For in O'Neil, Winfield saw a man who embodied the pioneering spirit of black and Latino ballplayers -- not just the current ones, but those ballplayers from O'Neil's era.
"When he passed away, you've still got to keep pushing for the rest of them," Winfield said.
He wasn't altogether sure, though, how best to push for those men whose careers never took them to the Majors because of the color barrier that blocked their path.
Having mulled a couple of ideas, Winfield decided on one that he thought would serve as a salute to O'Neil and the brethren he left behind.
Winfield proposed holding a ceremonial Draft on Thursday for surviving players from the Negro Leagues. The Draft would be a way for Major League teams to connect the past with the present.
"I thought it would be poignant, timely and appropriate," Winfield said. "And I thought we could do it."
He was right.
Winfield took an initial idea to the Commissioner's Office, where the idea received a warm reception from Commissioner Bud Selig and Jimmie Lee Solomon, baseball's executive vice president.
The three of them tweaked the idea a bit before turning it into a plan that accomplished what Winfield set out to accomplish: honoring the legacy of O'Neil and his Negro League comrades who had been excluded from organized baseball because of skin color.
As part of its 2008 First-Year Player Draft, 30 players whose baseball careers encompassed the Negro Leagues and a few lesser leagues will be selected Thursday. Participation in the draft is voluntary, but all 30 clubs are participating in this salute to those players from "black baseball."
BaseballChannel.TV will stream the Negro League Draft live at 1 p.m. ET, and the opening rounds of this year's Draft will follow at 2 p.m. ET. Both events will be held at The Milk House at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.
Admission to the Draft is free, with seating available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Fans who attend the event will see first-hand what Winfield and Solomon called the continuation of baseball's effort to fix a historical wrong.
Solomon cited other examples of that effort:
The Commissioner's Office provided the money for a research project that led to the induction of 17 Negro League ballplayers and executives into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Major League Baseball has partnered with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City on several projects, including fundraisers for educational programs.
Baseball has organized the Civil Rights Game as a tribute to the role the sport has played as a social force in America.
Despite those initiatives, Solomon said the game's history of exclusion -- the wrongs of segregation -- continues to haunt baseball.
What is adequate redress for those wrongs?
Solomon didn't know, but for Major League Baseball to do nothing didn't seem just either, he said.
"You've gotta make peace with our past -- to draw a line in the sand and say, 'No more,'" Solomon said. "Here is evidence that we recognize that this class of people were not treated fairly."
Winfield agreed. He'd been weighing ways to honor Negro Leaguers for many years, but the death of O'Neil, the iconic chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, proved the flashpoint.
"We should have done something extraordinary for him -- for this great American, this great ambassador for baseball and very good friend," Winfield said.
At the time of his death, the 94-year-old O'Neil was one of the few surviving links to Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, Rube Foster, Willie Wells, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell.
So are the 30 Negro League ballplayers who will be honored Thursday.
At the Disney sports complex, fans will see Negro Leaguers like Joe Scott, "Bobo" Henderson, "Minute Man" Kaiser, "Millito" Navarro, "Mule" Miles and "Peanut" Johnson, a female pitcher, honored.
They will have their day in the Major League spotlight.
"It's not just a promotional day," Winfield said. "The event has historical implications that border in importance on rivaling the induction of the 17 Negro Leaguers into the Hall in 2006."
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.