It's my investigation.... It's my responsibility to know essentially what's going on.
—BASEBALL COMMISSIONER FAY VINCENT,
discussing his office's handling of the Steinbrenner investigation
George Steinbrenner got what he deserved. He acknowledged in his July 30 agreement with Vincent—the deal under which the New York Yankee owner was forced to permanently remove himself from the day-to-day operations of his team—that he had acted contrary to the best interests of the game. Steinbrenner's sin was maintaining what the agreement called an "undisclosed working relationship" with admitted gambler Howard Spira, who brought Steinbrenner potentially damaging information about the Boss's longtime nemesis, former Yankee outfielder Dave Winfield, and about the charitable David M. Winfield Foundation. Steinbrenner compounded his guilt by paying Spira $40,000 in January, at least in part for the dirt Spira had provided.
But baseball did not do itself proud in the Steinbrenner case. An examination of its handling of the Steinbrenner-Spira-Winfield matter over the last three years sheds a harsh light on leads not pursued and questions not asked. It is a tale of contradictions and double standards. Never mind that Steinbrenner, through his own statements, gave baseball all the rope it needed to hang him. What's disturbing is that others who may also have acted contrary to the best interests of baseball through their relationships with Spira were barely looked into.
Who are the principal characters in this case? Peter Ueberroth, who seemed to be wearing blinders as commissioner from 1984 to '89; Kevin Hallinan, baseball's director of security, who was given enormous leeway in determining which leads to pursue (and, more important, which not to); John Dowd, Vincent's special counsel and the chief investigator in the Steinbrenner probe, who chased evidence relating to Steinbrenner like a hound but didn't always pick up other scents; and Vincent, who told SI in an interview last week that Hallinan doesn't talk to him about "the vast majority of things" that the security chief handles. Vincent also said that "the way I operate this office, I am not running a criminal investigation. I am not trying to find every person in baseball who has done something illegal, such as place a bet with a bookie."
The commissioner's office was created in 1920—with Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the first occupant—specifically to rid the sport of even the hint of gambling involvement. Yet in discharging this mission, Vincent seemed to take the position last week that alleged transgressors in baseball should merely be asked their version of events and then taken at their word. "I am not a prosecutor," Vincent said. "I am interested in dealing with things that are very clear, and where I can't be wrong. I do not want to make major findings in baseball on the basis of credibility contests."
Indeed, the source of many of the most sordid allegations in the case is Spira, who has tried to peddle to the media juicy information about first Winfield and later Steinbrenner. Acquaintances of Spira's say it is hard to overstate how desperate and conniving he is. On the other hand, a lot of what Spira has claimed over the years has been borne out by further investigation. Baseball insists that it put no credence in anything Spira said. But Vincent's findings in the case squared with key portions of Spira's account. The commissioner accepted as true that Spira was a gambler, that he had organized crime connections and that Steinbrenner had paid him the $40,000 in exchange for dirt on Winfield—all of which Spira has maintained. At the same time, Vincent dismissed as not credible potentially embarrassing allegations from Spira about individuals other than Steinbrenner.
SI has conducted extensive interviews and obtained documents relating to baseball's investigation from the courts and a number of sources, including members of the Steinbrenner camp who have axes to grind with Vincent and Dowd. Although some of the sources accuse baseball of a cover-up of wrongdoing on the part of others, SI found no evidence that baseball officials or investigators knowingly covered up anything. But the evidence does suggest that as far back as 1987, baseball investigators knew about a variety of matters that should have, but inexplicably did not, set off alarms in the commissioner's office. These matters include:
•Indications that organized crime figures were getting perilously close to the Yankees. The mobsters were alleged associates of Spira, who was a gofer at Winfield's foundation from 1981 to '83 and who was a regular in the Yankee clubhouse in the early '80s, and of Albert Whitton, a chauffeur for Winfield's agent, Al Frohman. Whitton occasionally drove Winfield as well. Two of the mob figures, Joseph Caridi and Al Grecco, ran large sports gambling operations. Caridi's name appears in a document that has been in baseball's possession since September '87, and SI recently identified him as having had ties to Spira at a time when Spira was working for Winfield and frequenting the Yankee clubhouse (SCORECARD, Aug. 13). Nevertheless, when SI asked Vincent last week whether Caridi's name meant anything to him, the commissioner shook his head no.
•Winfield's possible gambling. In the SCORECARD item, SI quoted two sources as saying that they had overheard Winfield discussing his apparent involvement in sports gambling. One was an unnamed source who was close to Winfield throughout the 1980s. The other was New York City free-lance writer Allen Barra, who told of having heard Winfield discuss his own gambling in '85. Last week Kim Slamka, a former secretary at the Winfield foundation, told SI that Spira and Whitton had placed bets on sports events for Frohman and Winfield from the foundation's offices in the early '80s. "Frohman would complain to Whitton and Spira about how much money he and Dave lost," said Slamka. A fourth source, a close associate of Frohman's and Winfield's in the early '80s, told SI of having been present when bets were placed for Winfield with bookies. Winfield has denied any involvement in sports betting.
•Mounting evidence that Winfield knew Spira was a gambler when Winfield lent him large sums of money, including $15,000 in December '81. Spira has repeatedly made this allegation. The Aug. 13 SCORECARD item quoted Frohman's widow, Barbara (whose husband died in November '87), Whitton and an unnamed source who was close to Winfield in the early '80s as saying that when Winfield lent Spira the $15,000, he knew that Spira intended to use the money to pay off gambling debts. Last week Slamka told SI that Winfield was aware of Spira's gambling debts even as Winfield lent Spira money. In August the New York newspaper Newsday quoted a source identified as "a former employee of Dave Winfield" as saying, "[Spira] was a gambler, they [Frohman and Winfield] knew it, they got him out of debt." The employee was quoted as having heard Winfield say to Frohman of Spira, "What are we going to do, keep getting him out of debt?" In an interview last week with SI, that source stood by the Newsday account and said, "David did know Spira was a gambler."