Abusive, cruel, philanthropist, loyal, disloyal, good samaritan, phony, vengeful, manipulative, vindictive, delusional, a guy with a heart of gold, a real giver, financial deadbeat, bully, kind-hearted... Tampa Bay's most famous resident, George Steinbrenner, has probably been called all these things and more at one time or another, but rarely have so many conflicting characterizations appeared in the space of one book. Now they have -- in George: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built The Yankee Empire, the laugh-out-loud biography by St. Petersburg author Peter Golenbock.
Golenbock's prior written collaborations with Yankee greats Billy Martin, Graig Nettles and Sparky Lyle provide him unique historical background on Steinbrenner and the 36-year-long Yankee soap opera. In fact, Lyle has been quoted as saying that his intense dislike for Steinbrenner was the "inspiration" for his collaboration with Golenbock on the 1979 bestselling book The Bronx Zoo.
Without George Steinbrenner there would be no A-Rod, no Jeter, and Vinny LeCavalier would be working in the off-season painting houses to make ends meet. But was he a brilliant tactician who carefully plotted his ascent in pro sports? Hardly. But he was a good showman, and it is this quality -- combined with an inability to envision failure and a penchant for suspending rules and reality -- that Golenbock says was the real reason he was able to build the most valuable sports franchise in the world, becoming a cultural icon in the process (not to mention a running joke on Seinfeld).
Steinbrenner's middle name is Michael, but Machiavelli might have been more appropriate. Among the revelations in the book: he once sold stock owned by his wife without her knowledge to keep his minor league basketball team afloat. At the time Joan Steinbrenner had begun divorce proceedings against George. The divorce filing was later rescinded and they remain married today.
That's not to say that Steinbrenner doesn't have a good heart when it comes to those less fortunate. Stories abound in the last chapter of the book about the softer side of George, whether he's paying for a poor kid's college tuition, helping the families of fallen police officers in Tampa and NYC, or rebuilding a ball field in a poor neighborhood.
But then again, he may be the only convicted (if later pardoned) felon to have a high school named in his honor. Golenbock recounts Steinbrenner's participation in the Watergate scandal -- the only time other than his two suspensions from baseball when the music finally stopped for George and there was no one left to clean up his mess. But even after pleading guilty to two felonies for funneling thousands of dollars to Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President -- better known as CREEP -- George didn't serve a day in jail: Reagan pardoned him in 1989. Heck, a guy who jumps the turnstile at Yankee Stadium would receive a harsher punishment.
Some of the funniest stories in the book come from Steinbrenner's days in Cleveland before he acquired the Yankees. It was no stroke of luck that young George avoided the cold and bullets of Korea and instead wound up running the sports program at an Ohio military base just miles from his family home. According to Golenbock, George's special treatment was the direct result of a deal his father cut with the Air Force. But George being George almost killed the deal. He complained that the lights on the ball fields were substandard and attempted to get them replaced by the Army, but was told no money was available. So George went ahead and ordered the lights anyway while his base commander was away in Washington, telling the lighting company that he would pay for them if the Army didn't. When the commander returned from his trip, he was surprised to find the base lit up like Runway 22R at JFK. Of course, Henry Steinbrenner came to his son's rescue and the Air Force paid for the lights.
Steinbrenner's toughest critic in the book is cable executive Leo Hindery, who created the YES network for Steinbrenner. The YES Network, which telecasts Yankee games and programming, is valued at over $2 billion. It ensures that the Yankees will continue to be able to afford high-priced free agents for the foreseeable future. Hindrey lets George have it with both barrels, including telling Golenbock that Steinbrenner's daughters are the brains of the family, but that George will never allow women to run the team, and that the minority owners, who own 40 percent of the Yankees, haven't made a nickel in 30 years due to Steinbrenner's profligate spending on players and his family.
Many interesting personal tidbits come to light in this book. Among them:
• Steinbrenner was raised a Christian Scientist.
• He made up a story that he played pro football for the NY Giants in an effort to land a college football coaching job after graduating from Williams.
• He didn't really understand the rules of baseball when he first became the Yankee owner, as evidenced by his tirade against a scorekeeper who failed to award the Yankees a run on a play where the third out was made.
• He stormed the field during a Hillsborough Community College baseball game at the Yankees complex, threatening to stop the game because the Yankee groundskeeper had the HCC team play on the wrong field. (Yes, a greenskeeper was fired.)
• He announced that Yankees manager Dick Howser, who had won 103 games the prior season, was stepping down to take advantage of a lucrative real estate opportunity in Florida. Howser's lucrative real estate opportunity turned out to be George paying off his home mortgage in exchange for his resignation.
• And Golenbock puts into print what most people have been whispering for the past five years -- that Steinbrenner is suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
This book confirms two things.
There is only one George Steinbrenner. And the world would be a lot less entertaining without him.
Scott Farrell hosts The Farrell Files on the 10Connects Morning News. He's also a contributor to Wayne Garcia's Creative Loafing blog, The Political Whore.
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