Monday, March 30, 2009


The Boss: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built The Yankee Empire
by Peter Golenbock

July 30, 1990. It’s a day I once might have celebrated as Yankee Independence Day. Today, I’m not so sure.

At the time, I was a college student, living at home in Central Jersey from May through August, husbanding the $7.50 an hour First Fidelity Bank paid college students to work as summer bank tellers.

The job was dull, tedious, and mind-numbing beyond description. Yet I’d returned to it each May, foremost, because few local businesses offered summer employment. But also, the bank’s branch manager and I, so different in temperament, outlook, and background, nonetheless shared a common passion that bound us across the great pluralistic divide-- our unstinting love for the New York Yankees.

Back in the 70s and 80s before the Yankees started drawing 50,000 people every night; back before 19-year-old girls with fluorescent lipstick and tight-fitting Jeter shirts thronged the ballpark; back before Giuliani turned 161st and River Ave. into a maximum security fortress, Kevin O’Brien, second generation Irishman, Bronx-born and Bronx-bred, typified the Stadium faithful. With his silver hair, red bulbous nose, and the cragged face of the 12 oz. curler, Kevin was the guy suburban kids like me-- attending our two Saturday day games each season, escorted by anxious, reluctant fathers wary of the Bronx-- saw everywhere. He personified the season-ticket holder, the true believer, fan core and corps, the keeper of the flame.

Men like Kevin, unlike our upwardly mobile parents and grandparents, had never stopped attending Yankee games because they hadn’t left the Bronx. And in all likelihood, they never would.

Kevin O’Brien, in fact, was the first middle-age man I’d met whose passion for the New York Yankees matched, or perhaps even exceeded, my own.

Indeed, every morning, before the branch opened, Kevin and I dissected the previous evening’s game, puzzled over managerial moves—which, depending on the month and year, meant those of Billy Martin, Lou Pinella, Dallas Green, or Bucky Dent—and then during lunch in the kitchen downstairs, ruminated over the latest trade rumors gleaned from one or more of the three newspapers, The New York Post, The Daily News, and The Star Ledger that Kevin purchased during, and only during, the baseball season.

(And I, much to his droll amusement, added the NY Times. “Come on,” he’d say, “that’s Sports for country clubbers and bull dykes.”)

The late 80’s, you will recall, were the last summers a Yankee fan could entertain the illusion of post-season baseball before the Dark Ages arrived. Mattingly, Winfield, Henderson, Clark, Tommy John, Guidry, Rags and Rhoden, et. al., in fact, often led the AL East through July and remained in striking distance of first-place through September. So there in the break-room, we played armchair GM—tinkering here, fortifying there, conspiring to acquire the one additional impact starter that separated the Yankees from October. Or rather, I played; and my wiser elder indulged.

For as Kevin O’Brien saw it, I was the anachronism, the devout fan living in a bygone era, refusing to recognize his allegiance for the tragic loyalty it swore. The curse of the Bambino?” he scoffed. Superstitious malarkey, Calvinist self-pity, the Irishman said. The Yankees were the Damned ones. They suffered under a real tyrant’s yolk, and until they got rid of King George, nothing would change. Until then, the Yankees would never win another Championship.

Among the Stadium faithful, it was a widely shared sentiment.


To those whose age, memory, or allegiance stretches no farther back than the Torre era, it is nearly impossible to convey-- or perhaps for them, even to conceive-- the depth of sheer, unadulterated hatred George Steinbrenner once inspired among Yankee fans.

Sure, in recent times, The Boss has pulled his share of stunts: haranguing players in the press (chiding even Jeter once for “late hours”); making ill-informed, rash personnel decisions; and threatening to fire Torre, on multiple occasions, including in 1998, six games into the season.

But none of these indignities compares to the cruel pettiness, oppressive meddling, self-destructive folly and often stark raving madness that characterized King George’s reign through the period that ended July 30, 1990.

The grotesque managerial carnival— Dick Howser’s release in 1980 after winning 103 games, Yogi’s dismissal in ‘85 after a 6-10 start, Lou Pinella’s re-hiring 60 games after his firing— the circus act with the revolving door which opened and closed on Billy Martin five times in twelve years, a sixth only death forestalled—tells only half the story.

Another part includes a roster churned as quickly as assembled. The shibboleth of power one year, turning into the paramountcy of speed the next, returning the year after again to power. Enter Winfield; exit Reggie. Enter Rickey Henderson; exit Ken Griffey, Sr. Enter Jack Clarke; Exit Jack Clark; Enter Steve Sax. Money wasted, prospects discarded, the future mortgaged, the farm decimated and the elusive, indispensable pitcher, the Guidry to succeed Guidry, forever out of reach. Why? Because the mad King, years before, had sold his thoroughbred foal for magic beans, two nags, and a mess of porridge. Goodbye Jose Rijo, Doug Drabek, Al Leiter. Hello Ed Whitson, Britt Burns, Andy Hawkins.

And with each season, the roster’s talent contracted. The team’s deficiencies spread. Memories of ’78 dimmed. The farm grew more barren. And the King’s largesse compensated less and less, as the losing and the craziness repelled free agents when collusion didn’t bar them outright. Meanwhile, devout, sophisticated Yankees fans, watching the slow descent unfold before their eyes that they were powerless to arrest—Yankee fans went from hungry and disgruntled to livid and nauseated. “Steinbrenner Sucks” chants echoed nightly through the stands. “Free the Yankees” banners hung from the rafters (that is, until the crown had them removed.) And outside the Stadium, rebellion stirred.

I don't exaggerate: A “Fire the Boss” movement sprouted. Fans leafleted, circulated petitions, staged boycotts, and hatched crackpot schemes to expel Steinbrenner from the Bronx.

In fact, one night in the late 80's, I can recall a very drunk Bronx public defender telling me outside Stan's how the City could invoke its eminent domain power to expropriate the Yankees from Steinbrenner. Fans, he contended, just needed to raise the capital so the City could pay him “just compensation.” (Later in law school, I discovered both Baltimore and Oakland had attempted to do precisely this to prevent the Colts and Raiders from moving.)

Worse, as King George’s desperate manic drive to win burrowed the Yankees further into a black hole and the fans turned on him-- fans whose approbation and gratitude he craved almost as much as winning—he started to unravel. The bitterness of defeat. The exasperating shackles on free agency. The anguish and bafflement that he’d aroused animosity of such virulence.

Most of all, the impotent rage of discovering that Dave Winfield – the nemesis who had come to represent in Steinbrenner’s imagination the cause and symbol of his franchise’s decade-long futility; the exorbitantly paid free-agent the Boss derided for his 1 for 22 performance in the 1981 World Series; the scapegoat nonpareil to presage A-Rod—“Mr. May” had a cost-of-living clause in his contract his agent had inserted and that the Boss hadn’t known about. To compound the humiliation, the press uncovered it first, learned Steinbrenner hadn't known about it, and ridiculed him for it. Claiming fraud, the Boss refused to pay. Winfield sued. The feud went public. And suddenly, the crowds were cheering “Mr. May” for defying the man they despised.

At long last, Steinbrenner had met his match. A player he couldn’t intimidate, bully, discredit, humilitate, demean or more infuriating still, trade--Winfield’s contract also contained a no-trade clause-- and the impotence, I imagine, must have sent him over the edge.

The demons of old resurfaced, and his old enemy, Richard Milhouse Nixon closed in on him. The Hunted had introjected the Hunter. And in some perverse act of unconscious imitation, Steinbrenner embarked upon the very self-destructive scheme of character assassination, illegal payoffs, abuses of power, and enlistment of dubious characters that had victimized him two decades earlier and eventually drove the perpetrator from the Oval Office.

The particular Watergate conspiracy which embroiled George Steinbrenner and led M.L.B.’s Commissioner to ban him from baseball in November 1974 is a story much rehearsed, but invariably half-told.

In the 70’s, Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect (CREEP, as it happens, aptly named) extorted campaign contributions from many high profile business men, the Boss, among them, by threatening their companies with IRS audits. As a consequence, Steinbrenner, though a lifelong Democrat, donated $50,000 in cash to CREEP in addition to funneling an additional $25,000 through six employees of American Ship Building Co., the family's shipbuilding concern.

While many other prominent titans of industry succumbed to CREEP Incorporated, The Boss numbered among the very few prosecuted because by the time prosecutor’s discovered his role, his purchase of the Yankees had elevated him into a public figure.

The plea bargain struck allowed King George to retain the Yankees but resulted in an eighteen month suspension from baseball.

Now, fifteen years later, the Yankee King, as embattled, paranoid, and contorted by rage and self-pity as the former Yankee President, undertook a bizarrely similar plan of criminal intrigue that would backfire and nearly destroy him in the bargain.

As Nixon engaged unscrupulous, outlaw Plumbers to smear Daniel Ellsburg; Steinbrenner hired a convicted gambler, Howard Spira, to besmirch Dave Winfield. Yet instead of harming their adversaries, the treacherous agent they’d hired turned around and blackmailed them. The Boss fell victim, once again, to an extortion scheme, yet this time to one of his own devising. What’s more, on this occasion, the second time King George had run afoul of baseball's strictures, he faced King Richard’s punishment-- forced abdication and permanent exile.

And so, on July 30, 1990, with the Yankees suffering through as ignominious a season as I, in my then fourteen years of sworn allegiance, had ever witnessed or even imagined possible -- mired in last place in the AL East and at 39-61, bearing the worst record in all of baseball—I was elated. Racing home from work that evening, I brimmed with an eagerness and buoyancy the Yankees hadn’t excited since my father took me eleven years earlier to Game Four of the 1978 ALCS.

Although this time, it wasn’t a baseball game that aroused the giddy child in me. It was, of all things, a press conference. The Commissioner of baseball, Fay Vincent, reportedly, was set to announce, that with the stroke of a pen, he would realize every Yankee fan’s most fanciful, deeply nurtured dream—a dream that seemed to us then as quixotic and utopian and elusive as winning a World Series. Not since August 9, 1974, Kevin O’Brien said, had he awaited a news conference with anticipation. The date, fittingly, Steinbrenner’s doppelganger and nemesis resigned the Presidency.

The Commissioner announced as follows: after August 20, 1990, ''George M. Steinbrenner will have no further involvement in the management of the New York Yankees or in the day-to-day operations of that club… His ownership interest has changed from general partner to limited partner indefinitely.”

Indefinitely? I pinched myself, so incredulous was I that the pall had lifted, that the despotic reign of a man who, for me, had come to personify the Yankees had ended in a whimper. As bizarre and as inexplicable as third-rate burglars saving a Presidency, a convicted gambler had liberated the Bronx.

I wasn’t the only one to exult. When news of Fay Vincent’s decision spread through Yankee Stadium during that night’s game, a sound seldom heard that season echoed from the rafters. Kevin O’Brien’s men, the Bronx faithful, erupted in applause.

For the first time in a decade, Yankee fans looked into the horizon and glimpsed the Sun.


Peter Golenbock’s forthcoming book, George: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built The Yankee Empire, recounts much of the sordid history summarized above. Author of Sparky Lyle’s The Bronx Zoo in addition to collaborations with Graig Nettles and Billy Martin (as well as the controversial Mickey Mantle novel, styled as an invented memoir), Golenbock knows whence he speaks. The author witnessed the first years of King George’s reign first-hand while camped out in the Stadium’s archives researching his first book, Dynasty about the Yankee teams from 1949 through 1964.

In the interest of full disclosure, Golenbock is also a recurring guest of the Sportstalkny show ( for which I’ve covered the Yankees the last year in addition to being a loyal friend to its two hosts, Mark Rosenman and A.J. Carter. (Mark, in fact, receives mention in Golenbock’s acknowledgment section.) During which, Peter has always demonstrated himself a knowledgeable and informative guest and an entertaining raconteur.

George, not surprisingly, then, is an able and thorough account of the life of George M. Steinbrenner, III. It describes his full biography, beginning with the Boss’ upbringing in the Cleveland suburb of Lakeland, Ohio as the obedient, driven son desperate to please his strict, autocratic, withholding father.

Henry G. Steinbrenner, II presided over Kinsman Marine Transit Company, the Steinbrenner family’s shipbuilding company, and expected his son, George, to join him. As in the classical saga, George, playing the prodigal son who rejects his patrimony, pursues a brief, wayward, angst-ridden flirtation in his 20s with a career coaching collegiate athletics, highlighted by a one-year stint as the Head Coach of Purdue’s freshman football team. In the end, naturally, he returns home, takes his place beside his father, engages Henry in a battle of wills, and ultimately, both defeats his father and sends him into exile -- the upstart Prince usurping the aging Patriarch's throne.

George condenses King George III's creation story into the book’s first third, however, and from there, moves to its primary focus. Which, as its subtitle indicates, is the history of the ascent of an obscure magnate of the Midwest’s shipbuilding gentry into the monarch of a forsaken Bronx kingdom and ultimately, to imperial sovereign of The Yankee Empire.

(The political symbolism to which this blog’s title, The Yankees Republic, stands in opposition—resting, as it does, on my premise that as any professional sports franchise, the New York Yankees, despite private ownership, nonetheless, embody, in part, a public trust between New York City fans and citizens, on the one hand, and the Yankees corporation, on the other, as the hybrid pedigree its name signifies. The team name, i.e., is not The "Steinbrenner" Yankees but rather "The New York" Yankees. )

George: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built The Yankee Empire, in this regard, is a thorough and able biography of both the New York Yankees’ acting general partner from 1973-1974, 1976-1990, and 1993-2008 in addition to an accomplished history of the Yankees’ franchise from 1973 through 2008.

I regret to write that it is not a complete one however.

And what accounts for the flaw, in no way, should slight the author or his accomplishment. My reservation amounts to only a quibble anyway; what’s more, one, perhaps, more personal than objective. Still, it is, I submit, a telling imperfection nonetheless. For the picture Golenbock's book paints of the Yankee owner is as that of King George, the vindictive, peremptory, ruthless, volcanic, deranged despot whose downfall I effusively cheered, in 1990, as recounted above.

But the Mad King, the Boss Tyrant, is, I submit, also a caricature. From the Yankee fan’s perspective, more importantly, the image, even if accurate, ignores the virtue of the motive that drives his madness and scants the spoils and luxuries, when not squandered, his rule confers upon us-- graces, we, Yankee fans, dare not take for granted.

Sometime, you see, since Kevin O’Brien issued his clairvoyant prophecy, my perception of King George evolved. It hasn’t softened in the ensuing years so much as it has deepened. Somewhere along the line, I guess I realized that the newspaper writers who cover baseball, by and large, possess the moral vision of a Walt Disney movie; their profiles, the subtlety and verisimilitude of a Seinfeld episode. That, as a consequence, the infamous tabloid King George, III I’d reviled throughout childhood no more captured the actual man than the Sage of Saddle River did Richard Millhouse Nixon.

Of course, I cannot discount entirely that four World Series championships, six pennants, and thirteen consecutive playoff appearances since the King regained his crown colors the reassessment. Neither can I dismiss the soothing and stabilizing normalcy Joe Torre alone brought, the inimitable departure it may represent, and the indiscriminate goodwill the former manager reflected upon the entire organization. Nor, finally, should I minimize the distress of seeing the once nefarious, oppressive, all-powerful monarch appear now an infirm, benignly impotent sovereign, more King Lear than King George.
Still, I’d like to believe sentiment, or certainly, sentimentality, has contributed but a bit part.

(Lord knows, I learned, first-hand, that the Boss reinstated in 1993, despite his lower profile and burnished image, hadn’t mellowed much at all. During my years at the law firm that represented Steinbrenner and the Yankees, the Boss’ edicts, grudges, rants, in addition to the endless spate of frivolous lawsuits he proposed supplied many an overworked associate a steady diet of comic relief.)

No, between 1990 and today what has changed and has transformed my antipathy into something more like ambivalence, I'd like to believe, is rather the perspective time and age bestow.

The conventional wisdom, more conventional than wise, tells us that George Steinbrenner forever changed professional sports. That his insatiable desire to win and his frenzied intolerance of any result that fell short has debased the sheer beauty of athletic excellence, has perverted competition’s code of sportsmanship, and has depleted victory of its joy.

George Steinbrenner, they say, injected Darwin’s law into gentleman’s games. Yet King George’s iron rule over his Bronx fiefdom notwithstanding, he was never so powerful or influential as to control all the ills attributed him. And if he is responsible for these so-called corruptions, than I, for one, wish to absolve him.

More accurately, as a Yankee fan, I applaud them. If keeping baseball a gentleman’s club means sanctioning the sports franchise as some tycoon's glamour asset; if it means abiding millionaires and billionaires, like Carl Pohlad and Jeffery Loria, who place profits above rings, their pocket above their product, and their vanity and renown over their fans and their city than may George Steinbrenner’s Zoo rule forever. Let money rain down on talent and victory flow like a mighty stream.

In retropsect, I wonder if Kevin O’Brien, in his prophecy, was only half-right then. For the moral of George's story has another half as well that betrays a truth just as stark.

Yes, the New York Yankees wouldn’t, and didn’t, win another championship until the Commissioner ousted King George.

However, neither did the franchise win another championship until the Yankees' patrimonial sovereign returned and King George resumed re-distribution of the crown.


Rob Abruzzese said...

wait. I don't get it. Did you write that? Or did you just copy the entire thing without providing a link back to the original article. While at the same time providing us with no context of why this article is here?

Matthew S Schweber said...

Yes, Rob, I wrote it.

It's designed as a review of Peter Golenbock's forthcoming book, GEORGE.

Thanks for reading.