From the August 15, 1977 issue of New York Magazine.
You cannot understand what it is about George Steinbrenner, and what he has done to the New York Yankees, unless you keep one fact clearly and unswervingly in the forefront of your mind:
George Steinbrenner comes from Cleveland.
It is really too bad for the city of Cleveland, which has been fighting its image as a benighted city of the bush league, but Steinbrenner is so visibly, unavoidably no-class. Were the president of Cleveland's chamber of commerce to come courting in New York with armloads of statistics and photographs from his city, he would take one look at Steinbrenner's performance here and grab the first flight home. How could anyone believe anything ennobling about Cleveland after they'd watched Steinbrenner shred that most enduring trait of the Yankees: the quality of class?
Of course, it's not fair to Cleveland. But is it fair to us to have the Yankees in the hands of George Steinbrenner? For decades we endured the hatred and envy of the baseball world as the Yankees ruled the game, the symbol of power tempered by grace. Now, after twelve years of bitter defeats, now, after a pennant last year and a team with the talent to conquer again, we have been afflicted with an owner who seems to have been installed by a coalition of out-of-towners and unreconciled Giant and Dodger fans to torture us with his homilies, his commandments, and his pettiness.
It is the ultimate irony: a big-league team in a big-league town in the hands of a bush-league owner.
How has George Steinbrenner so far thoroughly bluffed the Apple? He's used a mixture of big money, generously applied—and an inordinate amount of luck. The money started to flow when Catfish Hunter was declared a free agent and the Yankees picked him up in 1975; it poured out in a torrent for Reggie Jackson and Don Gullett this year. (Never mind that the Yankees won last year with a sore-armed Hunter and without Jackson and Gullett; never mind that it was players named Munson and Randolph and Rivers and Nettles and White and Lyle who brought home the first pennant for the Yankees since 1964; the money helped dazzle Yankee fans into dreams of a certain World Series title.) The luck was that Steinbrenner was working in the same town as those other clumsy management figures, namely Roy Boe of the New York Nets and M. Donald Grant of the New York Mets.
The ineptness of Boe and Grant was so openly avaricious, so guaranteed to alienate the New York sports fan, that Steinbrenner has until now gotten away with murder. New Yorkers were disappointed in the four-game collapse of the Yankees in the 1976 World Series, but they were outraged when Boe sold Julius Erving, the most exciting player in basketball, to Philadelphia just before the start of the Nets' first season in the NBA. The sluggish Yankee start this year caused rumblings among the fans, but the rumble was drowned out by the fury over M. Donald Grant's sale of Met star Tom Seaver. And just within the last two weeks, as the Steinbrenner-Gabe Paul-Billy Martin dispute was peaking, Net owner Boe dropped his latest bomb: His team was leaving for the sweeter, subsidized pastures of the Meadowlands in New Jersey.
Without the bumbling of Boe and Grant, New Yorkers might have had a few more questions for the man who has dealt away not a Yankee player or franchise, but something called Class. They might have had a few questions about an owner who has made a Yankee fan like myself, who first rooted for the team at Yankee Stadium in 1949, who stood fast through the dynasty and through the collapse a decade ago, almost ashamed to be rooting for his own team during what could have been a magnificent three-way race for the Eastern Division title. They might have asked about Steinbrenner's ideas about what makes a team win, or how you show loyalty to fans, or what the New York Yankees are all about.
They might have wondered, for example, how Steinbrenner has managed to become the moral arbiter for manager Billy Martin, setting down, as a condition for Martin's retaining his job, that he be "honorable." Steinbrenner's own highly developed sense of honor did not prevent him from contributing thousands in illegal funds to Richard Nixon's 1972 presidential campaign (Steinbrenner claimed he was the victim of political pressure).
They might have gotten a lot angrier than they did about the Great Yankee Ticket Fix of 1977. One of the pleasures of baseball is that, because there are 81 home games in arenas that seat anywhere from 40,000 to 75,000, ticket prices can be kept low. It will cost you at least $7.50 to watch a football game in New York, and you can't get into a Knick or Ranger game at the Garden for less than $4. But a buck and a half would get you into a decent upper-deck seat at Yankee or Shea Stadium, and if you got there early enough, you could even get a seat behind home plate where the game spreads out in front of you like a movable feast.