When I heard this morning about George Steinbrenner’s death, I thought right away about something a good friend of Bob Knight’s once said about college basketball’s winningest coach: “He’s a jerk. But he knows he’s a jerk and he tries to make up for it.”
I didn’t know Steinbrenner 1/100th as well as I know Knight—I met him once, in 1985 when the late Shirley Povich took me into his box at Yankee Stadium and introduced me—but my sense is the same could be said of Steinbrenner.
He was a bully; an ego-maniac; a man who threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way; a man who hired and fired people on a whim and someone who could be absolutely impossible to deal with. Forget that he hired and fired Billy Martin five times, he made YOGI BERRA so angry that he stayed away from Yankee Stadium for years.
He was also someone who believed in redemption and second chances; who actively sought out people he had wronged to try to make things right; who was generous to employees or former employees in trouble and who had a sense of humor. He enjoyed the ‘Seinfeld,’ parody and took part in more than one commercial mocking his ego and willingness to do anything to win.
Certainly he was a larger-than-life figure. In fact, when I think of him I also think of something Eric Sevareid said on the day Lyndon Johnson died: “He was a great man with great flaws.”
That was Steinbrenner. Of course in death, as so often happens, he will be sainted by many. You can bet a year from now he’ll be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame even though he will be no more or less deserving in death than he was in life.
A lot of people will forget that this was a man who subverted federal law in making contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign and later gave a sleaze bag named Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. The latter may have been worse because it was so monumentally stupid.
Those same people will probably forget too that the best thing that happened to the Steinbrenner Yankees was Steinbrenner getting caught in the Spira caper. He had spent most of the 1980s mis-managing the team, constantly trading young players for old ones in search of instant gratification. The Yankees of the 1980s were best summed up by Frank Costanza: “How could you give up Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps?! What were you thinking?”
Because of Spira, Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball (initially for life, eventually for three years) by then-commissioner Fay Vincent. It was during the time that Steinbrenner was NOT in charge of the Yankees in the early-90s that Gene Michael and Buck Showalter rebuilt the team. The most important things they did were what they didn’t do: They did NOT dangle prospects Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada as trade bait to try to get good again fast. They were patient. They dealt with mediocrity for a few years and then, soon after Steinbrenner returned, those young players began to mature.
At the same time, Steinbrenner made two moves that he was castigated for, both of which turned out to be brilliant: He fired Showalter as his manager after the Yankees flamed out in the 1995 playoffs—their first postseason team in 14 years—and hired Joe Torre to replace him. Showalter probably did nothing to deserve getting fired but Torre’s calm approach, which was far different than the tightly-wound Showalter, proved to be just what the Yankees needed. From 1996 to 2000 they won four World Series and during Torre’s 12-year tenure they never missed the playoffs.
Torre was pushed out after the 2007 season, technically not fired since he was offered a one-year contract, but clearly pushed, as much by Steinbrenner’s sons as by Steinbrenner. The fact that he lasted as long as he did was a tribute to Torre but also to the fact that Steinbrenner had learned at least a little bit of patience after his exile from the game.
The first time I had a clear inkling that all wasn’t well with Steinbrenner came in February of 2007. I was at spring training working on, “Living on the Black,” the book I wrote on Mike Mussina and Tom Glavine. I was in the Yankees camp a couple of days after the players had reported and had spent some time with Mussina and Torre. I went upstairs to the press box to pick up some paperwork—media guides et al—and, after chatting with some people for a few minutes, headed to the elevator to leave.
There were several other reporters at the elevator. “They’re not letting us leave right now,” someone told me. “We have to wait a couple of minutes.”
“Why?” I asked.
“George,” was the answer.
Apparently Steinbrenner had visited the stadium—that was named for him two years later—that day. Mussina told me later he hadn’t come into the clubhouse to see the players. When he exited the building, the lobby area was sealed off—apparently The Boss didn’t want people to see him in his weakened condition. Once he was gone, we were free to leave. It wasn’t long after that day that the rumors began circulating that he wasn’t well.
Steinbrenner’s death means that two Yankee icons have died in the last three days. On Sunday morning, Bob Sheppard, who was the voice of Yankee Stadium for 56 years—“The voice of God,” Reggie Jackson famously called him—died at the age of 99.
I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Sheppard—through basketball. For many years, he did the PA at Alumni Hall at St. John’s, where he taught speech and diction. Whenever I was at St. John’s I would try to spend a few minutes before he had to go to work just listening to him talk and tell stories. People talk often about the way he pronounced the names of famous Yankees and visiting players but I always enjoyed hearing him say, “and the coach of the Redmen is Lou Carnesecca.” He didn’t stretch it out, no ‘Looooo,’ and he didn’t say, ‘Con-a-seca,’ the way so many in New York did. He said it exactly the way it was spelled. But it still gave you a chill when you heard him say it.
As it turned out, 2007 was his last year doing the PA at Yankee Stadium. He had his own table in the dining area in the bowels of Yankee Stadium and, when I had the chance to sit with him on a few occasions, he looked very frail—not surprising at 96. But when he would get in that PA booth, his voice was as majestic as ever.
Steinbrenner’s story will be the talk of the All-Star game tonight and it should be. There’s no doubting his impact on baseball and on the city of New York. But I certainly hope people won’t forget to honor Bob Sheppard too. For a lot of those lean “Ken Phelps,” years he was the one Yankee who never lost a step.
John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases