them as core pursuits of his foundation.

In 1977 Winfield met with the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation and together they created H.O.P.E (Health Optimization Planning and Education), an all-encompassing development regimen of proper diet, exercise, medical and dental checkups, reading, and positive, health-conscious behavior.

“In the late 1970s, no one was talking to young kids about adopting healthy eating habits,” Winfield says. “If you adopt good health and study habits as a youngster, there is a good chance they will stay with you throughout your life.”

The foundation organized clinics in the stadium parking lot, with the kids receiving noninvasive medical and dental screening, vitamins, toothbrushes and educational pamphlets about diet and health. Other cities with major-league teams began offering similar clinics, and Winfield says more than 40,000 kids have benefited from the clinics. An offshoot of the clinics is Hackensack (N.J.) Medical Center’s Dave Winfield Nutrition Center, which still provides nutrition counseling and assessments.

To further support the educational portion of its mission, the foundation awarded scholarships to deserving students starting in 1976. The program began in St. Paul and was brought to New York, where $40,000 was awarded annually to more than 100 students from public high schools from 1981 to 1986.

In 1984 the Winfield Foundation expanded its role again, adding a substance abuse prevention program. “Playing baseball all around the country provided me several opportunities to talk to kids from all walks of life about their concerns and issues unique to them,” Winfield says. “The No. 1 threat to youth then and now is substance abuse.” To develop the program, he met with federal Drug Enforcement Administration officials who cited research revealing that the average age children starting using drugs was 10, Winfield says.

“Early intervention and prevention is the key. And there wasn’t a program out there that targeted children grades 3 to 6. We called [our new program] Turn It Around. It became a far-reaching and reinforcing message to kids and a challenge to the community to get involved.”

Turn It Around’s interactive video and activity guide educate participants about factors that contribute to substance abuse as well as the five areas that experts consider crucial to thwarting it: building self-esteem, making choices, identifying goals, nurturing trust in others and developing positive alternatives. The program, which includes a full-day training session for adult leaders, has been implemented nationwide and even outside the United States.

Following his 1995 season with the Cleveland Indians, Winfield ended his epic athletic career and wanted to spend more time at home. “My kids were young when I finished playing ball, and it was time to focus some time on them,” says Winfield, who has been married to his wife, Tonya, since 1988.

But it wasn’t long until Major League Baseball again requested his services. In 1996 the Major League Baseball Players Association tapped Winfield as an adviser in the creation of the Players Trust, another 501(c)(3) charitable foundation. Through the Players Trust, professional baseball players can allocate part of their salaries to their favorite charities, lending support to thousands of people in need worldwide. “I helped guide them through the process of setting it up and gave them feedback on what worked and what didn’t with my foundation,” Winfield says.

“As I look back, I’m so grateful for the people who helped me become the person I am today,” Winfield says. “They instilled in me a desire to help others. My personal reward from the foundation has never been about monetary rewards, but being able to create, learn, teach and motivate. It has been truly awe-inspiring to see how many people we have been able to influence.

“To know we’ve changed some lives for the better is the true reward.”

Winfield Rallies After Error

Dave Winfield's charitable foundation had a challenging moment in 1978, when he planned to bring 500 children to the All-Star Game in San Diego. During a television interview, Winfield inadvertently invited "all the kids of San Diego." 

Some 10,000 youngsters showed up, so he persuaded the Padres to open the park early in order for the kids to watch batting practice. Sponsors brought in more food and souvenirs to treat the extra kids.

Major League Baseball later turned Winfield's solution into an All-Star Game tradition. Following his lead, the organization now opens every All-Star Game batting practice to the public and uses the event to raise money for local charities.