Imagine what would happen if a guy like Dave Winfield — a phenomenal athlete drafted by four (!) different pro leagues — showed up in 2019.
Zion Williamson and Kyler Murray would be afterthoughts. NBA Twitter would establish churches in his honor. NFL draft tape-eaters would look for the slightest sign he wasn’t Serious About Football. Baseball fans would praise him as the game-saving messiah. Knicks, Mets and Giants fans would tear New York apart. Sports talk radio and daytime talk shows would fire off takes hot enough to be seen from orbit. It’d be glorious anarchy.
Dave Winfield isn’t walking through that door, even though he’d probably still get drafted if he did. He remains one of the few athletes in American sports history to get drafted by more than one pro league, and as Thursday’s NFL draft tipoff nears, it’s worth considering just how far we’ve come … and just what a remarkable cat Winfield was.
“It was a completely different world,” Winfield told Yahoo Sports recently. “[The draft] wasn’t a big business. There was not nearly as much media.”
A legend in the making
These days, Winfield would have been on three sports’ radars before he hit age 8. As a kid growing up in 1960s Minnesota, there wasn’t even a radar for him to fly under. Standing 6-foot-6 even as a high schooler, he played four years at the University of Minnesota, leading the Golden Gophers to a Big Ten basketball championship and winning the College World Series MVP his senior year as a pitcher. His greatest challenge was keeping both sports’ coaches happy while he shuttled from court to field.
“Come from indoor baseball practice after two or three hours of hitting, throwing, running, sprint through the tunnel to the gym, get my ankles taped, then fun and games with [coach] Bill Musselman and his madmen in their weighted vests, fighting … for rebounds, and developing wrist strength chucking around super-heavy basketballs,” Winfield wrote in his 1988 autobiography “Winfield: A Player’s Life.” “But it’s worth it.”
The hype today around Winfield would have been thermonuclear, but back then he was still unknown enough — and the sporting world not yet progressive enough — that a scouting report noted, “This boy is colored.” Times do change.
Padres scout Cobby Saatzer pegged Winfield with a definitive draft-if-available designation: “Have seen him hit balls a country mile,” Saatzer’s report read. “As a last resort I would put him on the mound, but he has too much power, and prefer him as a [sic] every day player. … Can play in the big leagues in a couple of years.”
Obviously, it’s worth noting that there were many more rounds of the draft back then, but there were also fewer teams, meaning the teams that were picking were casting some wide nets to see what they could land from an unproven pool of talent. Even so, check out this 1973 draft record:
Baseball: San Diego Padres, first round (fourth overall)
Basketball: Atlanta Hawks (NBA), fifth round; Utah Stars (ABA), fourth round
Football: Minnesota Vikings, 17th round
Winfield was one of only four players in history to be drafted in three different sports. Mickey McCarty, who played one year for the Chiefs in 1969; Noel Jenke, who played for several NFL teams in the early 1970s; and Dave Logan, who played for the Browns in the 1980s, were the others. While records for second-tier pro leagues are sketchy at best, it appears Winfield is the only player ever drafted by four different sports leagues.
MLB, NBA or NFL?
The NFL’s interest in Winfield was all but academic; he hadn’t played football since youth leagues. He grew up just a few miles from Metropolitan Stadium, the Vikings’ then-home, but had exactly zero interest in playing football.
“I was surprised at that, but they were looking at me for my athletic ability,” Winfield says. “The Vikings thought I could play tight end. I was six-foot-six, 230-232 pounds, I could run and I could catch.”
But did Winfield ever entertain the idea of football? “No,” he says without hesitation. “I didn’t want to get injured. I can honestly say I never thought about it … I have a lot of friends who played football, great players, and I can’t tell you how many told me they wished they’d kept playing baseball.”
(Asked why he hadn’t been drafted by the NHL for a clean sweep of the four major sports, Winfield laughs. “I played hockey as a kid! I knew how to skate!”)
Winfield devoted exactly one paragraph of his autobiography to his remarkable draft picture, a Wikipedia-esque rundown of who drafted him and at what position. (The book gets the NFL draft round wrong, calling it the 16th rather than the 17th.) No emotional connections, no sense of accomplishment — in this telling, at least, it was as unremarkable as anyone else getting a few decent job offers out of college.
“It was nice to have options,” Winfield says. “It came down to what I wanted to do for a living. And in my mind, since I was 12 years old, I’d wanted to be a pro baseball player.”
The other sports tried to lay claim on Winfield, but baseball was always his first love, and there was little doubt that he’d end up with a major-league team over a basketball one. This was 1973, not 2019, so Winfield’s choice didn’t exactly get Kyler Murray baseball-vs.-football breaking-news treatment. Besides that, Winfield didn’t exactly make a secret of the fact that he wanted to play baseball.
“I used basketball to negotiate,” Winfield says. “I would have played [basketball] if that’s the way it turned out, but it meant I never had to go to the minors.”
Saatzer countered that Winfield “hasn’t enough bargaining power in basketball to demand a larger bonus.” Winfield apparently had enough bargaining power to get himself vaulted straight onto the San Diego Padres roster without even a day in the minor leagues, one of only a few in major league history — and the only Hall of Famer in the last 50 years — with that distinction.
The Padres at the time were a zero-history, zero-pedigree team, an organization so scattered that Winfield had to paint his old black college cleats white, because San Diego didn’t have any size 13s. Then-manager Don Zimmer wisely brought Winfield along slowly — again, a sharp distinction from the play-big-right-now mentality of today — and helped him build the foundation for a two-decade-long career.
Funny side note: At the same time Winfield was playing for the Padres, his old college coach, Bill Musselman, took over the reins of the San Diego Sails ABA team, and joked that Winfield should join the team. (The Sails could have used him; they lasted an AAF-style 11 games before folding.)
Dave Winfield, two-sport star?
Winfield dismissed the idea of becoming any sort of two-sport Bo/Deion-type athlete. “It took me four years before I could play the game [baseball] at the highest level. It was my fourth full season that I became an All-Star,” he says. “I would have had to step out [of baseball] and come back. I think you can step away from football and come back. But baseball, you have to stay in it.”
Once Winfield hit the ballpark, of course, he never looked back. He would go on to superstardom, becoming at one point the game’s highest-paid player (the Yankees gave him a 10-year, $23 million total deal, another sign of how times have changed). He played for half a dozen teams over the course of 20 years, winning a world championship in 1992 with Toronto, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001 in his first year of eligibility.
The Dave Winfield of today wouldn’t just show up on draft day; no, we’d have spotted him a decade beforehand. But the only way that happens, Winfield says, is if kids can play more than one sport at a time.
“I tell parents this all the time: let kids play multiple sports,” Winfield says. “Kids don’t know what they’re skilled in until they play everything.”
And sometimes, if they’re like Dave Winfield, it turns out they’re skilled in everything.
An earlier version of the article misidentified the Vikings’ prior stadium.
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