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How the Yankees Explain New York
By Chris Donnelly
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2014 Chris Donnelly
All rights reserved.
The Boss Steinbrenner and Boss Tweed
Outside of its literal meaning, the term "boss" has several connotations. Generally, none of them are positive. Nobody likes the person in charge, and even if they do, they always think they can do a better job. In politics "boss" has become a derogatory term slapped onto those who use money and power to influence their political party and the functions of government. In business the "boss" is the person who keeps you late, who doesn't pay you enough, who never thanks you, always steals credit for your ideas, and always blames you when their ideas don't work out.
New Yorkers have bestowed the title of boss on three prominent individuals. One is Bruce Springsteen. (To avoid getting heckled in my Garden State home, I must point out that New Jerseyans played a pretty significant role here.) But Springsteen's nickname is given out of love and admiration for a rock star — not out of anger or spite. The other two men, however, were not given their titles out of respect, admiration, or love. They fit into the two derogatory terms outlined above. One was a politician; the other was a businessman. They were William "Boss" Tweed and George "The Boss" Steinbrenner.
Tweed ruled over the city's famous Tammany Hall faction, stealing millions from the city treasurer and becoming the symbol for political corruption. But he also pushed for the creation of hospitals, bridges, and museums and donated enormous sums of money to charity. Steinbrenner owned the Yankees for 37 years. He was suspended once and even banned from baseball in 1990 (before getting reinstated prior to the 1993 season) because of illegal or downright bizarre behavior. He could be extremely cruel to those who worked for him, particularly general managers, managers, and coaches. He recklessly attacked those who dared utter an unkind word about the Yankees, even implying that an umpire was purposely helping the Seattle Mariners during the 1995 postseason because he grew up in Oregon. "[An] egomaniac wrapped in a bully inside an asshole," as author and illustrator Bruce McCall described him. "And ultimate confirmation that villainy and the New York Yankees would be synonymous for all time."
But speak to the players whom he employed, and you will hear about a wonderful man who started charities, kept people on the payroll after firing them, signed players down on their luck, and made sure to visit the afflicted in the hospital. Depending on who you talked to, Boss Tweed and The Boss Steinbrenner were devil, angel, or both. They were big men — literally and figuratively — who knew the benefit of good media relations and an occasional publicity stunt. They hobnobbed with the social elite, pushed boundaries, broke the law, were targeted for vicious attacks by cartoonists and columnists, and were ultimately brought down by forces of their own making. They lived eerily similar lives that had a profound and everlasting impact on New York City.
By 1973 the Yankees organization was in shambles. The team hadn't made the World Series since 1964 and had failed to make the playoffs once — even under the new expanded format. Its star players — Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, and Elston Howard — had all retired. The team's resistance to signing black and Latino players had caught up to it, as the minor league system was void of much talent. Fans had left in droves, and attendance fell from more than 1.3 million in 1964 to just more than 966,000 in 1972. The entertainment on the field was lacking while across town the Miracle Mets were thrilling New Yorkers with young, exciting players like Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Cleon Jones. CBS had bought the Yankees in 1964 with the idea that owning the most prominent franchise in sports would be a gold mine. Now they just wanted out.
Knowing that they were looking to sell, Michael Burke gathered a group of investors, including Steinbrenner, to pony up $8.7 million for the team. It was the biggest theft in New York City since Manhattan Island was sold for roughly $1,000. At a press conference announcing the sale, Steinbrenner said perhaps the most famous words he ever publicly uttered: "We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned."
Early on, it became clear Steinbrenner had no intention of living up to his proclamation. On the first day of the season in 1973, he made note of which players wore their hair too long for his taste and immediately demanded they get it cut. (He was so new to the team that he wrote down the uniform numbers of the players because he didn't know their names.) For many it was the first sign of things to come, and before the month was over, co-owner Burke had had enough and sold his shares to Steinbrenner.
But hair length would soon be the least of Steinbrenner's problems. Not long after he purchased the team, news broke that Steinbrenner was linked to the Watergate crimes that had brought down the Richard Nixon presidency. Steinbrenner had illegally funneled money from his Cleveland shipbuilding company through several employees in order to make contributions to Nixon's reelection campaign. He'd also been less than honest about the whole affair. In 1974 he pled guilty to making illegal contributions and to a count of obstruction of justice. He was given a fine but spared jail time. Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn immediately suspended Steinbrenner from the game for two years, though it was later reduced to 15 months, meaning The Boss was absent from the team for the entire 1975 season.
When Steinbrenner returned in 1976, the Yankees, through a combination of key trades and big free-agent signings, were now the dominant force in the American League East. They made the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, won an intense five-game AL Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals on a walk-off home run by Chris Chambliss, and marched on to the World Series. But in the Fall Classic, the Yankees were swept by the Cincinnati Reds. As manager Billy Martin sat crying in the trainer's room, which was off-limits to the press, Steinbrenner came in and berated the sobbing manager for embarrassing him. It was just one of many cruel moments in what became one of the strangest relationships in baseball history with Steinbrenner playing the role of mentally abusive spouse and Martin the victim, thinking his better half would change. Over a 13-year period, Steinbrenner would hire and fire Martin five times, and there was a strong possibility there would have been a sixth time had Martin not died in a car accident on Christmas Day 1989.
The Yankees won the World Series in 1977 and 1978, and Steinbrenner took credit for restoring the team to its former glory. But 1978 would be the last title for nearly two decades, as the same attributes that created Steinbrenner and the team's success helped bring him and the Yankees down. Throughout the 1980s, The Boss made numerous erratic and bad decisions that would eventually plummet the team into last place. He traded away nearly every prospect of value for aging, washed-up veterans. He overpaid for mediocre players in nearly every free-agent signing of that decade, and when signings were successful, like with Dave Winfield, he made life hell for them. During the decade the team changed managers 14 times, pitching coaches 19 times, and general managers eight times. The result of all this chaos was that by 1990 the team was shockingly mediocre, finishing in last place. That team failed to have a single starting pitcher with more than nine wins, and only one full-time player managed to bat better than .260.
What made much of this even more maddening was the Jekyll and Hyde personality behind Steinbrenner. He treated players, managers, and his own staff like shit. He believed these folks, earning a living off of his money, were indebted to him. While Tammany Hall crushed their political opponents with unfair and illegal tactics, Steinbrenner used the media, whisper campaigns, and outright cruelty to get his revenge. He publicly chided players for their weight, once referring to pitcher Hideki Irabu as a "fat, pussy toad." He chided them for their character, famously calling Dave Winfield "Mr. May" for his perceived inability to deliver big hits late in the '85 season. He chided them for their performance, once saying he was going to send poorly performing pitcher Doyle Alexander to see a doctor because he was afraid his players would get injured playing behind him. Steinbrenner's football mentality caused him to think that this kind of behavior spurred winning. Instead of creating motivation, it just made players more resentful. In one instance a player, believed to be Graig Nettles, stated he was glad Steinbrenner had an increasing airline flight schedule because it meant there was a greater chance he would perish in a plane crash. It got to the point where players came up with a term for anyone who'd gotten publicly called out by The Boss. If that happened, you'd been "Georged."
Managers and staff had it even worse. Steinbrenner was openly critical of the field managers he hired, and when he was angry with them for any sort of trivial matter, he would shut off all communication between himself and his staff and the manager in question. It was a tactic he used on Gene Michael and Lou Piniella, even though both were considered near and dear to Steinbrenner's heart. It was childish and mean. He publicly promised Yogi Berra that he would be the Yankees manager for the entire 1985 season and then fired him after 16 games when the injury-riddled team got off to a poor start. He once fired the Yankees public relations director, Rob Butcher, three days before Christmas. Butcher's crime? He'd left for the holiday to see his family the day the Yankees re-signed David Cone, though Butcher hadn't known if the signing was actually going to happen. "You have to remember that anyone who works for George is reminded daily, constantly of what a privilege it is, and he damn well better perform and do what George wants or he's out on his ear. Induced terror, if you will," said Jack Melcher, a former attorney for Steinbrenner whom The Boss tried to have disbarred after the Watergate-related crimes.
When baseball devised a new collective bargaining agreement aimed squarely at the Yankees, Steinbrenner decided he would slash the team's payroll by cutting the hours of the Yankee Stadium elevator operators, firing a few scouts and some additional employees, and cutting the dental plan of the team's secretaries and janitors. The public backlash caused him to rethink the measures. According to The Yankee Years, members of the Yankees' scouting system, who were so critical to the team's success in the late '90s, had received World Series rings after the '96 and '98 championships. They did not get their rings for the '99 championship until after the 2000 World Series — and they turned out to be fake. The scouts did not receive any rings for the 2000 championship, a cruel measure that reeked of a "what have you done for me lately." Anyone who had been with the team for a short period of time knew immediately when The Boss was around because everyone on staff would be on edge. "You didn't have to see Mr. Steinbrenner to know that he was in town," said former Yankees catcher Mike Stanley. "People changed their attitudes and changed the way they went about their business. So you were like, 'Oh, Mr. Steinbrenner must be in town.'" And these stories don't even touch on the cruel manner in which he handled Martin, a man who clearly had a drinking problem and whom Steinbrenner treated well only when Martin wasn't in his employ.
But for all the horror stories there are about Steinbrenner, there are hundreds of random acts of kindness. "Honestly, I am not sure that he liked the spotlight as much as people think he did," said former Yankees pitcher Dennis Rasmussen. "I lived in Tampa after my career was over, and he did a lot of things that I knew about, that the public didn't necessarily know who was responsible (for): high school programs and a lot of different philanthropic endeavors in his hometown." Steinbrenner contributed $1 million to a fund for the families of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. He set up a charity to pay for the college tuition of the children of police officers killed in the line of duty. When people were ill, he paid their hospital bills and spent hours checking up on them. "When I was 40 years old, I had leukemia and was going through chemotherapy," said former Yankees infielder Brian Doyle. "He called me up I don't know how many times, constantly encouraging me. It was just really nice of him to do that."
Yankees broadcaster John Sterling saw Steinbrenner act in a similar way. "I was talking with a guy who was a coach with the Yankees, and his wife had been very, very sick with cancer," Sterling said. "George told this guy to just 'Go home and take care of your wife. Your job will be waiting for you, and I'll take care of everything.' So that's George."
Nearly every manager he ever fired remained on the Yankees payroll in some form or another, including Bob Lemon, who still received a paycheck from the Yankees until his death — 18 years after Steinbrenner fired him. In 1983 the Yankees decided it was time to finally bring up Don Mattingly once and for all. That meant Bobby Murcer, a fan favorite, was going to have to retire. Instead of just dumping him, Steinbrenner put him in the broadcast booth and made sure he was paid amply for being there. Murcer remained a broadcaster until his death from brain cancer in 2008.
"There were times that he would air me out about something, and later in the day, he would call me into his suite in front of other people, apologizing," said Rick Cerrone, the team's former public relations director. He would say, 'I am embarrassed by the way I behaved.' We had a very volatile but almost loving relationship. I truly loved the man. I really did."
When a teenager named Ray Negron was caught by Steinbrenner spray-painting the walls of Yankee Stadium, The Boss made him a bat boy. Negron eventually became a special advisor and dear friend to Steinbrenner. The Boss had a particular soft spot for players enduring personal problems that had led them astray from the game. He signed pitcher Steve Howe after the pitcher had been suspended from the game numerous times for drug problems. He took on Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry despite their substance abuse problems. In 2007 former Yankee Jim Leyritz was involved in a late-night car crash that took the life of another driver. (Both had been drinking.) "George was the first one to pick up the phone and let me know that if I needed anything that he would be there for me," Leyritz said.
Though Steinbrenner could be downright brutal to his players, he also went out of his way to protect them. During the 2000 Subway Series, The Boss was disgusted with the visiting clubhouse accommodations at Shea Stadium. "So he gets a moving van to move all the furniture from the Yankee clubhouse and he moves it in," Sterling said. "Then some leak occurred (in the clubhouse), and he is there bailing water out of the grungy clubhouse."
Like Boss Tweed, as his lust for power exceeded the bounds of decency and sanity, the press turned on Steinbrenner and so did the public. Steinbrenner's Thomas Nast, the editorial cartoonist who excoriated the politician, was the New York Daily News' Mike Lupica, who savaged The Boss in column after column for his pettiness and was the one who coined the phrase "The Boss."
And like Tweed, The Boss was done in by someone within his organization. Winfield had feuded with Steinbrenner since the day he'd signed with the Yankees. The outfielder had a cost of living adjustment in his contract that Steinbrenner hadn't seemed aware of. It was an embarrassing moment for The Boss, who never appeared to forgive Winfield for getting the best of him. As the '80s went on, the two feuded over payments Steinbrenner was supposed to make to Winfield's charity, a condition of his contract. Steinbrenner said the charity was poorly run and rife with fraud. Eventually, Steinbrenner paid Howard Spira, a gambler who had done some minor work for the foundation, $40,000 to get some dirt on Winfield. Spira then turned on The Boss when Steinbrenner came to his senses and refused to pay more extortion money. When the story broke, baseball commissioner Fay Vincent took action. He planned on suspending Steinbrenner for two years. But claiming he was fed up with the game, Steinbrenner asked for and received a lifetime ban from the sport. He was to have nothing to do with the Yankees ever again. (He later realized he missed being involved with the game and wanted back in.) But July 1990 should have seen the end of Steinbrenner. When word broke out at Yankee Stadium that Steinbrenner had been banished, the hometown crowd stood and applauded. Like Tweed, Steinbrenner had been cast aside.
Excerpted from How the Yankees Explain New York by Chris Donnelly. Copyright © 2014 Chris Donnelly. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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