- The Washington Times - Friday, May 21, 2010

STEINBRENNER: THE LAST LION OF BASEBALL
By Bill Madden
Harper, $26.99, 457 pages, illustrated

”I was frightened of my father,” Britain’s King George V is reputed to have said, “and I am damned well going to see that my children are frightened of me.” Substitute “employees” for “children” and you have the philosophy of George Steinbrenner, longtime boss of the New York Yankees and probably the most colorful owner to be found in any sport in recent years.

Although Mr. Steinbrenner is now retired, and reportedly in poor health, his business successes, meltdowns and brushes with the law have been chronicled in vivid detail by veteran sportswriter Bill Madden.

Mr. Steinbrenner was born in Ohio, the son of the owner of a Great Lakes shipping company. He attended Williams College, where he attempted to replicate his father’s record as a track star. In the words of a college contemporary, “He had to call his father after every track meet. … Every time his father would be ticked off because he didn’t do better.”


George joined the family shipping business in 1957. When his father retired 10 years later, George reorganized the company and made it more profitable. American Shipbuilding flourished under the young Steinbrenner and made him a multimillionaire. As a shipping executive, George learned much of business and politics, but the latter nearly proved his undoing.

The election of President Richard M. Nixon in 1968 raised the specter of increased regulation of Great Lakes shipping, and Mr. Steinbrenner sought to ingratiate himself with the new administration. His subsequent fundraising for the Republicans, however, violated several campaign-finance laws, and in 1974, he was convicted of illegal campaign contributions. The $15,000 fine levied on him was little more than a slap on the wrist, but it marked Mr. Steinbrenner as a convicted felon. Years later, Yankee manager Billy Martin, angry both with slugger Reggie Jackson and Mr. Steinbrenner, offered a famous quote, “The two of them deserve each other. One’s a born liar; the other’s convicted.”

Sports remained George’s first love. In 1973, he seized on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to purchase baseball’s New York Yankees, then owned by CBS. Mr. Steinbrenner led a group of investors who purchased the floundering franchise for $10 million, with George himself putting up only $168,000 in cash. Rarely has there been such a bargain.

Most baseball owners entertain their business associates in skyboxes, but leave the running of the team to others. Not George Steinbrenner. In Mr. Madden’s words, the new owner was “manic, fiercely competitive, and frequently guilty of outrageous behavior.” In one game, an error by a Yankee outfielder contributed in a small way to an 8-1 drubbing at the hands of the Texas Rangers. Mr. Steinbrenner called his general manager and bellowed, “Get that sonofabitch [Johnny] Callison out of here. He can’t play. I want him gone. Do you hear me?”

On one occasion, Mr. Steinbrenner entered the office of then-Yankee manager Lou Saban and asked his secretary “where the hell” Saban was. “He is not here, sir,” she replied. “You fired him last night.”

Nothing was too small to escape George’s notice. One of his minority partners would dryly observe, “I came to realize that nothing in life is quite so limited as being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner.” But George got results. His wealth allowed him to purchase the best players available, and the Yankees gained the services of stars, such as Jackson and Jim “Catfish” Hunter. The once-hapless Yankees won the American League pennant in 1976 and won the World Series the next two years.

Things went less well in the 1980s. He hired and fired the hard-drinking Martin as manager on four different occasions. He developed such a dislike for slugger Dave Winfield that he hired a known gambler to dig up negative information on him. When word of Mr. Steinbrenner’s action leaked, baseball commissioner Fay Vincent was furious, for organized baseball dreaded any association with gamblers. Mr. Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball for a period that turned out to be four years. He returned in 1994 but his health declined in the mid-1990s, and control of the Yankees gradually passed to his two sons, Hank and Hal.

Considering his zest for publicity, Mr. Steinbrenner has been strangely reticent about his charities. According to Mr. Madden, a foundation established by Mr. Steinbrenner has paid for the college education of more than 200 children of police and firemen killed in the line of duty. Elsewhere, the author writes, “when it came to people in need - often people with no connection to baseball or the Yankees - his benevolence knew few bounds.”

As portrayed by Mr. Madden, Mr. Steinbrenner is autocratic and spoiled, but not without a streak of decency. He reminds one of the 19th-century robber barons who brooked no interference with their authority, but saw it as a power for the greater good.

Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean.