This Day in MLBPA History


Dec. 15, 1980:  Dave Winfield becomes baseball’s highest-paid player

On Dec. 15, 1980, Dave Winfield, after playing seven stellar seasons with the San Diego Padres, signed a 10-year, $15 million contract with the New York Yankees and became the highest-paid player in Major League Baseball.

Winfield, just 29 at the time, had already reached the upper echelon of players when he became a free agent for the first time that fall. A 6-foot-6 line drive-hitting right fielder with a cannon arm, Winfield had played in the past four All-Star Games and won a couple Gold Glove Awards.

But he still wasn’t quite satisfied in his career with San Diego, the team that had selected him with the fourth overall draft pick in 1973. There was something gnawing at him.

“I had figured out how to play the game consistently at a high level but I had some frustration because we were unable to win,” Winfield said Wednesday. “I had to find a place I could win.”

So Winfield and his agent, Al Frohman, traveled to New York to field offers from other clubs.

“It ended up that the two New York teams were very aggressive and I ultimately chose the Yankees because they were close to winning and the Mets were at the bottom,” Winfield said. “I didn’t want to go from the bottom of one division to the bottom of another.

“Certainly it was about the best contract I could get but I wanted it in a place I thought we could win. I was happy about being with an organization that was bent on winning.”

And there was never any doubt in Winfield’s mind as to whether he deserved the big pay day and was prepared to deliver.

“Inwardly, I felt like I was a different kind of player than fans in New York had seen before on this team and that I was going to be worth it. I didn’t think I was way over my head and wouldn’t live up to it,” said Winfield, who is now a special advisor to MLBPA Executive Director, Tony Clark.

“I felt I just needed to play the way I always played. I was up for the challenge. I needed it. The money was good, but I really needed that chance to win and compete on a team with other really good players.”

The deal, of course, sent shockwaves through the industry because it was unprecedented in terms of years and dollars. Winfield’s fellow players certainly noticed.

“I had a lot of support across the game, guys who said, “Way to go!” Winfield recalled. “I was getting pats on the back from guys in the other league, guys I hadn’t met before, because they knew a rising tide lifts all ships.”