He was one of the most imposing athletes to ever set foot onto a baseball diamond, a 6-foot-6-inch powerhouse who was drafted by four leagues in three different sports after college and became one of seven Major League Baseball players in history to amass 3,000 hits and 450 home runs during his 22-year career.
But Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield said he felt powerless when it came to dealing with his mother’s cancer diagnosis. She was the person who inspired him most in life, he said, a petite woman with a giant presence who instilled in him a set of values that shaped a stellar career and a lifetime of good works.
Winfield, now 63, will be the keynote speaker at the Hutch Award Luncheon on Thursday at Seattle’s Safeco Field. The Hutch Award is given each year to recognize a baseball player who epitomizes the spirit of Fred Hutchinson, the courageous and inspirational MLB player and manager who died of lung cancer at the age of 45. This year’s winner is Alex Gordon, a star outfielder for the Kansas City Royals who’s helped raise more than $1 million for pediatric cancer research.
A long-time humanitarian, Winfield readily credits his mother with instilling the values that led him to become one of the most well-known philanthropists in baseball.
“My mother raised my brother and myself and when all is said and done, she was the best role model we could have,” he said.
Winfield’s parents were divorced when he was just 3 years old and his mother, Arline, raised Dave and his brother Stephen as a single working parent. But she “made it happen with extended family and by working consistently” he said, adding that her values and character made him who he is.
And it didn’t take long for Winfield to demonstrate those values.
Shortly after graduating from college and signing on with the San Diego Padres, the MLB great started a scholarship fund, a fund that still exists today.
“We didn’t make the kind of money we make today — my rookie salary was $15,000 — but I took $1,000 and created a scholarship in Minnesota,” he said. “It’s for minority student athletes who do well academically, athletically and in the community — and it’s been going for 38 years now.”
While with the Padres, the 21-year-old Winfield also began buying blocks of tickets so families who couldn’t afford the games could still attend. His interest in helping others eventually led him to establish a charitable foundation, the first time an active athlete had done such a thing.
“There was no precedent and many people said, ‘What are you doing? What’s the angle?’” he said. “And the angle was that I was appreciative of what people did for me. I couldn’t have made it by myself.”
In addition to inspiring other athletes to use their success to help others — tennis greats Arthur Ashe and Martina Navratilova and baseball player Harold Reynolds were just a few of the people who contacted him for advice on starting their own nonprofits – the David M. Winfield Foundation has provided health care services, nutritional counseling, educational scholarships, holiday meals and hope to underprivileged families for decades. The foundation has also done a substantial amount of work in substance abuse prevention, trying to keep kids from ruining their lives with drugs.
“Everything I did evolved around three things — sports, health and education,” he said. “And things just kind of evolved from there.”
Winfield managed to balance both his foundation’s good works and a phenomenal baseball career, joining the Yankees in 1981 and racking up career bests and five of his seven Gold Glove Awards.
But in 1986, he received devastating news: his mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I remember her telling me that she had to go to a doctor for a checkup because she felt a lump in her breast,” he said. “I was playing for the Yankees at the time and when she gave me the news, we tried to find out everything we could but there was nothing we could do.”
Winfield’s mother sought treatment in New York City and at the Mayo Clinic but the cancer was too advanced. Arline Winfield died at the age of 66, just 18 months after being diagnosed.
According to Fred Hutch researchers, this story is not an uncommon one. While African-American women are statistically less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, a 2014 study on racial disparity showed that those who are diagnosed are 40 percent more likely to die of their breast cancer than are white women.
Genetics plays a part in this disparity. Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease that resists hormone-blocking drugs like tamoxifen, which are used in the more common estrogen-receptor-positive, or ER+, breast cancer.
But socioeconomics can also play a huge role.
Lack of money wasn’t an issue for Arline Winfield, but others may have lower levels of education and income, which can mean limited access to health care. Black women also have lower breast cancer screening rates and higher rates of obesity, which bumps their risk. African-Americans also are more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age and at a more advanced stage. For those who are poor and without insurance, that might mean having to make a choice between going through chemo and radiation or staying employed and taking care of their family.
“Some of the evidence from the data we have shows that people really do have to make those decisions,” said Dr. Rachel Ceballos, a public health researcher with Fred Hutch who is trying to improve health outcomes for black women with breast cancer. “Cancer’s the least of their problems, sometimes. They still have to keep a roof over their heads and over their kids’ heads; they still have to keep their kids fed.”
Ceballos is principal investigator on a new Fred Hutch study, dubbed STAR for Staying on Track After Recovery, which she hopes will help to create more culturally sensitive programs — and save lives.
“Even though we’re working in survivorship, this would be applicable for earlier on, with regard to diagnosis, identifying distress and helping with follow-through on appointments and treatment,” Ceballos said.
Like the Fred Hutch researcher, Winfield is also trying to better people’s lives. In recent years, the Hall-of-Famer has done outreach and advocacy for Susan G. Komen to help raise awareness about breast cancer screening and prevention. After 40 years, his foundation is still going strong.
“You contribute where you can,” he said. “I’ve had a wonderful life because of baseball and all the people I’ve met and the things I’ve done. And I’ve been able to help others with education, awareness, whatever. We do what we can. We contribute.”
Winfield also gets emotional when talking about his mother’s final days and how he left the Yankees shortly before the end of their season to say goodbye to the woman who had provided so much love and so many valuable lessons.
“I was having a good year, but all of a sudden, it meant nothing,” he said. “I could tell she was getting weak and I just said, ‘I’ve got to go home.’ She passed away on my birthday, Oct. 3. It was almost like ‘I’m going to celebrate your birthday and then I’m gone. I lost my best friend and the person I respected the most.”
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she also writes the breast cancer blog doublewhammied.com. Reach her at email@example.com.
Solid tumors, such as those of the breast, are the focus of Solid Tumor Translational Research, a network comprised of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. STTR is bridging laboratory sciences and patient care to provide the most precise treatment options for patients with solid tumor cancers.