Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball by Bill Madden
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There has rarely been a dull moment in New York since George Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees from CBS in 1973. The Boss demanded a winner and was willing to pay for one, but his hair-trigger moves often backfired. Even when the club flopped—perhaps, especially when it did so—there was plenty of room for the Bombers on the back pages of New York’s newspapers.
Veteran sportswriter Bill Madden, who was honored with the Baseball Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award earlier this year, was there for most of the era, having started with the New York Daily News in 1978. Despite a falling out after Steinbrenner fed him a lie during his attempt to justify the 1988 firing of manager Lou Piniella, Madden generally enjoyed a comfortable working relationship with the Boss. Their history, along with the writer’s access to countless current and former club employees, enabled Madden to paint an insider’s portrait of life in the chaotic front office under the mercurial Yankee owner in “Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball.” The book was released in May, just two months prior to Steinbrenner’s death.
Madden supplemented his first-hand accounts and interviews with tape-recorded notes left by Gabe Paul, who helped broker Steinbrenner’s purchase of the team and served as team president from 1973-77. Paul’s audio diary was discovered years later when his sons were cleaning out the garage. It proved to be a gold mine for Madden, allowing him to see the early years through the eyes of the baseball man who had pieced together the roster that won three American League pennants and two World Series from 1976-78.
Despite the new owner’s claims that he would be too busy with his ship-building company to involve himself with day-to-day Yankee business, Paul quickly learned there was no matter too small for Steinbrenner to stick his thumb into. Fortunately for Paul and the rest of the front office, a 1974 indictment for making illegal corporate contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign kept Steinbrenner distracted for a great deal of time. When he finally pled guilty to one felony count and one misdemeanor, he wound up facing a stiffer sentence from Commissioner Bowie Kuhn than he received from the government—a two-year ban.
It will surprise no one to learn that Steinbrenner stayed involved with team matters during that suspension. It was during this time that the team handed Catfish Hunter baseball’s first seven-figure deal, giving him $3.35 million to play for New York for five years. The signing was an indication of just how deep Steinbrenner was willing to dig to put a winner on the field again. Of course, two years later he made another huge splash, luring free agent Reggie Jackson to the Big Apple.
Steinbrenner’s three-way clashes with Reggie and manager Billy Martin have been well documented over the years. Madden details them here, as well as numerous other dysfunctional relationships between the owner and his subordinates.
Paul finally hit his breaking point in 1977, after capturing his first title as an executive. His departure opened the door for Al Rosen, an associate of Steinbrenner from back in his days in Cleveland. It didn’t take long for him to learn that working for the Yankees was unlike working for any other team. When he went home over what he thought was the Christmas break to pack up his house for the move to New York, an angry Steinbrenner called him and ordered him back to the office, where he sat for the next five days swapping stories with general manager Cedric Tallis, who had likewise been summoned.
Yankee PR man Rob Butcher made the mistake of going home to Ohio to celebrate Christmas with his family in 1995. When the club had an announcement to make regarding the re-signing of righthander David Cone and Butcher was nowhere to be found, Steinbrenner fired him, earning the ire of the local press. A week later, the owner called Butcher to offer him his job back. “I think you’ve learned your lesson,” he said. Butcher, who felt he hadn’t done anything that would require a lesson, declined the Boss’s offer. He was later hired in the same capacity by the Reds.
Certain men could handle working for the tyrannical owner better than others. Piniella, Martin, and Gene Michael rotated through a variety of roles, working in the front office when they weren’t taking a turn as field manager. One skipper refused to give in to Steinbrenner’s demands, costing him an opportunity to be present for the team’s glorious run in the late 1990s. When Steinbrenner ordered Buck Showalter to replace members of his coaching staff, the manager who had finally ended the team’s long postseason drought walked away.
There was more to Steinbrenner than tyranny, however. Madden strives to provide some balance, showing his lesser-known compassionate side. Touched by a 1982 news report on a slain policeman who left a wife and four small children behind, Steinbrenner formed the Silver Shield Foundation to pay for college educations for dependents of area officers killed in the line of duty. When team captain Thurman Munson died while piloting his private plane in August 1979, Steinbrenner became a true leader, marshaling the organization through one of its darkest moments. And often when he fired a staffer, he made sure they were well compensated on their way out, or found them another job within the Yankee family.
Madden’s account of Steinbrenner’s second suspension, following revelations that he had paid gambler Howie Spira $40,000 for damaging information on Dave Winfield’s charitable foundation, is somewhat sympathetic. Much of the evidence points to a vendetta by Commissioner Fay Vincent against Steinbrenner, whose deposition on the subject was altered significantly by baseball investigator John Dowd. The subsequent hearing also violated Steinbrenner’s due process rights as outlined in baseball’s rules of procedure.
Of course, Steinbrenner had the last laugh, returning to a better and stronger team in 1993 after Vincent’s ouster from the commissionership. His Yankees won four World Series in a five-year stretch, at least in part due to a leadership continuity that hadn’t been present during the first two decades of the Steinbrenner era.
Steinbrenner’s influence on the game is undeniable. Fans of other teams loved to hate him, while Yankee fans—many of whom had mixed feelings about him as recently as the early ’90s—worshipped him and mourned his passing this summer. One certainly need not root for the Yanks to enjoy Madden’s biography, however. In fact, you may appreciate some of the especially chaotic episodes even more if you pull against the club. Regardless of your viewpoint, the book is entertaining and well researched from start to finish. In a year that has brought us a wealth of notable baseball biographies, “Steinbrenner” ranks near the top.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.