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BAD JOB, BASEBALL
Jill Lieber
October 08, 1990
Even as they gave the boot to Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, the commissioner and his men ignored a mountain of evidence suggesting wrongdoing by others in the game
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October 08, 1990

Bad Job, Baseball

Even as they gave the boot to Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, the commissioner and his men ignored a mountain of evidence suggesting wrongdoing by others in the game

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•Winfield's unsavory associations. Spira was a gambler with mob connections. According to Spira, Slamka and the Newsday source, Frohman was a heavy gambler; all three sources, as well as a law enforcement source, also said that Frohman boasted around the foundation office about his ties to the Colombo organized crime family. Whitton served several months in prison in 1974 for bookmaking and told SI that he had played cards with Grecco, the reputed overlord of the Genovese family's sports gambling operations in New York and New Jersey. According to Slamka and two other sources, Whitton was betting on sports while driving for Frohman and Winfield.

•The likelihood that the well-publicized death threat against Winfield during the 1981 World Series was concocted by Frohman. In December '86 Spira told an investigator for the Yankees, Phil McNiff, that he and others had been enlisted by Frohman to help write the fake threat to give Winfield an excuse for his 1-for-22 batting performance in that Series, and that Winfield, after being told by Frohman that the threat was fake, lied publicly about it. Baseball later received a copy of McNiff's summary of Spira's account. Last week Slamka told SI that she had helped Frohman prepare a fake death threat. She said that when Winfield learned of the fabrication, he was angry at Frohman but that he subsequently went along with it.

•Spira's contention in a 1989 interview with baseball that Lou Piniella, a Yankee outfielder from 1974 to '84 and now manager of the National League West champion Cincinnati Reds, discussed football gambling with him in the early '80s. In the same interview Spira made a passing reference to catcher Bob Boone, now with the Kansas City Royals. "Piniella used to—was an avid horse bettor," Spira is quoted as saying. "That, everyone knew. But we would talk about betting football. He'd get The [New York Daily] News, and we'd go over it, and like, you know, for an afternoon game, they used to play in the afternoon a lot, like 2 o'clock, so you're [at the ballpark at] 11 o'clock, and we would talk, and 11 to 12, we'd go over all the football games. College [on] Saturday and pro [on] Sunday. And then, when you walk out of the Yankee Clubhouse, you go to the right and maybe 10 feet, and there's a pay phone, or there was.... And [Piniella would] call his bookie." Spira goes on: "I mean even Bob Boone.... He used to call me in my house, like, and discuss football games with me, like I'm some expert." Piniella told SI that he has never met Spira. Boone, through a Royals spokesman, said he would not address Spira's comments.

Any of these matters, if substantiated, would certainly be contrary to the best interests of baseball, but none of them has ever been fully investigated by the commissioner's office. Vincent last week described the Steinbrenner probe as "very careful, very scrupulous," and Dowd pronounced himself "very proud" of his role and added, "I am wholly satisfied that we pursued all of the information that we, in our collective judgment, primarily mine, thought that we ought to look into." After saying that SI could interview Hallinan, baseball decided that he would "not be made available." However, in a brief conversation with SI outside his Rockland County, N.Y., home last weekend, Hallinan said, "It's easy to Monday-morning-quarterback something like this [the Steinbrenner probe]. I'm a thorough guy, and I'm satisfied with what I've done."

Nevertheless, there are many troubling aspects of baseball's handling of the case. Among them:

•Baseball investigators failed to follow up evidence relating to Winfield's associations, his possible gambling and his $15,000 loan to Spira. Baseball never talked to Frohman. Nor has it talked to Slamka, even though documents indicating she was a possible source in these matters were given to baseball in September '87. "She had no information which bore on what baseball was doing," Dowd said last week. Dowd said baseball's investigators tried to reach Barra, but Barra says he has no knowledge of any calls made to him by baseball. Dowd said last week, "If [Barra] claims to have some information, he ought to bring it in." The investigators never tried to talk to Caridi or Grecco. They didn't talk to Whitton until after he was mentioned in SI's Aug. 13 report. Then, they say, they received a signed statement from him attesting that Winfield didn't know Spira was a gambler at the time of the $15,000 loan. They have yet to talk to Barbara Frohman, who in SI's SCORECARD recounted her husband's having told her that Spira got "on bended-down knees" while pleading for the $15,000 to pay off mob debt collectors who were going to kill him. After that was published, she was quoted by Newsday as now denying that Winfield knew of Spira's gambling at the time Winfield made the $15,000 loan. SI stands by its account of its interviews with Whitton and Frohman.

•Baseball appeared to be derelict in dealing with Spira's allegations concerning Piniella. Dowd, Hallinan and Terry Lynam, another of baseball's investigators, didn't interview Piniella until April '90, 14 months after Spira made those allegations to baseball, and then they largely confined their questions to Steinbrenner's activities. They did ask Piniella if he knew Spira, and his answer was no. On July 18 a transcript of Steinbrenner's two-day hearing before Vincent earlier that month was leaked to the media. During the hearing Steinbrenner had said that one of the reasons he had paid Spira the $40,000 was that Spira had threatened to go public with information about Piniella's "sports gambling habits." That same day Vincent issued a press release: "John Dowd subsequently [after the hearing] interviewed Mr. Piniella, who cooperated fully. I am satisfied that Lou Piniella did not engage in any activity warranting further attention from my office." But Dowd told SI last week, "I didn't investigate Lou Piniella." In fact, contrary to what Vincent said in his press release, Dowd conducted his only interview with Piniella before the July hearing.

•By his own admission, Dowd, without telling Steinbrenner's side, made numerous, if minor, alterations in transcripts of sworn testimony from some of the witnesses in the case. Dowd and Vincent defend these changes as routine, given that the documents were not depositions and that the proceeding was an administrative hearing, not a civil or criminal case, but legal authorities contacted by SI said that out of fairness, Dowd should have shown his changes to Steinbrenner's side.

•ABC last week shelved a report, prepared for the news show 20/20, that was critical of Dowd's altering of transcripts. Vincent declined to talk to the show's reporters, and Dowd also refused, according to a 20/20 source, after promising to go before the cameras. Dowd denies making such a promise. The source said that when the show's producer, Don Thrasher, pressed Richard Levin, baseball's public relations director, on Dowd's change of heart, Levin said, "Major league baseball's official comment to 20/20 is 'You can go——-yourself.' " But Levin told SI that he had expressed that sentiment as his own and hadn't characterized it as being "official." In a presumably more cordial exchange, Vincent called Daniel Burke, president of Capital Cities/ABC, with concerns about the 20/20 segment. ABC spokesperson Maurie Perl said that a lawyer for Dowd had called an ABC lawyer to complain that the allegations in the Dowd story "were completely unfounded and untrue." Perl said the calls had "no influence" on ABC's decision not to air the report. She said the segment had been pulled because ABC hadn't been able to "fully substantiate" it, though some 20/20 staffers disputed that there were holes in the piece and also noted that Capital Cities/ABC owns 80% of ESPN, which has a $400 million contract with major league baseball to televise games. When asked by SI if he had called Burke about the Dowd piece, Vincent replied, "If there was such a [call made], I am not going to talk about it."

Keep in mind, as we retrace baseball's handling of the Steinbrenner case, Judge Landis's aformentioned concern about protecting the sport from the taint of gambling. Only last month, Vincent said in a court affidavit that "it is my duty to take whatever action is necessary to protect the game of baseball from any suspicion that anybody involved in baseball has any relationship, financial or otherwise, with gamblers."

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