Skip to comments.George Steinbrenner, RIP: The Best, Mistranslated; The Worst, Exaggerated
Posted on 07/13/2010 3:07:45 PM PDT by BluesDuke
Perhaps his health wasn't quite the best since he relinquished control, though it kind of figured that he might deny it---as indeed he did, challenging "anyone" to come down his way and try even a portion of the workouts through which he claimed to put himself.
>But it almost figured it might take a "massive" heart attack to send George Steinbrenner to his reward over a week after he celebrated his eightieth birthday. Short of a SWAT team Steinbrenner seemed indestructible, even when acknowledging his mortality in perhaps the only way he knew: surrendering minute-to-minute control of the Yankees (does anyone even pretend to have seen him otherwise) over the past couple years.
And there will be those who can let themselves believe Steinbrenner could have relished nothing better than to punch his ticket out on the day of the All-Star Game in the home park of the one club who beat his Yankees under Joe Torre's field command more often than any club in the game. Steinbrenner was many things but not even close to a man who had any intention of going gently into that good grey night.<
Men of achievement and station are often the most paradoxical of men and George Steinbrenner was probably the most paradoxical of paradoxes. He made a near religion out of what Vince Lombardi was merely alleged to have said, and yet he was just as prone to reaching out to those whose losing he might himself have abetted.
Let it be for others to run down the small details and the legendary, if not always funny, antics, shenanigans, wheelings, dealings, firings, fumbles, and fustian. I have a story to tell you from your ancient history, when Steinbrenner was barely minted as the Yankees' principal owner but already in a controversial hot seat, under suspension from baseball over illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon.
Technically, he couldn't so much as place an order for Charmin for the Yankee Stadium bathrooms. Realistically, there should be no question as to who was running the show even if he had personnel actually taking the action on his behalf. And with the Yankees looking as though they were finally on the way back from their lost decade (1965-74), sneaking into a second place finish in 1974 and making a deal for outfield power-speed package Bobby Bonds, they were prime to make a big move if one presented itself to them.
One did. Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted salary deferral payment for his future Hall of Fame pitcher, Catfish Hunter, and Hunter took it to an arbitrator. In December 1974---with Hunter fresh from his best major league season (a 25-12 won-lost record, a league-leading 2.49 earned run average, a league-leading 1.01 WHIP, a .229 batting average against him, and a Cy Young Award) and from shining in the postseason---Hunter won his case and his free agency: Finley was in breach of contract.
Hertford, North Carolina (Hunter's home town) and nearby Ahoskie (where his attorney had offices) became baseball's number one port-of-call in December 1975.
If you think baseball was about to send player salaries to places they hadn't gone before, here's a memory bank news flash---they'd already gone there, elsewhere. One of the upshots of the war between the National Basketball Association and the upstart, rip-roaring American Basketball Association, was to land Kareem Abdul-Jabbar a five year, $2 million deal. When the National Hockey League and the World Hockey Association skirmished, Bobby Hull looked at $2.7 million going into his bank account over ten years to come. And one of the results of the National Football League's battle and then merger with the American Football League was that the average NFL player salary was $365,000 higher than the average major league baseball player's salary.
Yet Catfish Hunter, presented with a bidding war the like of which he probably didn't dare imagine, had only one contract demand having nothing to do with hard dollars: he wanted five years guaranteed. Exactly how much money he might have wanted he never really said.
The bidding only began at $2 million for five years, from the New York Mets, and on the same day the Mets made their offer the Boston Red Sox offered $3 million. The bidding mostly fluctuated within that range or a little higher, with the San Diego Padres---whose then-owner, Ray Kroc, wanted a baseball team his hamburger chain could be proud of---threatening to go as high as $4 million plus.
Nobody saw the Yankees in the picture except the Yankees. But they had a card to play that nobody else pondered---loyalty. The Yankees' scouting director at the time was Clyde Kluttz, a former journeyman catcher, who'd signed Hunter to the A's in the first place, maintained a friendship with the pitcher, and walked out on the A's when Finley refused to sign him to a coaching deal just long enough to let him collect a baseball pension.
On New Year's Eve morning, 1975, Kluttz and Hunter met for breakfast. Hunter by now was anxious to sign---he wanted to get a little deer hunting in before the season ended officially. Over breakfast, Kluttz asked Hunter, simply, just what would it take to make him a Yankee.
Hunter's answer has been recorded: He wanted five years salary guaranteed, fifteen years' deferred money, and real annuities for his children's education. And he didn't demand certain dollars but asked, rather, whether the Yankees could do all that and at what kind of dollars? If anyone can find the napkin on which Clyde Kluttz sketched out the terms, they should send it to the Hall of Fame: $1 million as a bonus, $1 million in life insurance, $750,000 salary over five years, $500,000 for deferred money, $200,000 for legal fees just in case, and $50,000 each for the education of his children.
The total was the third-highest of the offers Hunter had received, but Hunter didn't care. If the Yankees were willing to parcel it out on the precise terms he wanted, Catfish Hunter was about to become a Yankee. (And, until his elbow and shoulder began betraying him, a very valuable one, winning 23 games in his first season in The 'Stripes.)
Think about that, ladies and gentlemen. George Steinbrenner (anyone who thinks he wasn't involved even indirectly probably thinks the St. Louis Browns won a World Series) beat Ronald McDonald for baseball's first marquee free agent and it cost him a million dollars less to do it.
Once upon a time he was the man who threw out the first manager of the season, just about, but he would keep those men on his payroll, paying out their contracts, or rehiring them as pricey enough scouts, perhaps cynically enough to keep them around just in case he needed a new manager in, oh, a few weeks, but perhaps out of an unusual and to some bizarre notion of compassion.
He probably knew about as much about the game on the field as the average Congressman knows about organic chemistry and imposed unconscionable pressure on the men who played the game in his uniform. There were reasons why it was possible to experience misery while earning millions during some of the Steinbrenner Yankees' more extraterrestrial periods.
And Steinbrenner himself had a little Charlie Finley in him, when he discovered Dave Winfield's then-record deal included a cost-of-living escalator that inflated the contract value and drove Steinbrenner to beat Winfield by any means possible, including paying for dirt from a small-time gambler once tied to Winfield's charitable foundation and getting himself a lifetime ban (of course, he was reinstated in due course) for his trouble.
(I have never forgotten the scene at Yankee Stadium on the day the news of a Steinbrenner ban was likely to break. The Yankees were hosting the Detroit Tigers. By then the Yankees were in ruins enough that Newsweek's cover showed a portrait of Steinbrenner and the headline: THE MOST HATED MAN IN BASEBALL. The news broke as the Tigers were coming up to hit early in the game, and Yankee fans littered the park with portable radios waiting for the news. Then, a small ovation began down the right field line, in the upper deck, and swelled slowly around the entire park as the first Tiger hitter stepped into the box. The Tigers had no clue. Even the Yankee players were taken aback.)
Yet those who are willing to do their homework and see the thing for what it was, as opposed to what the imagists made of it, will discover that any successes the Steinbrenner Yankees experienced, especially their mid-1990s renaissance, had less to do with big free agency signings than with talent either produced in the Yankee system or acquired by way of smart, old-fashioned horse trading.
(Which, unfortunately, reminds me of the Steinbrenner tirade that helped wreck a once-shining Yankee prospect, Ken Clay, who spent most of 1979 not knowing what his role would be, and pitching with according inconsistency, until he got strafed in a late-season start after getting an early five-run lead to work with, which sent Steinbrenner right to the ceiling, from which he delivered a classic grotesquery: He's a morning glory. That's a term we use for a horse who is great in the morning workouts, who looks beautiful but can't do it in the race. The horse spits the bit, and Ken Clay has spit the bit.)
Years later, after a little uproar when the Yankees swapped a barely-tried pitcher (Ted Lilly) for a then-coveted one (Jeff Weaver), it took a Red Sox shortstop, of all people, to put the thing in perspective. "What's the fuss about?" asked Nomar Garciaparra. "There isn't a team in baseball that couldn't have made those deals if they wanted to."
There still isn't.
Oh. By the way. Ever since Seitz torpedoed the reserve clause once and for all, in the Messersmith-McNally case one year after Catfish Hunter was awarded his free agency, baseball---the sport without the salary cap that it simply must have to restore true competitive balance, don't you know---has had better competitive balance than it ever experienced during the reserve area. Prior to 1976, sixteen teams won the first 73 World Series. From 1976 to the present, twenty teams have won the past 33 World Series.
Omnipotent though you believed he thought himself to be, those were points Steinbrenner never could hammer into the game's thick skulls. Even while those thick skulls helped themselves gladly to all that Yankee luxury tax money, without half the Yankees' intention of investing it, God help them, in their team.
Steinbrenner's best was often miscomprehended or mistranslated, and his worst was often exaggerated enough. It must have been one of his most genuinely humbling experiences, in a life during which any humbling seemed quiet and away from the hurricane's eye, to know that the truth was neither bad enough nor good enough for most people.
There were exceptions. My favourite: When my Red Sox upended the Yankees so stupefyingly in 2004 (down to the last out and on the threshold of being swept out of the ALCS in four straight, then the Theft Heard 'Round the World and the four-straight pennant overthrow), there were those Yankee personnel hectoring Steinbrenner to get those unbearable Red Sox and their Nation's representatives the hell out of the sacred ballpark with their celebrating and partying.
"No," Steinbrenner is said to have replied tersely. "They earned it. Let them have their fun."
Say what you will about the man and his mythology, but that was class.
so Yankees ownership passes to ??????????????????????
His sons, I believe.
As always ...beautifully written BD!
It’s been a rough week for the Yankees. First, Bob Sheppard, a/k/a, “The Voice of God” dies. Then Big George, a/k/a, the brain behind the entire organization dies.
Thanks for sharing. I’ve been a Yankee fan since 1960. Sorta tough having lived all my life in Texas.
Mr. Steinbrenner rescued the Yankees. Thanks.
BTW, there is no Federal death tax this year. He couldnt have timed it better.
Nice post. As a lifetime Orioles fan I always hated him but if I was Yankees trash I’d love him and miss him. In any case, a helluva great New Yorker.
Thank you George for all you did for the Yankees & NYC, rest in peace. 7 of those 27 World Championships are yours
Breaking: For the first time in almost two decades, the National League has won the All-Star Game. 3-1. Brian McCann: Three-run double in the seventh. American League had a 1-0 lead until McCann teed off.
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