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July 20, 2010

Another Look

George Steinbrenner

by Bob Hertzel

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This was supposed to be about “The Voice of God,” as Reggie Jackson once dubbed Bob Sheppard, the New York Yankees' eloquent public address announcer for more than 50 years, who died last week. But how can you write about the Voice of God when God himself has died.

George Steinbrenner is dead.

In the end, it was his heart that gave out on him, the heart that he gave out to so many over the years. Or was it the heart that he broke in so many other people over those years? 

Steinbrenner didn’t really like people to think he had that big a heart. But ask Darryl Strawberry. Or ask Doc Gooden. Or ask any of the players he helped behind the scenes. Better yet, ask the people and charities in Tampa who he quietly and without fanfare helped, asking nothing in return, except maybe that they root for the Yankees.

Of course, there was that other side in this most complex man. He also was capable of firing people around Christmas, as he did with his public relations man, Rob Butcher, now with the Reds. Butcher's offense? Going home to Ohio for Christmas on the day Steinbrenner signed David Cone as a free agent.

"George had given me permission to go," Butcher told Sports Illustrated, "but he was still upset I wasn't in my office when he called. It was the most irrationally compulsive act I've ever seen. He offered me the job back on December 28, and I'll never forget what he said: 'I think you've learned your lesson.' Though I loved the job, I couldn't work for him anymore."

Somehow, Steinbrenner even managed to alienate Yogi Berra so badly that the squat one who for so many years had been a Yankees icon, decided he would boycott the team, staying away for years until Steinbrenner had mellowed.

It seemed impossible that I could have been around when the mellowing began, for my career had taken me to baseball outposts everywhere but my native New York. However, the day came in 1993 when my travels brought me to the Record in Hackensack, N.J., to cover the Yankees. The Yankees, at this time, trained in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Steinbrenner was about to return from his two-year ban from baseball that was brought about by his entanglement with gambler Howard Spira, paying him $40,000 for all the dirt he could dig up on Dave Winfield and his charitable foundation.

On March 1, the day Steinbrenner could begin actively running the Yankees again, Sports Illustrated’s cover had him dressed as Napoleon, sitting astride a white steed. It was really a marvelous cover, and the buzz in the Yankees camp was that was how Steinbrenner planned to return, coming in dressed as Napoleon and riding a white horse. Certainly the man had access to horses, being one of the premier thoroughbred owners in the nation. As it was, that did not come off for a reason I now forget and Steinbrenner arrived as he traditionally did, surrounded by lackeys and mobbed by the media.

No one knew it at the time, but Steinbrenner was beginning to understand that his penchant for the back page of the New York tabloids and his reflex ranting and raving and firing of managers and public relations directors, that his proclamation that a struggling Winfield was “Mr. May,” a takeoff on Jackson’s nickname of “Mr. October” was both hurtful and harmful. It was the beginning of a time when Steinbrenner realized that he needed a farm system to raise the likes of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettite Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera, all children in the system then.

Not that Steinbrenner was a pleasure to work for. There was an evening in Yankee Stadium when long, long after a tough loss, I happened back from the press room into manager Buck Showalter’s office. Showalter was sitting at his desk, his head bowed, still in his baseball skivvies, tortured.

“I can’t take it anymore,” Showalter said, referring not the losses, but the constant pressure Steinbrenner was applying from above. “I’m quitting.”

I sat there and reasoned with him as best as you can reason in an unreasonable situation, but he seemed determined. It was long after deadline now, so I did not pursue the potential story of Showalter quitting to the point of writing about it. Meanwhile, that journalistic little angel on my shoulder kept insisting that it wasn’t going to happen anyway. People did not quit on Steinbrenner. They were fired by him. The next day, all was right with the world and Showalter had another game to win. What he didn’t have was another year.

There were, of course, many instances in the three seasons that I covered the Yankees that were true Steinbrenner moments, signing Strawberry being one of them, but the man could not help himself in that matter. Steinbrenner had hit pay dirt with Jackson and maybe Strawberry had that one more season in him, even though he had put himself through far too much abuse with drugs and alcohol. Strawberry came to the Yankees and was a model citizen, if not exactly the player Steinbrenner envisioned.

The thing about Steinbrenner was that I believe he always laughed at all the sniping from the tabloids, all the talk radio horror, that he did things for effect and that, in the end, he was closer to the Steinbrenner who showed up on “Seinfeld” than the one depicted in the media.

How else can you explain Steinbrenner's hiring and firing of Billy Martin five times? It was nothing but a game to him, toying with the unstable manager's emotions and laughing at the reaction he would draw each time he brought him back and let him go. Take the Christmas firing of Butcher. In the wake of it, a number of his predecessors said that all Butcher had to do was show up at work the next day and Steinbrenner would have acted as if nothing had happened, but that he didn’t know how to play Steinbrenner’s game.

The fact of the matter is that for better or for worse—and the jury is certainly out on it—Steinbrenner changed the game of baseball, drove salaries up, and with it even profits rose for the have-nots. All those teams lost was a chance at ever winning, for no one knew how to play the game he invented better than George Steinbrenner.

Bob Hertzel is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bob's other articles. You can contact Bob by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  George Steinbrenner

5 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Richie

Bill James explained Billy's 5 hirings/firings in light of his 4 hirings/firings by Minnesota/Detroit/Texas/Oakland, and I know I'm leaving a couple more out. Billy was a great manager whose immaturity and alcoholism rendered him unemployable over the long haul of things. Each of the 5 times George hired Billy it made great on-field sense, and each time he fired Billy it made great on-field sense.

Jul 20, 2010 08:52 AM
rating: 1
 
69wildcat

A game to George Steinbrenner but their lives to the people involved. Steinbrenner was the classic bully, using his position as owner of the Yankees to get his way and, when things did not go exactly as he wanted, using that position to extract a terrible toll on those who crossed his path. Billy Martin is hardly a sympathetic character but the way in which Steinbrenner used an obviously emotionally unstable person, not just once but repeatedly, in his quest to win is just inconceivable to me. Any person with a scrap of human dignity would have realized that Martin was ill and needed treatment instead of being exposed to the day to day grind of managing the New York Yankees. At some point winning has to become secondary to doing what is right.

Jul 20, 2010 13:42 PM
rating: 4
 
Justice

This discussuion of Mr. Steinbrenner reminds me of the Greek proverb: "boys throw stones at the frogs in jest, but the frogs die in earnest." Steinbrenner's "games," as referenced in the article, resemble the stone throwing in the proverb. Anyone who would toy with the emotions of an emotionally unstable person is, at best, like the careless boys stoning the frogs. At worst, such behavior is cruel and unconscionable.

It is, therefore, hardly suprising that if anything causes a labor stoppage in MLB in the near fututre, it will be the Yankees' $200 million payroll. It is hard to imagine that any team would have a payroll more than 50% of the next highest franchise if it cared about the long-term well being of the sport. The portrait of Steinbrenner in the article certainly suggests that he did not.

One last observation: a work stoppage in MLB would have already happened had it not been for the creation of six divisions and a wild card playoff spot. If we went back to the pre-1969 format and only the league champions played in post-season, the disparity in the Yanks' spending power would so deflate fans' interest (and t.v. ratings) that a resulting labor stoppage would be imminent.

Jul 20, 2010 14:47 PM
rating: 1
 
Richie

I do not at all see where the "day to day grind" of managing damaged Billy Martin. It probably kept him alive. The last thing alcoholics need is free time. They need structure, and above all a purpose.

Billy Martin was very, very good at managing, knew it, and took pride in it. Without it, my guess is he'd have been in the gutter very quickly. Being a successful baseball manager was the one good thing in his life.

Jul 20, 2010 16:00 PM
rating: 1
 
StarkFist

I'm bothered by the whitewashing of Steinbrenner's image. During the 70's through the 90's, everyone knew him for what he was - a cruel. capricious bully, one whose financial resources and will to win far exceeded his knowledge of the game. At best, Yankee fans regarded him as a necessary evil (I'm a Mets fan, so he wasn't even that to me). But it was over the past decade, as he entered his doddering old age that the media began to treat all that awful behavior as though it had never happened. And now we have a mean spirited, bullying tyrant who is remembered as having been a far better man than he ever was, and credited with work he never did (we all know that Gene Michael had a lot more to do with building those 90's Yankee teams than did Steinbrenner, don't we?).

Jul 21, 2010 09:47 AM
rating: 3
 
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