Slowly, almost imperceptibly, George Steinbrenner’s image has softened over the last few years. Two recent biographies, Peter Golenbock’s George — The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built The Yankee Empire (from Wiley, published last year and out now in paperback) and Bill Madden’s Steinbrenner, The Last Lion of Baseball (from Harper this spring) offer more (shall we say) nuanced views of the man who bullied his employees, harassed his players, fired his managers faster than the trading card companies could keep up (including Yogi Berra just 16 games into the 1984 season), and was banned for life from baseball for connections to known gambler Howie Spira (“life” turned out to be two years).
On the other hand, as both Golenbock and Madden make clear, Steinbrenner, unlike many major league owners, ungrudgingly paid top dollar for the best talent, often apologized to those he had publicly humiliated (including, eventually, Yogi, albeit 14 years late), and usually hired them back again. Most of all, he never hesitated to channel the enormous Yankee revenues back into the team — he didn’t always make the right free agent decisions, but he never stopped trying.
Monday was Steinbrenner’s 80th birthday and in Monday’s Daily News, Filip Bondy reflected, fairly and accurately I think, “We watch the games now and recognize there is a big, bellowing voice missing from the ultimate color commentator and final word on the Yankees. We miss The Boss more than we ever thought possible. We crave the craziness. Not the cruelty for sure. But the downright whacky stuff that both lifted and lowered this franchise from mere sports story into the realm of Broadway theater.”
Madden made an even more provocative statement in Sunday’s Daily News: If the old Steinbrenner and not the new James Dolan were in charge of the Knicks, LeBron would soon be wearing blue and orange. Here’s Madden’s fictional pitch to LeBron: “I understand your feeling of allegiance to Cleveland, LeBron. I started out here, too. But look what New York did for me. You know what the song says — Frank’s song, not Jay-Z’s … Well, I’m proof positive of that. I was just another businessman ship builder in Cleveland, but when I came to New York after buying the Yankees and restored their greatness, not once but twice, I became one of the most recognizable people in the entire world. That’s the difference between winning in Cleveland or Chicago and winning in New York.”
Also in Saturday’s Daily News, Mike Lupica put the difference between the Yankees owner and the Knicks owner in bas-relief: “LeBron James is known as The King. You know who really thinks he’s the real king here, despite all evidence to the contrary, all evidence making him out to actually be a court jester of sports for all times?
“James L. Dolan does.”
The Knicks owner, writes Lupica, “fancies himself a master of the universe despite his chronic incompetence as an owner, almost epic incompetence …”
When you’re right, Mike, you’re right. And that’s why LeBron James won’t be coming to New York, and why George Steinbrenner, as he eases into a mellow old age, looks better and better every year.