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Kelly assured his boss that the stadium boxes would remain inviolate or other heads would roll. Steinbrenner nodded his own head and pressed resolutely on to other business: Chances are that any further dereliction would not have led to Kelly's beheading, but it could certainly have resulted in his joining the legions of the unemployed, because Steinbrenner does not lightly suffer what he perceives as incompetence, be it from stadium ushers or million-dollar outfielders. He expects, if not perfection, at least unyielding application to duty from anyone associated with him and, not insignificantly, from himself. "My employees know I'm tough on them, and I am," Steinbrenner boasts. "I demand more of them than they think they're capable of. I don't know of any other way to lead. I can't be responsible for how my people feel. I never demand more of any employee than I demand of myself. I'm not here to run a country club. I'm here to run a winning organization. And you'll notice my people are wearing championship rings."
This Prussian approach to employer-employee relations has not made Steinbrenner everybody's favorite boss. He has, as scores of former employees readily attest, quite another reputation. Not all of it is deserved. "George might be a Prussian, but he's no Nazi," says Marshall C. Samuel, the Yankees' vice-president for public relations and marketing, who has battled with and stayed with Steinbrenner for the better part of 20 years. "He's terribly impatient and he can be tough—particularly on secretaries. But he'll turn around and do something nice. He could do things more diplomatically, but he feels he gets results his way. Then, too, he has the unhappy faculty of putting his foot in his mouth and not knowing it."
"He's a tough guy to work for," says Marty Appel, the Yankee public-relations director last year, now a players' agent. "He's sort of proud of his reputation. There's no need for him to be quite as hard on his baseball employees. After all, nobody's getting rich working in the Yankees' front office. But being with him was a terrific learning experience. He likes to have meetings where all of his people participate. I found out an awful lot about running a baseball team from him. And yet, I almost feel sorry for him. He's like a teakettle that's ready to boil. He can't sit back and enjoy himself. He seems so troubled and unhappy all the time. Here he's got the world's greatest plaything—the New York Yankees—and he can't have any fun with it."
But the Yankees are no more of a toy for Steinbrenner than his shipbuilding business is. He gets pleasure out of work. The trouble with owning a baseball team is that what you do is so visible. "In the shipping business, the decisions you make are known to you and your shareholders," Steinbrenner says. "With the Yankees, every move you make is judged by 10 million New Yorkers."
The judgments this year have frequently been unfavorable. When Steinbrenner plucked Reggie Jackson off the free-agent list for all those Yankee millions, he touched off a series of ego conflicts unrivaled since the three Barrymores played Rasputin and the Empress. Thurman Munson was irked because the riches heaped on Jackson made his own handsome wages seem trifling. He was further piqued by aspersions Jackson cast upon Munson's leadership ability in a magazine article that appeared early in the season. Graig Nettles wanted his contract renegotiated, and when Steinbrenner refused, he stomped out of training camp. Said Steinbrenner to Nettles, "A cardinal rule in life is that when a man makes an agreement, he sticks to it." Nettles did not seem appeased. Petty jealousies erupted on a daily basis, and when Steinbrenner sought to buoy the spirits of the friendless Jackson, he inadvertently exacerbated his already precarious relationship with the Yankee manager, the tempestuous Billy Martin.
Steinbrenner's difficulties with Martin became public knowledge after the team's inglorious performance in last year's World Series with Cincinnati. "George wants to win at any cost," says another former employee, American League Assistant to the President Bob Fishel. And the Series was lost in four straight games. But a clash of wills was inevitable from the beginning between an owner who demands absolute obedience and a manager who accepts no authority save his own. Wherever Martin works, his job is always in jeopardy, and it seemed lost for certain this June when he and Jackson nearly came to blows in the Yankee dugout at Fenway Park before a nationwide television audience. After a desultory fielding effort by Jackson, Martin removed him from the lineup in a humiliating way, sending a substitute trotting into right field in plain view of 34,603 spectators and the huge TV audience. When Jackson came to the bench, he objected to this embarrassing treatment. Angry words were exchanged, and the two had to be separated. But Martin seemed to be the one who had lost control. After this incident, he was in and he was out from one day to the next. Rumors spread; the usually fatal vote-of-confidence press conferences were held; manifestos were issued.
During all of this, Steinbrenner was depicted as the man with the ax in his hands. If Martin were to survive, it would only be through the good graces of Yankee President Gabe Paul, a supposed supporter. The manager was finally spared, for this season at least, but only after he agreed to abide by a set of rules Steinbrenner set forth.
Steinbrenner mused on this prickly issue a few weeks later while watching his team play Kansas City from his open-air box at Yankee Stadium. "There was only one point when Billy was out," he insisted, "and that was after the incident in Boston. I wasn't even there. I was in North Carolina. Gabe called and said we've got to do it—to fire Billy. Then he changed his mind. Gabe and I sat down to breakfast in his Milwaukee hotel room one morning in July. I asked him what he thought it takes to be a good manager, and he took out a piece of paper—his own personal stationery—and set down six points in the form of questions: 1) Does he work hard enough? 2) Is he emotionally equipped to lead men? 3) Is he organized? 4) Is he prepared? 5) Does he understand human nature? 6) Is he honorable? As I looked at Billy then, I didn't see where he qualified in any of these particulars. He'd always say, 'But I'm a free spirit.' Fine, but that's not good enough to be a big league manager. I don't think the players were solidly behind Billy at this time, either. Here we had this super team, and we were losing. The single most disappointing thing to me was that these people weren't showing pride.
"At the beginning of the year, we knew we had all these egos and that we were in the biggest media center in the world. Something had to give. But what surprised me was that Martin was in competition with Jackson and Munson for attention. He was actually vying with them for the center ring. Now Reggie has to be the center of attention. He's a deep young man and a good young man. And Thurman is such a competitor. Give me nine like him, and we'd never lose a game. What I didn't realize was that I had to deal with Martin's ego, too. He's colorful, and he wants the spotlight. He's a showman, and that's part of what's made him popular in New York. This is a town that likes stars. We knew we'd have to take drastic steps. We demanded that Billy enforce some discipline on the ball club—there were players sitting in the clubhouse right in the middle of games. 'C.K.,' Billy said, 'give me Art Fowler [a longtime friend and his pitching coach during previous managerial stints] and you'll have discipline.' 'Fine,' we said, 'if that's what it takes.' So we give him Fowler, and he moves Reggie to the cleanup spot, which is what we had wanted since spring training. And Lou Piniella becomes the designated hitter, which we had also wanted. Pretty soon, we were back on the track.
"Billy doesn't have to win it all this year to keep his job. He just has to meet Gabe's criteria—and remember they're Gabe's criteria, not mine, as everyone seems to think. This is what Billy has needed all his life. I'm not trying to take away his spirit, but we're not running a popularity contest here. In the past, nobody ever kept the heat on him the way we have. In all those other places, they'd let him get away with things, complain a lot and then fire him. I don't want to do that. Now Billy's really trying. He's better prepared. He's working longer and harder. He just had to learn that everybody has a boss, that everybody is accountable to someone. I like Billy very much personally. We get along a lot better in person than we do in the papers. I'm probably the best friend he's got, because I don't want to fire him and take away his income. We'll make a better man out of him. And no, I don't mind it when he gets cheered at home plate [cheers of support, presumably, in his contest with Steinbrenner]. That's fine. But what really counts is that Billy's doing things now he's never done before."