George Steinbrenner has owned the New York Yankees since 1973
Steinbrenner grew up in Cleveland, and that place shapes who he is
The Yankees have won six World Series titles during Steinbrenner's tenure
Every city in the country, I suppose, has its own relationship with New York City -- you know, much the same way that every college basketball team in the old ACC had a rivalry with North Carolina. The City is just omnipresent in American life. Everyone knows about Boston's rivalry with New York and the friction between Philadelphia and New York and the long-distance relationship between Los Angeles and New York. Chicago calls itself "Second City," and while technically this is because of the way it rebuilt itself after the Great Chicago Fire, I know many people in Chicago who believe it is in some way a reference to New York and its entrenched role as the First City. Kansas City* has a chip on its shoulder about New York that goes back to before the days when the Kansas City Blues were a Yankees minor league team and before the Kansas City A's traded Roger Maris to the big city. People in towns big and small all across America have long placed their own city's charms and ease and little town blues against the madness they caught on that vacation when they saw Cats, caught the Rockettes and nearly got killed three times in cab rides through the streets.
*One of my favorite pieces of art was a New Yorker cover from 1976 -- Saul Steinberg's View of the World From 9th Avenue. If you click on the link, you will begin at 9th Avenue, then there's 10th, then the Hudson River, and then way beyond that is New Jersey and then the rest of the country -- with Kansas City in the middle. Then beyond that is the Pacific Ocean and China and Russia. I'm not certain if that really is the view of all New Yorkers -- but that is certainly the view Kansas Citians have of New Yorkers.
Cleveland's relationship with New York, though, always seemed just a little bit different to me, it always seemed that of a little brother or sister who wanted to wear the same clothes. Growing up, I can remember hearing about New York every week in one way or another. Someone would mention that, for many years, the Terminal Tower was the tallest building in America* ... you know, outside of New York. Playhouse Square was (and is) the second largest performance arts center ... after Lincoln Center in New York. There's a big fashion week in Cleveland, one of the biggest in the country, probably THE biggest outside of, well, New York. The Cleveland Orchestra has always been one of the best in America, right there with the New York Philharmonic. Little Italy in Cleveland had food about as good as you could find outside of Little Italy in New York. And I cannot even tell you how many times I heard growing up that the collection in the Cleveland Museum of Art was as good as anything you might see in New York City.
*It was actually the tallest building outside of New York until the year I was born, 1967. Then Chicago started building skyscrapers.
Yes, the New York comparisons were all-consuming, but the weird part is I just never felt the same bitterness from Cleveland toward New York. Sure, Clevelanders hate the Yankees because, well, you HAVE to hate the Yankees, it's a law. But beyond that, Cleveland always seemed perfectly content to be sort of a little New York, to have good things that were just about New York quality, to dream about moving to New York for a business deal someday.
It's not out of character that LeBron James, who grew up in Akron, is a Yankees fan and seems utterly fascinated by New York. There's something very real there. I remember when I was a kid, when everything in Cleveland was going to hell, there was a semi-bizarre tourism campaign to start calling Cleveland a "Plum." Radio and television commercials were played. Only it wasn't bizarre really -- it was another chance for the city to try and connect with New York. T-shirts were made: "New York may be the Big Apple but Cleveland's a Plum." I don't recall that the T-shirts sent Cleveland tourism skyrocketing, but I'm not sure it was the point. The point might have been to have a T-shirt with New York and Cleveland on it.
And it seems to me that Cleveland-New York relationship is close to the heart of the story of George Steinbrenner. He grew up in Cleveland. And in a way I've always thought that defined him. He has to be the most famous New Yorker who never really lived in New York. It's the Cleveland in him.
* * *
The story of King George is fascinating to me because, at the end of the day, the story goes wherever the narrator wants it to go. Do you want a hero? Do you want a scoundrel? Do you want a tyrant? Do you want a heart of gold? Steinbrenner is what you make him. He is the convicted felon who quietly gave millions to charity, the ruthless boss who made sure his childhood heroes and friends stayed on the payroll, the twice-suspended owner who drove the game into a new era, the sore loser who won a lot, the sore winner who lost plenty, the haunted son who longed for the respect of his father, the attention hound who could not tolerate losing the spotlight, the money-throwing blowhard who saved the New York Yankees and sent them into despair and saved them again (in part by staying out the way), the bully who demanded that his employees answer his every demand and the soft touch who would quietly pick up the phone and help some stranger he read about in the morning paper.
As Steinbrenner walks away from the New York Yankees -- and as rumors about his failing health grow louder -- everyone looks for his epitaph, for the few sentences that sum up his messy career. Is George Steinbrenner essentially good or bad, a Hall of Famer or a scourge on the game, a decent man who simply had to win, or a callous bully who showed a little decency in his spare time? The answer to all of that, I suspect, is "Yes."
George Michael Steinbrenner III did grow up in Cleveland, son of a shipping magnate and a bit of a legend. His father was called Henry and he was an NCAA hurdles champion while at MIT in 1927. There is something precise about hurdlers, and Henry Steinbrenner was a precise man. He demanded something like perfection from George, and George failed him time and again. He could not cut it at MIT. He could not become a world class hurdler. He was sent off at 13 to military school.
At different times in his life, George told the most famous story about his father differently -- most often, the story goes that when George put together the consortium to buy the New York Yankees in 1973 (putting in $168,000 of his own money), Henry told the newspapers it was the "first smart thing he's ever done." At other times, though, George says it wasn't until his Yankees actually reached the World Series in 1976 that Henry said, "It's the first smart thing he's ever done." Either way, it's clear Henry did not have much regard for his son's intelligence.
And George never hid from the idea that he was just a son trying to prove his worth to his old man. That's another funny part of the story: Nobody has spent more time psychoanalyzing George Steinbrenner than ... George Steinbrenner. He has lived such a public life, and has come across so many opinions about himself ("If I believed half the things said about me, I wouldn't go home with myself," he has said), that he cannot help but develop his own theories about himself. He seems to believe that his father's hard distance is the key to his own story, the reason he has been so driven to win, the reason he has never been able to tolerate weakness or ineptness in others ? even if the weakness and ineptness were only imagined in his mind.
* * *
First, he tried to buy the Cleveland Indians. That was in 1971, when the Indians were in so much trouble there were rumors that the team would begin playing roughly half its games in New Orleans, in a new domed stadium, beginning in 1974. Things were getting bad in Cleveland then, and Steinbrenner offered $6 million for a team that had been valued at about $8 million. Then he denied making any offer at all. Then when it looked like he would lose the bidding he brought in Cleveland Indians legend Al Rosen (the 1953 AL MVP) and pushed his offer to $9 million. Already, you could see the Steinbrenner mind at work, his reluctance to lose at anything. As it turned out, his final bid still wasn't enough -- NIck Mileti, who already owned the Cleveland Cavaliers and NHL Cleveland Barons, got a group together and offered $10 million, a foolish bid. Mileti, best I can tell, was already leveraged up to his eyeballs, and the Indians were a bad investment then. There is no guessing how much different baseball would have been in the 1970s and beyond had Steinbrenner bought the Indians.
Then, it's also true that the New York Yankees were hardly a bargain in the early 1970s. They were owned by CBS, and they were terrible in just about every way imaginable. In 1972, for the first time since the end of World War II, the Yankees drew fewer than a million fans. They had not won a pennant since '64, which was BY FAR the longest gap for the Yankees since the years before Babe Ruth. Truth is, things had become stale in the Bronx -- aging Ralph Houk was the manager, Mickey Mantle was retired, the Mets had won over the city, and it just seemed like the Yankees would never again be the Yankees.
Steinbrenner, though, saw it all differently, and I feel certain this was the Cleveland in him. He still saw the Yankees as the team he remembered from his childhood, that the Yankees were still the Yankees of DiMaggio and Ruth and Gehrig. To him, New York was still New York, it was all so glamorous and thrilling and, yes, big time. "Coming to New York was like a different world," he told the New Yorker three decades later. "It was like, 'Whoa, look at the tall buildings!"
He and his group paid $10 million for the Yankees -- though Steinbrenner has long said it was only $8.8 million because he sold some parking lots and land that came with the deal back to the city for $1.2 million -- and Steinbrenner famously said that he would stay in Cleveland and not be active in the day-to-day operations. People who knew Steinbrenner understood there was no chance of this, but nobody in New York knew Steinbrenner then. They would very soon.
The Yankees were lousy again in 1973, and before that season got going, Steinbrenner fired president Mike Burke. At the end of the year, he nodded when general manager Lee MacPhail became league president, he accepted Ralph Houk's resignation and he tried to steal Oakland manager Dick Williams away from A's owner Charlie Finley. By the end of that eventful year, he was also lying to the FBI about a scheme in his shipping company that was sending money to Richard Nixon's "Committee to Re-elect the President" -- the famous CREEP from All the President's Men.*
*Steinbrenner would later be indicted on 14 counts of making illegal contributions and obstructing justice. The odd thing is that Steinbrenner was not a Republican nor a particularly strong supporter of Nixon's -- his closest political friend at that time was probably Ted Kennedy and he raised millions more for Democrats than Republicans. No, the contributions were not about politics, they were about business. He was lobbying against restrictions in the shipping business, and Nixon was obviously the man in charge. Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to one felony count of obstructing justice, was fined $15,000 and was suspended by baseball for 15 months. Because of the felony conviction, Steinbrenner was not allowed to vote until 1989, when Ronald Reagan pardoned him in exchange for Steinbrenner admitting to the crime.
Point is that by 1974, Steinbrenner was already Steinbrenner, fully formed, fully obsessed, fully determined to be a star. "Although I was born in Cleveland, I can remember as a boy how much appeal the Yankees always had," he told Milt Richman at UPI. "They are important to New York and the whole nation."
He talked about how he had seen "Pride of the Yankees" at least 15 times.
In early 1975, with Steinbrenner serving his suspension, the Yankees spent millions to sign Catfish Hunter away from Oakland -- a move which changed the landscape of baseball. In June, while still on suspension, Steinbrenner and Charlie Finley tried to get commissioner Bowie Kuhn thrown out of office. In August, while still on suspension, the Yankees fired manager Bill Virdon and hired a pitbull named Billy Martin, leading the great columnist Red Smith to write this classic droll lead: "A fellow can't help wondering how George Steinbrenner will react when he comes back to the Yankees and discovers that Gabe Paul has fired his manager-of-the-year behind his back and hired somebody else's manager-of-the-year."
Well, George could not help himself. He never could help himself. "George is an overbearing, arbitrary, arrogant SOB," his longtime friend and Cleveland businessman C.L. Smythe told reporters. "There's no denying that. But I just love him." That from one of his best friends.