The words “Yankee” and “Alabama” are about as incongruous as A.J. McCarron sporting an Auburn t-shirt, but what if I told you one of the most passionate Yankee fans on the planet, the owner of the finest collection of Bomber memorabilia south of Cooperstown, resides in the heart of Dixie?
David Wininger, now 71, was born and bred on Birmingham’s Southside, and remained in his beloved city, practicing law for the last fifty years. He grew up in the late 1940s, a time when there was nothing more captivating for a growing boy than the New York Yankees. When Wininger was 8-years-old the 1949 Yankees, led by Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Vic Raschi, won the pennant on the final day of the season over Boston before dismantling the Brooklyn Dodgers in five games to win their first of five consecutive World Series crowns. What boy wouldn’t be captivated by the Yanks, even one 974.52 miles from Yankee Stadium.
Over the years Wininger remained loyal to the Yanks. About 25 years ago he began a memorabilia collection that over the subsequent two and a half decades mushroomed to over 1,000 rare and valuable pieces–a veritable trove of baseball treasures. But what puts Wininger into the Hall of Fame of baseball fans is the mural that he commissioned in October, 2012–not a bad month for a Yankee masterpiece. After interviewing some fifteen artists, a massive mural took shape, covering the entire south wall of his law offices. By the time Stephen A. Smith (no, not that Stephen A. Smith) finished the colossal project in mid-November, the likenesses of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter, and Yogi Berra, flanked by Yankee Stadium’s iconic facade, had come to life in downtown Birmingham.
I had to talk to the man that brought the Yankee mystique to “The Magic City,” and Mr. Wininger was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions.
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You grew up in Birmingham, so what instilled your love for the Yankees at such a young age?
I was born right toward the beginning of World War II. There was no Major League team near here, the closest one being in St. Louis. The Braves were not in Atlanta yet and were actually located in Boston. The Birmingham Barons were a Boston AA team back then and would actually become a Yankees farm team in the 1950s, but by that time I was already hooked on the Yankees. What hooked me were those great World Series teams that won five straight from 1949 to 1953. It didn’t matter if you were from Alabama, New Mexico, or Montana, you couldn’t help but be hooked by the Yankees.
Who was your favorite player?
My parents were not really baseball fans, but they loved Bill Dickey. I was born ten years before Mickey Mantle and my dream was to play center field at Yankee Stadium, thinking that by the time he retired I’d be ready to take over. But I couldn’t hit the Major League curveball, or the college one for that matter. [Laughs]
How were you able to follow the team as a boy from nearly 1,000 miles away?
Well, there was no internet back then and the two major papers in Birmingham didn’t carry the box scores. There was one “Game of the Week,” and the Yankees were often on because they had such great teams. In 1954 I visited New York with my grandparents and all I wanted to do was go to Yankee Stadium, but the Yankees were out of town. So I went to the Polo Grounds instead to see the Giants who won the World Series that year. I saw Willie Mays hit a home run and he was born just five miles away from me down here in Alabama.
Did your friends or family find your interest in the Yankees strange, or were there other Yankee fans that you knew of?
When I was younger I was the most obsessed kid in my school, so I guess some of my friends may have found that strange. There are actually plenty of Yankee fans down here even now. It’s in our media a lot, partly because we have a lot of anchors from the northeast. With the avalanche of publicity from the mural people have come out of the woodwork.
You had been a Yankee fan since the late 1940s and finally attended your first game in 1976. Describe your emotions when you finally entered the Cathedral of Baseball.
Well, I probably had some flowery language flowing in my head. It was rainy, so I didn’t have the perfect, sunny day experience, but Doyle Alexander, an Alabama native, was pitching and he carried a no-hitter into the 8th inning. That was in late August or early September. Then, later that October, Chris Chambliss hit that home run, by far my favorite Yankee moment, and I jumped up and said, “I’m going to the World Series!” and so we flew back to New York a month later and went to a World Series game.
So, I have to ask, is the loudest cheer in your house “Roll Tide!” or “Go Yanks!”?
[Laughs] I’d say it’s about equal.
Who is your favorite Yankee that you’ve met in person?
Yogi. He’s just so iconic. We’ve become close over the years. I have been to the Yogi Berra Museum in New Jersey and my wife and I have attended Yogi’s World Series parties for several years. My wife, who is more of an autograph hound than I am, has met Derek Jeter some fifteen times. He may not know her name, but we’ve been attending spring training in Tampa since his rookie season in 1996, and he probably recognizes her as “that nice southern lady” that he’s always meeting. We also got to know George Steinbrenner a bit over the years, having first met him at a University of Alabama baseball game.
You have accumulated an incredible trove of Yankee artifacts. How many do you estimate you have?
I have between 400 and 500 autographed baseballs, 75 autographed gloves and a number of bats. I just got a Paul O’Neill autographed bat. I would say the total number is easily over 1,000 pieces.
What would you say is your the most unique piece in your collection?
I mean do you have Joe DiMaggio’s jockstrap or something like that?
[Laughs] I have a machine used by women in the Carolinas that held the baseball while they hand-stitched the covers with their long, curved needle. It probably dates back to before the 1920s. It’s hand made out of wood and is valued around $400 to $500, but it’s not about the value to me.
The massive mural that covers the side of your law office is a landmark in Birmingham. What was the inspiration behind such a huge project?
My youngest daughter lives in Vancouver, Washington. There are a lot of murals in that area and one on a car dealership caught our attention. I asked the general manager why he had cherub angels painted on the side of his building and he said he thought it would be an attention-getter. So I decided to paint some Yankee angels on the side of our law offices. We interviewed some fifteen artists before finally settling on one. People always ask me, ‘Why the Yankees and not the Tide?’ Well, there may be other murals in the south of the Tide, but there are no other murals of the Yankees. Picking which Yankees to put on it was not hard at all. I think Babe Ruth is the greatest ever, Lou Gehrig is the greatest first baseman ever, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle are on par, and I have a relationship with Yogi.
What has been your most interesting experience as a result of the mural?
Well firstly, a local attorney–who I don’t like and he doesn’t like us–called up and thanked us for the gift we gave to the city, and he’s not even a Yankee fan. I thought that was very special. Secondly, there was a big article AL.com and The Birmingham News. A few days later I received a call from a little old lady who said she was sending me a book on the Yankees’ 100th anniversary. Inside the book I found color photographs signed by Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams, who was my favorite center fielder since Mantle. And finally, a man told me he was sending me a ball signed by a Yankees team from the 1950s.
Who is your favorite current Yankee?
I would have to say Rivera. He’s the greatest relief pitcher of all-time. I hope he has a good season. I don’t want him to go out with that injury.
Well, David thanks so much for your time. It was great talking to you.