The Most Hated Man in Baseball

steinbrenner-newsweek-cover
August 6, 1990 Magazine Cover

George Steinbrenner loves to study military history. On his night table these days is a volume about Custer's Last Stand. That seems fitting enough, since Steinbrenner—the reviled Boss, the Steingrabber, the man so many love to loathe—could be facing his own Little Bighorn in the Bronx. Yes, his New York Yankees are having their worst summer since the Woodrow Wilson administration, but that's not his biggest problem. This week, after months of inquiry, Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent is expected to decide if Steinbrenner's association with a confessed gambler named Howard Spira means the owner and the game must part company. Everybody else, it seems, already wants a piece of George's scalp: the fans, the press, his fellow owners.

As usual, though, George doesn't quite get it. The war drums are beating, yet he sees no irony in his current choice of bedtime reading. "It's just the book I happened to pick up," he says. "I love to learn about battles and victors. Nothing more to read into it." When pressed a bit, Steinbrenner suggests that he feels no siege from his enemies; in fact, he's got them surrounded. "I'll win," he told NEWSWEEK during a two-hour interview last week in his Tampa office. "I always do."

Welcome to the mind of George Michael Steinbrenner III, principal owner of the Yankees: the most famous and the most valuable—of sports franchises. George's recurring blind spots—involving such All-Stars as Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield, 19 managerial changes in 17 years, scores of off-the-field employees who have deserted him, federal election law, and baseball governance—have gotten him into trouble previously. Eight times before, a commissioner has taken action against him. But the vise is tighter now: Vincent is investigating Steinbrenner for paying $40,000 in January to Spira, an ex-employee of Winfield's charitable foundation and world-class hanger-on. Vincent will rule on whether the owner will be fined, suspended, or even expelled from the game. Other owners, who might be expected to stand by his side, are drooling. One told NEWSWEEK last week that, if asked, 22 of the other 25 team chieftains would vote to make Steinbrenner walk the plank. Hell, they'd supply the sharks, so outraged are they by his boorish behavior and free-spending ways. All this in a season when the Yankee ballclub itself, once the pinstriped pride of the major leagues, is currently its worst team, run aground and likely to lose 100 games for the first time since 1912. Nor is Steinbrenner bombing out just in the Bronx. His Tampa-based American Ship Building Co., the wealth of which allowed Steinbrenner to buy the Yankees in the first place, is in financial straits, posting losses of $21.8 million since 1986. Company headquarters, once staffed with about 30 employees, is down to 11, many of whom tremble at the mention of the Boss's name.

Steinbrenner looks out at this strife—and thinks of Honest Abe. "You think Lincoln was popular?" he asks. "Lincoln said, 'I do the very best I can. If the end brings me out right, what is said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, 10 angels swearing I was right would make no difference.' I have that saying up in my office, at Yankee Stadium, in my bedroom, everywhere."

The 60-year-old Steinbrenner is undaunted. Sitting in his spartan suite overlooking the quiet Tampa waterfront, proudly displaying "literally hundreds" of sympathetic letters, he simply refuses to see himself as the world sees him: the Leona of baseball, the most hated figure in sports. "The press has created that perception," Steinbrenner says. "Walk down the street with me some time in New York. Construction workers, cops, cabbies, doormen—they all come up and tell me they're behind me."

How do you know when George Steinbrenner is lying? When his lips are moving.
—JERRY REINSDORF, Chicago White Sox board chairman (1983)

At the beginning of 1973, George Steinbrenner was an obscure—and rich—shipbuilder from Cleveland, born on the Fourth of July (yes, George, we'll include that) only a few miles west in Rocky River. His father, Hank, a rigid Germanic disciplinarian as well as a ferocious competitor in business and sports, had built the Kinsman Marine Transit Co. into a Great Lakes power. George eventually succeeded his father and merged Kinsman into his own American Ship, making the company even more successful. George liked business, but he liked sports more. While he excelled as a boy at the Culver Military Academy in Indiana, his subsequent athletic accomplishments were limited to being an assistant football coach at Northwestern and Purdue. Then, at the end of 1972, he got his big break.

Steinbrenner had been leading a group of investors that wanted to purchase the Cleveland Indians. They failed. (Whoever said the Tribe, the perennial bottom fish of the American League, always had bad luck?) But the Yankees were available. CBS, which owned the team, wanted out: it had managed to ruin a flourishing diamond dynasty that had won 29 pennants and 20 World Series in 44 years. On Jan. 3, 1973, Steinbrenner appeared at a press conference in the Bronx to announce that he was the co-leader of a 15-man syndicate (including John De Lorean and Nelson Bunker Hunt) buying the Yankees for $10 million in cash—$3.2 million less than CBS had doled out nine years earlier. "I won't be active in the day-to-day operations of the club," Steinbrenner told reporters.

This sounded standard enough from any baseball owner, let alone one who knew more from yardarms than pitching arms. As things turned out, it was just the first Steinbrenner lie—or, as he puts it, "statements that I believed were true when I made them." He would go on to become the most hands-on front-office overlord that baseball had ever seen, so much so, the story goes, that employees feel they can't use the bathroom without checking with the Boss. Before he could start meddling too much with the Yankees, though, Steinbrenner had to deal with a bigger worry: staying out of the pokey.

On Aug. 30, 1974, he pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to make illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon, one of his heroes. He was fined $15,000. Three months later, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him from the Yankees for 24 months for conduct "not in the best interests of baseball." Steinbrenner ultimately served 15 months of exile, during which many suspected he ran the team anyway; one baseball source says that the owner regularly had lunch and drinks with his general manager at the time, Gabe Paul, and "talked on the phone with Paul 14 times a day." He came back just in time to witness—and largely finance—a revolution in the game: free agency. Veteran players were now able to sell their services to the highest bidder. To the consternation of his colleagues, Steinbrenner understood that he could improve his club overnight with a few shrewd millionaire moves. Catfish Hunter, then baseball's best right-hander, signed in 1975, and Reggie ("Sometimes I even amaze myself") Jackson blustered into town two years later.

Despite turmoil caused on the field by the big egos and off the field by The Big Ego, George had built a winner. Like the Bombers of old, the Yankees won world championships in 1977 and 1978. Yankee Stadium might have been the Beirut of baseball—players kicked dirt at one another, manager Billy Martin was irascible, and George Steinbrenner always had a remark that fanned the fire—but the resident combatants were victorious. Nothing else mattered to the Boss.

Some kids want to join the circus when they grow up. Others want to be big-league baseball players. I feel lucky When I came to the Yankees, I got to do both.
—GRAIG NETTLES, former Yankees third baseman

After 1978, the Yankees appeared in only one other World Series (1981)—losing to Los Angeles—and that was most remembered anyway for being Steinbrennered. After Game 5, a cut-and-bandaged George claimed to have been in a fistfight with two Dodgers fans. Even Edward Bennett Williams, his friend, fellow owner, and occasional lawyer, was skeptical. "I've heard of phantom punches, but never phantom victims," he said with a chuckle. For the rest of the 1980s and this year especially, George's shipwrecked team won nothing. And that changes everything. The good no longer makes up for the bad. Without a nice round number in the "W" column, the team is just a traveling roadshow, with Steinbrenner often acting as the clown. Or bullying strongman. George still makes money with the Yankees. Revenue from TV and radio deals, ticket sales, and concessions should total about $103.3 million for 1990—which means a winner isn't fiscally necessary. Not that Steinbrenner has any interest in selling, but baseball bean-counters say the Yankees could reap between $200 million and $250 million. Yet the bucks don't really count for much. George has to win. It's always been that way.

It's always been pretty crazy, too. Each year, he promises this will be the season in which the manager on Opening Day will actually still be around in October. Poor Billy Martin was yanked out of the dugout more times—five—than some teams change managers in a generation; this year Bucky Dent didn't make it to the All-Star break. Players who erred even slightly on the field were shuttled off to the Columbus farm team like so many bad boys sent to their rooms. Team presidents changed 10 times. Such legends as the beloved Yogi Berra (manager, 1984, then fired 16 games into the 1985 season) no longer show up on Old-Timers' Day.

Even the most minor details of running a ballclub became crises for the Boss, who often mutates into the Tyrant. As in the case of the secretary Steinbrenner once fired for failing to make a plane reservation. He did it right from the airport, by phone. He remembers the episode, with an odd combination of pride and sadness. " 'Look,' I said, 'I'm going to miss a meeting because you screwed up. Just pack up your stuff.' " George, feeling a bit bad about it, made things right in the end, at least by his strange standards. "I called one of my guys and asked about her kids. I said, 'She's got a young son going to college, doesn't she? Well, pay for it.' Sometimes I react spontaneously like that."

Such stories abound. "Covering the Yankees is not like covering any other baseball team, and that's because of the Steinbrenner factor," says Bill Madden, a New York Daily News sports columnist. "He's always in conflict with someone. You have to deal with everything other than baseball. When you count the years you've worked with them, you have to do it like dog years—multiply by seven." The atmosphere shifted from bizarre to sleazy with the disclosure this spring that Steinbrenner had paid that $40,000 to Spira. The question is, for what? Spira alleges he got the money in return for "dirt" on Dave Winfield, then a Yankee whom Steinbrenner signed as a $20 million free agent in 1981, and has been feuding with ever since. Steinbrenner, ever the chameleon, has different stories: he paid the money "out of the goodness of my heart"; he paid it because Spira made threats against his family; he paid it because Spira threatened Yankee employees and hinted that he would go to the press with stories of former Yankee manager Lou Piniella's supposed "gambling problem." Fay Vincent held private hearings in early July to determine if Steinbrenner had once again violated baseball's "best interests" rule. But the transcripts of the testimony leaked out, causing the affair to become yet another front-page story on the Boss. This time, the vitriol reached mob mentality. T'ROW DA BUM OUT: FANS and TIME FOR KNOCKOUT PUNCH, the tabloids counseled.

Vincent promises to judge Steinbrenner on the Spira-Winfield specifics rather than his "overall stewardship" of the Yankees. A lot of folks think the commissioner's got it wrong and ought to look at just what kind of man Steinbrenner is. "Most people don't like George for the wrong reason," says Jim Bouton, the former Yankee pitcher who wrote Ball Four. "They think George is a bad owner because the Yankees haven't won the pennant. The right reason not to want George in baseball is that he humiliates his employees." Steinbrenner won't talk much about Spira, citing deference to the commissioner. Nor will he explicitly acknowledge what most everyone seems to know: if Vincent penalizes the Boss, he'll go to court and fight, even if the courts rarely second-guess baseball's internal decisions. He says the facts will prove him right. Sources close to him say that private exhibits before Vincent suggest that the commissioner's office was aware more than a year ago that Spira was making financial overtures to Steinbrenner; since Steinbrenner knew back then of that awareness, the argument goes, he fairly assumed he was violating no rules. To the extent that Steinbrenner shows any fear, it's that Vincent, his pledge notwithstanding, will look beyond Spira-Winfield. Even George understands he's got some image problems.

What is with this man? Why is this sometimes charming, engaging, giving citizen so often such a churlish, manipulative, imperious miscreant—once described as "a mouse studying to be a rat"? It may be The Incredible Burden of Being George—first put on him, as he recognizes, by his father, who was so strict that the young millionaire's son had to raise chickens to earn spending money. Or it may be simply that power tends to corrupt. "Get him away from power, and he'd be a nice guy," says Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, a New York City sports-radio host.

If you ain't got a hernia yet, you ain't pulling your share of the load.
—A sign on the wall of George Steinbrenner's office

Consider George in the sulky. Several years ago another George—Plimpton—asked him to participate in a series of celebrity harness races for charity. For his first time out on the practice track, Steinbrenner was told by his teacher (the late Hall of Fame driver Billy Haughton) to stay safely on the outside. "I finished last," the Boss recalls. "So I go over to this girl who is standing there to get my horse. All the other grooms are laughing at her. And she says, 'We bet when they run these races. And, of course, I got your horse. I lost $2.50.' She was upset. So the next heat, I say, 'Screw this.' I took my horse and fell in dead last. Then I pulled my horse and went for it, and just as I came to the finish line, right next to Billy, I went by him and just smiled. I won. The girl was collecting her money when I got back."

"Winning means everything," Steinbrenner instructs. "You show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser." Surely a man so shrewd must understand that his world view is rather limited at times, his behavior often pathetic. Hardly. "I'm more of a Patton than an Eisenhower in the way I lead," he says. "Maybe that's a fault. I don't know. But it's the way I am. I can't change it and be effective."

At the close of the 1979 season, when the Yankees finished fourth, a friend gave Steinbrenner, the former English major, a cigarette box with this poem, by Britain's John Dryden, inscribed on it:

I am wounded, But I am not slain.
I shall lay me down and bleed awhile
Then I shall rise and fight again.

The sentiments have become a credo. The fight is half the fun. Maybe more than half.

With Spencer Reiss, Anne Underwood, Stephanie Ester, and Alden Cohen in New York, and Todd Barrett in Chicago

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