Saturday, July 17, 2010

Looking at George Steinbrenner from many perspectives

I interviewed George Steinbrenner for the first time at a managing editors’ banquet in Cooperstown in the early 1980s and I remember the Yankees owner telling a story about a painting that projected one image from afar and a completely different image up close.

When I heard the news of Steinbrenner’s passing the other day, I couldn’t help but recall that story and think of my conflicted perceptions of The Boss.

From my vantage point that night nearly three decades ago, I found a man at odds with the intimidating, bombastic figure I had viewed from afar. He was gracious, charming and – yes, opinionated – during my 15-minute, one-on-one interview with him. I returned to the newspaper office that night with an entertaining story to write and a slightly different perception.

Of course, I never had to work for the guy and from numerous conversations with people who did, I learned of a man who could be cruel and petty beyond belief. Current Miami Dolphins public relations director Harvey Greene spent a number of years in the same capacity for the Yankees, and he told me how he was fired by Steinbrenner on numerous occasions, only to be re-hired by a repentant Boss the next morning.

Being a PR guy for George meant being on call 24/7. “The phone would ring in the middle of the night, and you knew it was either Mr. Steinbrenner or a death in the family,’’ Greene recalled. “After a while, you started to root for a death in the family.’’

In the days that have followed Steinbrenner’s passing, we’ve heard numerous stories about the extreme sides of one of the most influential and notorious owners in the history of sports – the abundant kindness and crassness.

Lou Saban told me about The Boss’ legendary generosity during my numerous conversations with the two-time Bills head coach through the years. Lou had gotten to know George while the two worked in Cleveland. He wound up hiring George as an assistant football coach at Northwestern University in the early 1950s and Steinbrenner remained eternally grateful for that opportunity.

In later years, when the well-traveled Saban couldn’t find a job, Steinbrenner hired him to be a scout and then president of the Yankees. “They were just ceremonial titles George gave me, but there was nothing ceremonial about the pay – it was real and it was generous,’’ Saban told me. “I resisted the scouting job at first because I didn’t have any expertise in baseball. He told me, ‘Lou, here’s all I ask. If anybody shows up at the doorstep of your home in North Carolina who looks like a ballplayer, you give me a call.’ That was the extent of my scouting responsibilities.’’

Although I've been a Yankee fan since the great home run chase of 1961, I’ve always had mixed emotions about The Boss. I applauded the fact he revived the franchise and poured money back into the on-field product – something many sports owners don’t do. But his egomaniacal need to be the face of the franchise led to the mistreatment of many great baseball people and occasionally turned the Yankees into the laughingstock of sports. Twice, his malfeasance led to his banishment from the game.

He clearly changed the sporting landscape through his free agent signings, his formation of the YES network and his enormously fruitful sponsorship deals. Owners used to be seen, not heard. George changed all that, hoarding the headlines and becoming a cultural icon spoofed and immortalized on both Seinfeld and Saturday Night Live.

Interestingly, this larger-than-life persona said several years ago that he didn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. I disagree. I believe he had a greater impact on his sport than any owner of this generation, and for that he deserves to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

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Congrats to friend, acclaimed baseball author and former Presidential speechwriter Curt Smith, who was the primary speaker at The Great Fenway Park Writers Series today in Boston. He and Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione discussed Curt’s latest book, Pull Up A Chair: The Vin Scully Story, the first biography of baseball’s greatest voice.

The talk continued Smith’s long relationship with the Red Sox, whom he began following as a youngster. In his book Our House, a tribute to Fenway, he called it “America’s most beloved ballpark.’’ Several years later, the team asked if it could use that slogan, which now adorns the park and Red Sox marketing. George Will and Doris Kearns Goodwin previously lectured as part of the series. In 2012, Potomac will publish Smith’s book on the 100th anniversary of Fenway.

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My belated condolences to Max Robertson on the death of his father a week ago. Paul Robertson was a former newspaper printer, marathoner and all-around nice guy. As I told Max, a man may die, but his goodness lives on. R.I.P., Mr. Robertson. You lived an exemplary life.

1 comment:

Max said...

Scott,
My dad thought the world of you...as do I. I truly believe your words made their way to him and he has a huge smile on his face....of course he will be wearing his Red Sox cap....and enjoying every minute.