“What does it matter what you say about someone?” Marlene Dietrich says about Orson Welles at the end of Touch Of Evil. What, indeed? Except that now, at the end, we should say a few things about George Steinbrenner that even out the other things we remember all too well: the ridiculous outbursts of temper directed at his own players, the foolish and disruptive serial firing of managers (most egregiously, that of Yogi Berra), the despicable association with gambler Howie Spira to get dirt on Dave Winfield…Stop me if you’ve heard them.
To paraphrase Dietrich’s other famous line in the movie about Welles’s character, he was a great owner but a lousy boss.
Before we close the book, let’s recall a few things. He never gave up on players and gave some of them second and even third chances when no one else would. Darryl Strawberry, for instance, who called him “the father I never had.” Are we really justified in snickering at a statement like that?
Here’s another eye-opening testimony from this morning’s media coverage: Dave Winfield — yes, that Dave Winfield — told ESPN, “We made up. At the end, I have to say, I regarded him as a friend.”
And here’s still another: Yogi Berra, a man who held no other known grudges, refused to have anything to do with the Yankees for 14 years after Steinbrenner fired him just 16 games into the 1985 season. It was George who made the first move to reconciliation with Yogi. When he drove out to the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University in 1999 to apologize, Yogi met him at the front door, tapped his watch, and said with a grin, “You’re 15 minutes late.” “Yogi,” George is reputed to have said, “I’m 14 years late.” Well, better late than never, which is the time that many fabulously wealthy people admit to their mistakes.
In 1983, I was in the office of the legendary Grambling University football coach Eddie Robinson doing a story for Sport magazine. I noticed three autographed photos on the Coach’s wall. The first two — Jackie Robinson and Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant — didn’t surprise me. The third did: It was George Steinbrenner. It turned out that George had saved the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Urban League Classic at Yankee Stadium, which over the years has raised more than $21 million for scholarships for nearly 4,100 students. The man who first brought the game to Yankee Stadium was team president Mike Burke, but in 1976, when the Urban League’s strained finances prevented them from underwriting the game, Robinson, through Howard Cosell, put in a plea to Steinbrenner, who provided financial backing for the game and continued to do so even after the game was shifted to Giants Stadium in 1987.
Since this was barely covered in the New York press, let’s let the late Coach Robinson have the final word through his 1999 biography, Never Before, Never Again, for which George wrote the foreword. “I fell in love with George Steinbrenner in 1976, and love him even more today…His generosity to Grambling has been remarkable…No one really knows these things about him. Telling about our relationship is one of the reasons I wanted to write this book in the first place. The TV people said they were so surprised when he cried in the locker room after the Yankees won the 1998 World Series. I was not. His reputation as a hard-nosed man is misplaced as far as the Robinsons and Grambling are concerned…Doris [Mrs. Robinson] and I are so lucky that he is our friend.”
To paraphrase Marlene once more, “Great owner. Lousy boss. Good friend.” That’s not a bad an epithet for any man.