- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE POOR LITTLE RICH BOY WHO BUILT THE YANKEE EMPIRE

By Peter Golenbock

John Wiley & Sons, $16.95, 366 pages

Reviewed by Claude R. Marx

The 43rd president isn’t the only extraordinarily divisive guy named George. New York Yankees owner George M. Steinbrenner III has done much to keep his team true to its heritage as the most successful franchise in sports history. He has, some would argue, accomplished it at a great cost to the health of the game and by cutting more than a few legal and ethical corners.

Peter Golenbock, a veteran Yankees watcher, portrays all sides of Mr. Steinbrenner in “George: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built the Yankee Empire.” It’s a valuable book for those who want to know almost all there is to know about the man who is not so affectionately called “the Boss.”

Unfortunately, unlike other recent books about legendary Yankees, such as Joe Torre’s memoir or Allen Barra’s biography of Yogi Berra, this book isn’t particularly enjoyable to read. That’s because Mr. Steinbrenner’s successes are diminished by the fact that most of the time, he is the polar opposite of a mensch.

The book starts with a two-page summary of different types of personality disorders (e.g. obsessive-compulsive and narcissistic) and the author concludes the section by noting that “if you want to understand George Steinbrenner, the traits found in these disorders might well be a step in the right direction.”

As if that isn’t bad enough, Mr. Steinbrenner also is a convicted felon (for making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon) and he once hired someone to spy on Yankees player Dave Winfield.

All of his sins and shortcomings are spelled out in great detail by Mr. Goldenbock. Unfortunately, it’s not the easiest book to get through.

For starters, the writing is extraordinarily bland. Although it is a cliche to describe someone as resembling a Shakespearean character, that’s the case with Mr. Steinbrenner. Unfortunately, a reader doesn’t get the full sense of that persona. In part, that’s because Mr. Golenbock lacks the literary flair to bring his subject alive as skillfully as other authors of Yankee books have. Among the most skillful literary Steinbrennerologists are Roger Angell and Roger Kahn. The author also is hampered by not having talked to his subject for this book, although Mr. Golenbock does draw on interviews he did for other books. (Mr. Steinbrenner doesn’t give interviews these days.)

Given the author’s deep knowledge of the Yankees - he has written four other books on Yankee-related subjects - he is at his best when chronicling the team’s triumphs and setbacks on and off the field since Mr. Steinbrenner bought the team from CBS in 1973.

From Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin during the early years to Alex Rodriguez and Mr. Torre more recently, Mr. Steinbrenner has a habit of hiring complex and talented people and proceeding to have love-hate relationships with them.

His shortcomings in the interpersonal-skills area don’t detract from the Yankees’ successes on the baseball diamond during his tenure. During the 36 years Mr. Steinbrenner has owned the Yankees, they have won six world championships and been champions of the American League 10 times. They might have won even more World Series if Mr. Steinbrenner had resisted his temptation to acquire aging veterans who were past their prime and done more to develop team’s minor-league system.

Mr. Steinbrenner’s willingness to spend exorbitant sums to buy top-caliber players is both a natural result of free-market economics and a cause of the massive inequality of resources among baseball teams. He certainly didn’t cause the problem, but he exacerbated it, and the Yankees’ spending patterns are among the reasons a growing number of fans think baseball should adopt a salary cap.

Mr. Steinbrenner is a complicated man with a decidedly mixed personal and professional legacy. Those looking to understand him better will find “George: the Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built the Yankee Empire” to be a valuable resource.

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on politics, history and sports.

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