I’m 7 years old and the Yankees are king. It seems as if they never lose and I hate them with a passion. Their owner George Steinbrenner and manager Billy Martin argue publicly over the way the team should be run. They even take their screaming match to TV and jokingly poke fun at their rift in a light beer commercial. “Tastes great” and “less filling” are the least of their problems. Their public feud gives New Yorkers something to talk about. And it all keeps Steinbrenner on the back pages. My childhood saw more of Steinbrenner on the back pages of the local papers than I can recall.
It’s amazing how much one remembers from childhood and George Steinbrenner’s was no different. His harsh father complained if Steinbrenner, a star hurdler on the Williams College track team, came in second in one of three heats while winning the other two by a mile. That relationship with a father who chided him for going into the sports business seemed to drive Steinbrenner to succeed. And that drove everyone else bonkers.
Steinbrenner hated to lose, and in his desire to win he became the first owner to exploit the free agent market, paying outrageous salaries to players like Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter. He was suspended from baseball twice. Once for making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon, and the other time for hiring gambler Howie Spira to dig up dirt on star outfielder Dave Winfield. He went through 20 managers in his first 23 years, including hiring and firing Billy Martin 5 times.
Fast-forward 19 years and I’m a field reporter for a radio station. It’s 1996 and King George now stands only 15 feet from me in a media scrum as the Yankees march towards another World Championship. He appears glassy-eyed and a bit crazy. A reporter makes him laugh out loud and then is met with a playful slap in the face by the big man. That year, after hiring Joe Torre to manage the Yanks, Steinbrenner seemed to mellow. After losing the first game of the World Series to Atlanta, he rushed into Torre’s office and gave him an earful. Torre calmly replied, “Oh calm down George, we’re probably not going to win tomorrow night either. But don’t worry. Atlanta’s my town. We’ll go down there and sweep them and come back home and win it all here.” After doing just that, Torre and Steinbrenner stood beneath the lights of Yankee Stadium and cried, holding the World Series trophy between them. I still hated the Yankees but my heart went out to both of them when I saw that.
Steinbrenner also had a heart for others. He was known for providing a lot to the city he called home, Tampa, all done with little fanfare until recently. He gave tickets to Boy Scouts, and jobs at the stadium to troubled teens. He demanded that they keep their grades up and stay out of trouble too.
Baseball isn’t baseball without the Yankees and the Yankees aren’t as remarkable without the man they called “The Boss.”
May he rest in peace.