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.
Last year, their first in the new, tax-payer-rebuilt Yankee Stadium, the Yankees drew just over 2 million fans. The playoffs and World Series games put an extra quarter of a million fans or so into the seats. Now the only way you can lose money owning a team that draws 2.25 million people to the ball park is by shredding money and using it as infield grass in place of Astroturf. But Steinbrenner had other notions. All winter, we were hearing of multimillion-dollar deals for Jackson and Gullett, more money for Munson and Lyle, assurances that the money was being spent to bring the world-championship title back to New York, where it belonged.
Then, at the start of the 1977 season, Yankee fans found out just whose money Steinbrenner had been planning to spend. Virtually every seat in the stadium, except for the far-off bleachers, had been turned into a reserved seat, and the price had gone from $1.50 to $4.50.
There was no notice. There was no explanation. There was not even an apology. There was no explanation of how a kid from the Yankee Stadium neighborhood of the South Bronx— which has gone conveniently ignored by the franchise that took $100 million of our money to rebuild a ball park—was supposed to be able to see this team, short of charity. It was Steinbrenner’s candy store, and the price of candy was going up. Once the story broke, the Yankee owner generously “rolled back” the price of the seats to $2.50, thus managing to make a price increase of 67 percent look like a gesture toward the fan.
“… Billy Martin was helping the Yankees win titles when Steinbrenner was dreaming of his first polyester leisure suit …”
And now there is the case of Billy Martin. Clearly the Yankee manager (as of this writing) is not blameless in the endless series of controversies that have surrounded the team. Three times before—in Texas, Detroit, and Minnesota—owners have dismissed the contentious Martin despite his on-field successes. So you have to believe that there is something in the way Billy Martin manages a team that deserves criticism.
But when you look at George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin, and ask which of them exemplifies the Yankee baseball team, there is no contest. Steinbrenner is said by the sports press to “envy” the pregame cheers Billy Martin has been getting from Yankee fans. What does he want us to do? Cheer his bank account? Billy Martin was helping the Yankees win titles when Steinbrenner was dreaming of his first polyester leisure suit. Martin was setting a World Series record for the most hits in a six-game series when Steinbrenner was playing with erector-set tax shelters. Along with coaches Yogi Berra and Elston Howard, Martin is the last unbroken link to the days of the Yankee dynasty, and his lust to manage this team has, according to newspaper reports, led him to sign a contract loaded down with covenants that deny him his severance pay if he commits such crimes as missing the team bus or failing to attend meetings called by the owner. When you sign a contract permitting the front office to take these kinds of liberties with your financial future, you want that job with your guts.
To some people, George Steinbrenner’s feud with Billy Martin may appear a simple clash of two strong wills, and given Martin’s past run-ins with the management of other teams, the explanation has a surface plausibility.
The deeper truth, however, is that Steinbrenner simply cannot abide a lack of obsequious conformity on the part of the people whose salaries he pays.
Campbell Elliott, who was for three years the president of the American Ship Building Company, describes Steinbrenner’s attitude toward those who work for him this way:
“George’s attitude is that they’re damned lucky to have a job—and if they don’t like the way he treats them, they can just get the hell out.”
As principal owner of the Yankees, Steinbrenner’s bush-league bossism is best reflected by his insistence on dress and grooming codes: no long hair, ties on all road trips, and just-so uniforms. One story has it that during one of his first on-site looks at the Yankees, Steinbrenner saw a player wearing his baseball cap backward.
“Get that man’s name,” George ordered a subaltern. It was only after the disciplinary machinery had been oiled that a Yankee veteran informed the owner, “The kid’s a catcher, George. They wear their hats backward.”
And on opening day of the 1976 season, Steinbrenner called Billy Martin in Milwaukee—reaching him in the dugout—to demand that Thurman Munson be fined for not wearing his hat when he lined up for the pregame ceremonies (Munson, playing as designated hitter that day, thought only the helmet was required). Munson, who is fed up with Steinbrenner’s capricious interference, was at last report growing a beard in hopes that the Yankee owner would trade him.
Steinbrenner’s mixture of arrogance and sentimentality (one co-worker called him a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality) was best known earlier this year when he forced Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles to back down from a contract dispute.
“I was really itching for this battle,” Steinbrenner was quoted as saying, “and I really licked their tails.” And in the next breath, “I’m just trying to make a better man of Nettles.”
But is Steinbrenner really out of line? One general manager of a troubled professional team told me that the single worst thing an owner can do is to establish a direct line of communication with a star athlete.
“Once that athlete knows he can go around the coach or the manager, that’s it,” he said. “It’s like throwing a match into an ammunition dump.”
Of course, managers are “hired to be fired,” and of course Martin must be held to account for the failure of his team to perform. But an owner has some kind of obligation to his own manager to give him, in deed as well as in word, the unquestioned authority to run that team, and to preserve the chain of command which will enable a manager to exercise his power. Yes, Billy Martin blew up at Reggie Jackson in the Yankee dugout in front of a national television audience. Yes, it was bad public relations. But when Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson goes out to the mound to relieve a pitcher, that ball is in Anderson’s hands and not one word is said. When Red Auerbach was coaching the Boston Celtics, one of the worst things a player could do was to ask Auerbach why he was being taken out of the game. Reggie Jackson was removed from that Yankee-Red Sox game for making a lazy play in a game of importance to the team. The way Martin did it may have been wrong, but his right to do it is what managing a contending team is all about—particularly when the athlete in question is paid more money than almost anyone in baseball history.
When I read of Steinbrenner’s “envy” of Billy Martin, I thought of other owners, from a different era of baseball. Once there were men who owned a baseball club not because of the glory it could bring to them but out of a love of the game. It was Phil Wrigley who would never put lights on his field, because it might disturb the neighborhood. It was Horace Stoneham who foolishly moved his team to one of the most hostile baseball climates imaginable, and who kept his team in San Francisco at the cost of losing everything, because he felt he had to live with his own judgment.
So Horace Stoneham does not own the Giants any longer, and the heirs of Wrigley may lose the Cubs because their father never constructed the kinds of elaborate tax deals to shield his estate from taxation. Somehow you know that this is the kind of thing that will never happen with George Steinbrenner. In my nightmares I see Steinbrenner gazing across the river at the Meadowlands, at those 15,000 extra seats, and in his calculations the cost to New York of losing the Yankees is never entered on the debit side of the ledger. Or else I see Yankee Stadium carved up into corporate boxes, rented out to IBM and ITT and Con Ed and American Ship Building, and I see the ordinary fan shunted out to the bleachers, where he can rent official Yankee binoculars to watch the game. I see Astroturf on the outfield where Ruth and DiMaggio and Keller and Mantle played, and a graphics-design firm replacing the pinstripes with something more relevant, more “now,” and maybe celebrity softball games with Farrah Fawcett-Majors to draw the fans that somehow aren’t going to the stadium anymore.
I have been a sports fan all of my life because for me sports is a moral holiday. The good guys are whoever I want them to be; in my case, they are always New Yorkers because this is my home by roots, birth, and choice. And when I root for a New York team, I want the right to root blindly, irrationally, without complexity or ambiguity. There is enough of those commodities in every other part of our lives: in our work, our families, our beliefs and heroes. What George Steinbrenner has done to the Yankee fan is to make us think twice before cheering the clutch hit of a Thurman Munson, the steady quality of a Chris Chambliss, the glove of a Graig Nettles, the sheer competence of a Willie Randolph or Sparky Lyle. He has, in a perverse way, accomplished what may be part of his hidden agenda: to force our attention away from the deeds on the field and toward the hands that hold the dollars. Perhaps there is comfort for him in that achievement; there is little for those of us who just want the chance to make fools of ourselves again on behalf of a baseball team.
Steinbrenner & Watergate
While Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to a felony and to a misdemeanor involving illegal contributions from American Ship Building Company to Nixon’s 1972 election campaign, charges made to the Senate Watergate Committee and the grand jury were broader. Allegations by Am-Ship employees and by special-prosecutor lawyers include:
• An attempted cover-up of a scheme to contribute funds through “bonuses” to loyal employees, specifically by destroying the list of those employees that had been drawn up as early as 1970.
• Attempts by Steinbrenner to convince colleagues to adopt his own “recollections” of the scheme.
• Obtaining back-dated statements asserting that employees’ contributions to the Nixon fund were purely voluntary.
• A meeting between Steinbrenner and Maurice Stans, CREEP finance chairman, at which time Steinbrenner sought to get his brother-in-law, Jacob Kamm, named ambassador to Denmark.
• An abortive attempt to use expense vouchers to cover up a contribution to Senator Daniel Inouye in 1973, when Inouye was a member of the Watergate Committee.
Steinbrenner was fined the enormous sum of $15,000, roughly equivalent to fining you or me the price of a hamburger. Without a sympathetic judge and a skilled lawyer, the Yankee owner might have been wearing his own set of pinstripes, courtesy of the federal government.
And George may be in new trouble. The Justice Department revealed in late June of this year that it was investigating American Ship Building to see whether fraudulent bills were submitted for labor and materials in connection with government contracts running into millions of dollars. —J.G.