- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Over the years since buying the New York Yankees in 1973, principle owner George Steinbrenner has achieved almost legendary status as the prototype of the hands-on, multiple-meddling team owner. George was tossing executives, managers and players hither, thither and yon while people like Dan Snyder and Peter Angelos only dreamed of humiliating employees.

Since Joe Torre began winning pennants and World Series in 1996, however, Steinbrenner has been somewhat less visible. Perhaps, at 76, he finally has mellowed. He even allowed himself to be caricatured most amusingly on “Seinfeld” a decade or so back.

There was nothing funny at all about Steinbrenner in his early years with the Yankees. Many have forgotten he was suspended twice by baseball. Then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn dropped a two-year sentence on Steinbrenner in November 1974 after “The Boss” was convicted of making illegal campaign contributions to former President Richard Nixon and others. The second ban, from 1990 to 1993, was for consorting with gambler Howard Spira.

On July 30, 1990, Kuhn’s successor once removed, Fay Vincent, slapped a lifetime ban on Steinbrenner for paying Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on former Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield, a longtime adversary. In this case, the “lifetime” lasted more than two years. After Spira was convicted of attempting to extort $110,000 from Steinbrenner, Vincent announced in July 1992 that Steinbrenner could resume control of the Yankees the following March.

Though the Steinbrenner-Spira association has been overshadowed in public memory by Pete Rose’s ongoing ban for gambling, it remains one of the less savory episodes in recent sports history.

Steinbrenner and Winfield became mortal enemies after the Yankees signed him to a 10-year, $15 million contract as a free agent in 1981. When Winfield failed to spark the Yankees to pennants, as Reggie Jackson had as the legendary “Mr. October” in the late 1970s, Steinbrenner derisively tagged him “Mr. May.”

That didn’t bother Winfield as much as Steinbrenner’s refusal to honor a contractual agreement to pay $300,000 to Winfield’s charitable foundation. This set off a series of lawsuits between owner and player, but Steinbrenner clearly overstepped his bounds when he hired Spira to do his dirty work.

As a 21-year-old go-fer for Winfield, Spira once had unlimited access to the slugger. But after Winfield refused to loan Spira $15,000 to pay off sizable gambling debts, his former aide approached Steinbrenner.

The Yankees’ owner, meanwhile, had tried various tactics to discredit Winfield, a quiet man who was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2001 after a superb 22-year career. Once he forced an audit that purportedly showed the foundation spent $6 for every $1 it gave away. The two men continued to haggle in court and the media. Steinbrenner apparently figured Spira would give him more ammunition.

Steinbrenner later claimed in a Playboy magazine interview that he paid Spira $40,000 because “he was harassing my family; my daughters were scared; he was harassing people who were close to me.”

The interviewer asked Steinbrenner whether he had been afraid.

“You’re [darn] right I was! And after that, there was a death threat at my hotel. … Now, everybody says, ‘Yeah, but look at Howard Spira. He’s a little guy.’ But Sirhan Sirhan was a little guy. Lee Harvey Oswald was a little guy. … I was scared stiff. … I told him to take the $40,000 [and go away].”

Obviously, Vincent didn’t buy the image of Steinbrenner as innocent victim. This left Steinbrenner with two options: sue Vincent if he instituted a ban or broker a deal. George chose the latter path, partly because he wanted to remain a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee. The agreement allowed the Yankees to remain in his family — son-in-law Joseph Molloy subsequently was named the club’s new managing general partner — as long as George agreed to go on baseball’s ineligible list and not associate with anyone in the game.

Temporarily anyway.

Ultimately, however, Steinbrenner’s money, connections and clout led to his reinstatement. Howard Spira was forgotten. After leaving the Yankees, Dave Winfield went on to play for California, Toronto, Minnesota and Cleveland. He ended his career in 1995 with 3,110 hits, 465 home runs and a .283 batting average.

George Steinbrenner endures, for better or worse. So does baseball.

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