Sorry, but WC cannot get on board the St. George train. The news is full of adulation, but WC thinks George Steinbrenner was the worst thing to happen to Major League Baseball since the Black Sox scandal. Some specifics:
- In November 1974, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended Steinbrenner for two years — a term later reduced to 15 months — after he pleaded guilty to two criminal charges, one a felony and the other a misdemeanor: conspiring to make illegal corporate contributions to President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign, and trying to “influence and intimidate employees” of his shipbuilding company to lie to a grand jury about the matter. He was fined $15,000 in the criminal case but given no jail time. He was later pardoned by Ronald “Law and Order” Reagan.
- Steinbrenner hired and fired the late Billy Martin as manager an extraordinary five times. It sure seemed like more. WC doesn’t have to tell his readers no one else is even close to that record. The most bizarre sequence began on July 24, 1978, when Martin resigned as manager, presumably a step ahead of being fired, after saying of Reggie Jackson and Steinbrenner: “The two of them deserve each other. One’s a born liar; the other’s convicted,” a reference to Steinbrenner’s guilty plea in the illegal contributions case. Only five days later, on Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium, Martin was introduced as the Yankees’ manager for 1980. Instead he returned in June 1979, replacing the fired Bob Lemon, only to be fired himself a month after that season ended. Amazingly, at the time of his death, Martin was preparing to manage the Yankees a sixth time for the 1990 season, to the point of having assembled a coaching staff.
- Dick Howser was named manager in 1980 and led the Yankees to a division championship, but soon after the season concluded, Steinbrenner announced that Howser was leaving to pursue “an outstanding offer in real estate,” an opportunity that remained a mystery.
- Steinbrenner went through an astonishing 20 managers in his 23 years of active ownership. Again, no one comes close. When you consider that Joe Torre lasted 11 years, the turnover is truly appalling.
- After the Yankees lost to the Dodgers in Game 5 of the 1981 World Series at Los Angeles, Steinbrenner broke his hand. He said he had punched two men who insulted him and the Yankees in a hotel elevator. But the supposed assailants were never identified.
- In 1985, Yogi Berra, the Yankees’ Hall of Fame catcher, had become the manager. After declaring that “Yogi will be the manager the entire season, win or lose,” Steinbrenner fired him with the team off to a 6-10 start – that’s a whopping 16 games into the season – and dispatched the Yankees executive Clyde King to give Berra the news. Berra, furious, refused to set foot inside Yankee Stadium until Steinbrenner apologized 14 years later.
- In July 1990, Commissioner Fay Vincent ordered Steinbrenner to step aside as the Yankees’ managing partner for making a $40,000 payment to a confessed gambler named Howard Spira in return for Mr. Spira’s seeking damaging information about Winfield. Steinbrenner had been displeased with Winfield’s performance on the field, and the two had feuded over contributions Steinbrenner was to make to Winfield’s philanthropic foundation.
- By October 1995, when he was fined for complaining about the umpires in a playoff series with the Seattle Mariners, Steinbrenner had accumulated disciplinary costs of $645,000. Again, no other baseball owner comes close.
“Some guys can lead through real, genuine respect,” Steinbrenner told Cleveland Magazine in 1974. “There are some guys who people would walk through a wall for, O.K., but I’m not that kind of a leader.” He likened himself to George Patton: “He was a gruff son of a bitch and he led through fear. I hope I don’t lead through fear, and I would hope it was more love and respect, but maybe it isn’t.” It wasn’t.
In the Yankees, Steinbrenner created a baseball team that pays more in “luxury tax” – the $26.9 million penalty imposed upon the Yankees for excessive salaries – than several smaller market teams pay in total salaries. Sure, Steinbrenner bought winning teams, but in the process he grossly distorted the economics of baseball, drove ticket prices through the roof and made baseball team managers farcical. In the words of Lou Pinella, two-time Yankee manager in the 1980’s, “George is a great guy, unless you have to work for him.” WC would add, “Or unless you care about baseball.”