Here’s another name to toss into the hopper as we ponder the memory of the late George Steinbrenner III. One of those missing from this morning’s massive obits is Patrick Cunningham, the former Bronx Democratic chief who played as big a role as Reggie Jackson in making Steinbrenner’s career on River Avenue such an enormous success over the decades.
Cunningham, who eventually went to prison on tax evasion charges, was signed up to play on Steinbrenner’s team in 1974 soon after the shipbuilding millionaire from Cleveland bought the club. The last Irish political boss of the Bronx, Cunningham was then doing his best to keep power out of the hands of the borough’s growing black and Latino majority. Steinbrenner, recognizing that having an inside political fixer on the payroll was just as crucial as great starting pitching, made Cunningham his general counsel.
One of the savvy pol’s first assists was guiding the $100 million, city-financed, renovation of the old Yankee Stadium. The original plan called for a $2 million fix up for the beleaguered south Bronx neighborhood where Steinbrenner was a tenant. That money disappeared when City Hall said the city’s fiscal crisis was too enormous to permit it. The allotment was pared down to a mere $300,000. But Cunningham, a close ally of then mayor Abe Beame, was so good at winning favors for Steinbrenner that he got city officials to snatch even that chump change and give it to the Yankees. George used $215,000 of it to buy a tarpaulin to cover the field; another $65,000 went for security devices; $14,000 for the giant new scoreboard, while $7Gs went for either terrazzo tile or new carpet for the team’s offices.
That tale was told by the Times‘s Martin Waldron back in December, 1975 in a story hedded “Yanks get Windfall as City Shifts Plans.” Waldron talked to city officials who explained to him how this worked:
“Several upper-echelon city officials said privately that the new Yankee Stadium project was viewed as being politically blessed and had the highest priority of any city project. ‘It doesn’t hurt that Pat Cunningham is involved,’ said one such official.”
Cunningham was such a vital cog in the Yankees machine that when Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball following his 1975 conviction for giving illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, he made Cunningham acting general partner. As such, he got to sign the contract that made Catfish Hunter a Yankee.
After Cunningham’s own legal troubles forced him out of the picture, Steinbrenner switched to using other local political fixers, including Stanley Friedman (also later convicted, in his case for bribery), and the team’s current political emissary, the much-investigated Stanley Schlein. Those are some of the other members of the Yankees team put together by that the late great Steinbrenner.