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Another strong influence in forging the adamantine Steinbrenner character was Culver Military Academy in Indiana, which he entered at age 13. "It was a great, great part of my life," he says. "When you go to a tough military school as a freshman, you learn to be self-reliant. I've got skin like an alligator, and I can tough it out with the best of them now." Yankee Vice-President Samuel contends that Steinbrenner's now-celebrated opposition to long hair and beards can be traced back to his Culver education. "He never dreamed that imposing a hair code would be considered controversial," says Samuel.
At Williams College, Steinbrenner was a star hurdler like his father and a football halfback. Later, as an Air Force officer, he was instrumental in organizing a sports program at Lockbourne Air Force Base near Columbus, Ohio that was credited with curbing an AWOL problem there. He stayed in Columbus after getting out of the service to coach football and basketball at St. Thomas Aquinas High School and. to marry a local girl, Joan Zieg. In 1955 he became an assistant football coach at Northwestern under Lou Saban, who is still a close friend, and during the 1956 and '57 seasons he worked as Jack Mollenkopf's backfield coach at Purdue. But coaching was neither remunerative nor conducive to a happy home life, so Steinbrenner joined the family business, the Kinsman Transit Co., in 1957.
Kinsman ships had been on the Great Lakes since 1882, but Steinbrenner's father had by this time despaired of competing against such giants as U.S. Steel. His son shared no such pessimism and, with the help of a loan from a New York bank, purchased the company, which had eight ships carrying grain, coal and ore on the Great Lakes, from his family. Except for a financially disastrous involvement with the Cleveland Pipers professional basketball team from 1959 to 1961, it was clear sailing for the shipping tycoon. He became part of a group that purchased the American Ship Building Co., and in 1967 he became its chairman and chief executive officer. By 1972 the company's gross sales were more than $100 million annually.
The hard-driving Steinbrenner style was perfected in this plunge into big business. He operated virtually around the clock, making almost impossible demands on himself and his underlings. One former employee, Jim M. Bonk, told the Wall Street Journal two years ago, "Mr. Steinbrenner would show up at 9:30 in the morning and say, 'Get an executive jet in here right away. I want to leave at 11:30 and be in New York for a meeting at 12:30. We'll catch lunch and be in Pittsburgh for a meeting at three and be back in Cleveland by five.' I sometimes had the feeling he just wanted to have somebody there to jump."
This fierce energy flowed over into an amazing number of civic projects. He became one of the country's chief fund raisers and a philanthropist of unflagging generosity. He was the chairman of the Junior Olympic Executive Committee, which financed a track and field program for youngsters. He organized and directed the Cleveland March of Dimes campaign in 1960 and increased collections by 37%, the biggest improvement in the nation for any health-fund drive that year. He prepared Cleveland's Little Hoover Commission report on harbors and airports. He founded Group 66, an interracial organization of young businessmen working for civic improvement. He was the director of the Cleveland Now program and the Greater Cleveland Growth Corporation. He helped finance a sports banquet for black athletes, sponsored by Cleveland's black newspaper, the Call & Post. He raised money to send the winners of the Ohio Olympics for the Retarded to the international finals in California. He personally helped finance the college education of some 70 underprivileged students. He was appointed to the Ohio Board of Regents. He was the Cleveland and Ohio Junior Chambers of Commerce Man of the Year for 1960. FORTUNE magazine cited him as one of 12 "movers and shakers" in the country. He was chosen by the American Academy of Achievement in Dallas to receive the Golden Plate award for "extraordinary leadership." And Penthouse magazine named him the country's best-dressed businessman.
He was, beyond argument, a big man in Cleveland. And he soon branched out. He formed a partnership with theatrical producer James Nederlander, and they produced the road-show versions of George M, On a Clear Day and Funny Girl. On Broadway, they did Seesaw and the 1970 Tony Award winner, Applause. "If George were in the theater exclusively, he'd be another Mike Todd or Ziegfeld," says Nederlander.
Steinbrenner also went into horse racing. He is a general partner in Kinship Stables, a racing syndicate based in Ocala, Fla., and the owner of the 860-acre Kinsman Stud Farm. In 1972 he bought a 10% interest in the Chicago Bulls of the NBA. And in November of that year he met with Mike Burke, then president of the Yankees, to discuss buying the team from CBS, which was anxious to get out of baseball, having lost $11 million. An agreement was announced on Jan. 3, 1973. A group of investors headed by Steinbrenner had purchased the Yankees for $10 million, nearly $3 million less than CBS had paid for the team in 1964. "George's principal reason for buying the Yankees was to cease being anonymous and become a celebrity," says Burke, who resigned several months after the purchase. Steinbrenner would become one all too soon.
As Steinbrenner tells it, his troubles began in 1969, when he was asked by the Democratic Party to chair the Democratic Senatorial and Congressional Dinner. With customary zeal, he ran the most financially rewarding dinner in party history: the contributions exceeded $800,000. In 1970 he was again asked to take charge, and this time more than a million dollars was raised. While organizing these events, Steinbrenner formed a number of close relationships with important Democrats, not the least of whom was Senator Edward Kennedy. Although he protested that he was a political independent, Steinbrenner's Democratic fund raising and chumminess with the Kennedy clan did not sit well with the Nixon Administration, from which he had been seeking legislation favorable to Great Lakes shipping. American Ship quickly found itself the subject of antitrust investigations.
At the time he agreed to organize the dinners, Steinbrenner had been warned by Cleveland Democrats of the Nixon team's capacity for vindictiveness. The pressure was suddenly on him in 1972, Steinbrenner says, to avoid further difficulties by contributing substantially to the now infamous Committee to Re-elect the President. The manner in which he chose to do so proved his undoing. Eight company officials were alleged to have been awarded "bonuses" of $25,000 with the understanding that the money would then be donated to the Nixon campaign committee. Steinbrenner personally contributed $75,000. Prosecutors said Steinbrenner and the company then attempted to conceal the illegal "phony bonus" contributions. Steinbrenner was indicted on 14 different counts in April of 1973.
He pleaded guilty on Aug. 23, 1974 to one count of conspiracy to violate the campaign-funding law and to another of attempting to cover up the donations and was fined $15,000. In November of that year Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended Steinbrenner for two years, declaring him "ineligible and incompetent to manage or advise in the management of the Yankees." The suspension was lifted 16 months later, in time for the opening of the 1976 baseball season. Steinbrenner resigned as chief executive officer of American Ship, taking a salary cut of nearly $90,000—to $50,000—while continuing to serve as board chairman. He moved with his wife and four children to Tampa, Fla., where American Ship maintains an office.