"As a young man of college age [from St. Paul, Minn., attending University of Minnesota] who was just stepping out in the world and making a statement, I was keenly aware of that."
At 6 feet, 6 inches tall, Winfield, now executive vice president of the Padres, towered over many during a career that began in San Diego in 1973 and ended in Cleveland 22 years later, with Winfield never having played a day in the Minor Leagues.
As a budding star for the Padres, Winfield was the first Major Leaguer to establish his own foundation, bringing underprivileged kids to what was then called San Diego Stadium and seating them in a bleacher section in right field dubbed "Winfield's Pavilion." During the late '70s, Winfield was an All-Star right fielder who covered the ground just below his "Pavilion."
"I wanted to create a platform to give back to kids," Winfield, 58, said. "Whether it was taking them to a baseball game, a non-invasive health exam, substance abuse prevention or giving out scholarships -- for 22 years, we did a lot of great things. I'm very proud of that. I had a good time.
"On a personal side, giving back with the foundation was because of my own family. It was just the way I grew up. If you had a little, you'd give a little. If you had a lot, you'd give a lot. We were a tight-knit community. In St. Paul, even the corporations were about giving back a portion of their profits. So Minnesota was a good place to be from and learn a lot of life's good lessons."
Much later, six years after his first-ballot induction (along with the late Kirby Puckett) into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, Winfield traveled to Ghana as part of an MLB contingent that delivered baseball equipment and helped introduce the sport to the children of the West African nation.
Winfield also broke from that tour, accompanied by John Moores, who is still the Padres' majority owner, and former President Jimmy Carter, to visit villages on a humanitarian mission.
"At 6-foot-7, Winfield was the most visible American on the trip," said Moores, who was on the board of the Carter Center at the time.
Moores and Carter made Ghana their first stop on a three-week, four-country trip, during which their group delivered medicine and educational materials to local villages. In Ghana, Winfield's group assisted in the eradication of the Guinea Worm from the population of the 21 million that inhabit the country. The worm is transmitted to humans through a dirty water supply, but the disease can easily be stopped by a filtration system, which the group installed in each village they visited.
Later during that trip, Winfield met South African President Nelson Mandela, who, in the fight against apartheid and racism in his own country, spent a total of 27 years in prison.
"I try to get around," Winfield said. "I traveled with John and Jimmy Carter. Those were great experiences. We took a lot of medicine to help people in Africa. Baseball has opened a lot of doors for me. Much has been given to me, and I've tried to give a lot back."
As a member of the Padres' front office, Winfield has always tried to keep worthy projects moving forward.
"We have the best tribute to the Negro Leagues [of] anybody in baseball," Winfield said. "We have an alumni day that stretches across the spectrum in baseball, not just the Padres. We have a lot of good things going."
Eighty-one years after King's birthday and 30 years after his assassination in Memphis, Tenn., Winfield said he can't help but notice the change in opportunities afforded minorities in this country, capped by Barack Obama being the first black U.S. president.
"People growing up today view our country much, much differently than they used to," Winfield said. "Things have opened up [for minorities]. There are [many] more opportunities. I'm not saying the playing fields are level yet, but the doors are open; the opportunities are there that weren't available when I grew up.
"There were very few black mayors, governors or businessmen who owned companies. I've seen a lot change in a lifetime, but I never could have imagined seeing an African-American president."
On the occasion of King's 81st birthday, Winfield had only had six words for it: "It seems like the right thing!"