SI Vault
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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Baseball didn't get in touch with Whitton to ask who Little Al was. It did have an investigator talk to Dill, but the interview was summarized in a memo that downplayed Dill's comments as "nothing he could swear to in court." Yet in his interview with SI, Dill did not equivocate about his recollection that Winfield knew of Spira's gambling activities.

SI interviewed six current and former Yankee players and staffers, most of whom remembered Spira as being a clubhouse hanger-on—or a "green fly.... He buzzes around you. He bothers you," as one of them put it. One of the six specifically recalled seeing Spira and Piniella talking in the Yankee clubhouse, but said he had no reason to believe the two were discussing gambling.

In his February '89 questioning by baseball, Spira talked of hanging out at Jimmy Weston's, a Manhattan restaurant frequented by sports figures. George Pappas, the maitre d' there, told SI that he saw Spira and Winfield at the restaurant having dinner together. Pappas said he once saw Eddie Wonder (real name: Edward Wnorowski), a bookmaker reputed to have ties to the Colombo crime family, at the bar of Weston's handing Spira a paper bag full of what Pappas believed to be Spira's gambling winnings. Pappas and former Weston's captain Dino Pavlou both told SI that Spira made no secret of his gambling or his association with Winfield. "I mean, this guy was loud when he used Winfield's name," said Pavlou. According to Pavlou, Wonder and Spira once scuffled in the restaurant over Spira's apparent failure to pay off gambling debts to Wonder. Pavlou said that he heard Wonder, who was found dead of a gunshot wound in a car in '83, tell Spira, "I don't care how you're going to get to Winfield. I don't care whose money you give me. I want the money."

In playing down Winfield's involvement with Spira, baseball contends that unlike Steinbrenner, Winfield eventually told Spira to get lost. As Newsday's source told that paper, "David wanted [Spira] out of there [the foundation]. He didn't want any part of him. He told Al [Frohman] that he didn't trust him [Spira], and what made Al think that if they paid him that he wouldn't do it again, continue gambling?"

In last week's interview, Vincent seemed to be under the impression that Winfield had exercised "good judgment" in dissociating himself from Spira as early as 1981. In fact, the relationship had its ups and downs with the final falling-out occurring in '86 after Winfield refused to give Spira money and a job. In any case, Vincent's argument would also seem to vindicate Steinbrenner, who broke off with Spira too—and did so more quickly than Winfield did.

Steinbrenner's main target has now shifted from Winfield to Dowd. While Vincent dismisses the transcript-changing issue as sensationalism—"It's like someone said about Wagner's music: It sounds better than it really is," he says—Steinbrenner's side has counted up 268 changes that it says Dowd made in testimony given by Steinbrenner, Leonard Kleinman, the Yankees' chief operating officer, Dowling and McNiff.

As Dowd said in a written statement last week, the changes did not involve "the substance of the answers of any witness." What the changes mainly accomplish is to make Dowd sound slightly more eloquent and evenhanded. Dowd corrected a couple of his factual misstatements, eliminated his use of vulgarity, cut out some repetitious ramblings and removed remarks that he might have felt would embarrass him if made public. When asked about Dowd's transcript altering, Yale law professor Geoffrey Hazard, an authority on legal ethics, said that while it is standard practice for witnesses to make corrections in their testimony, those corrections are usually put in as addenda and made known to both sides in a case. Hazard says that having the wording of sworn testimony changed, even slightly, without knowledge of the other side in the case "is not common practice." Referring to Dowd's many alterations, Hazard asked, "Does Fay know?"

Steinbrenner's forces have cited several other instances of what they portray as bias on Dowd's part. In a sworn affidavit Robert O'Neill, a private investigator who worked for Steinbrenner, said that when Dowd was interviewing him in May—more than two months before Vincent handed down his decision—Dowd told him that Steinbrenner, like Pete Rose, did not belong in baseball. Dowd denies making the comment or "anything akin to it." Three witnesses complained that Dowd or members of his investigative team inaccurately summarized their statements in interviews. One of the witnesses, Jim Murphy, another private investigator who has worked for Steinbrenner, wrote to Vincent to complain that "it appears as if much of what had been discussed during my interviews was either misunderstood or misrepresented." He attached a 15-page response listing more than two dozen alleged inaccuracies in the summaries. Another witness, O'Neill, sent Vincent a six-page affidavit correcting 15 alleged misstatements in the summary of his interview. A third witness, James Kindler, executive assistant district attorney for New York County, wrote to Vincent to say that, contrary to Dowd's summary of his interview with him, Kindler had not told Dowd that he "thought Spira was a liar," nor had he commented on what Dowd described as "the larger effort by Steinbrenner to discredit Winfield." Dowd says he and his associates stand by the accuracy of their memos in all three cases.

Now that Dowd's investigation of Steinbrenner's relationship with Spira has ended, his own dealings with Spira have been called into question. In August, two Yankee limited partners unsuccessfully sought a temporary restraining order in U.S. district court in Cleveland against baseball's removal of Steinbrenner. The partners alleged that Dowd and Spira made a deal in which Dowd received from Spira tapes of phone conversations germane to baseball's investigation of Steinbrenner. In return Dowd allegedly hooked Spira up with a lawyer to represent Spira in Florida following his March 23 indictment in Tampa on charges of trying to extort money from Steinbrenner and threatening Steinbrenner and Winfield. Dowd told SI that he had received about 10 tapes from Spira but denied that they were part of a deal. He said he gave Spira's New York lawyer the name of a law firm with a Florida office as "a professional courtesy."

Steinbrenner's lawyers told SI that Dowd implied to them that Steinbrenner would receive more favorable treatment from baseball if he got the Spira extortion case delayed or dropped. Dowd called this "a phony-baloney charge." He said that it was actually two of Steinbrenner's lawyers who had sought a way to get the Spira extortion case dropped, lest Steinbrenner be embarrassed by a trial.

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