Tuesday, July 13, 2010

George Steinbrenner (1930-2010)


George vs. George: On HuffPost, Dan Abramson has assembled "George Steinbrenner on 'Seinfeld': The Funniest Moments.'" (History records that then-Yankees manager Buck Showalter hadn't been fired as of when this episode was made. As the TV "Boss" intimates here, though, it was just a matter of time.)

by Ken

For a lot of years, if anyone had told me that the day George Steinbrenner died would be no big deal, I would have been incredulous. For the tempestuous first 10 or 15 years of his tenure as principal owner of the New York Yankees, George -- "the Boss" -- was the man Yankee fans loved to hate, for his bullying imperiousness and his infernal interference with the professional baseball people he had hired to run the team.

Moreover, it seemed clear that George was of that bullying personality type most of us have encountered so unpleasantly in our real lives, the kind who blustered and screamed at and humiliated the people who worked for him, and seemed actually to enjoy having the power to make, say, secretaries cry. (Of course it takes a pretty clueless mogul to think there's some great accomplishment in terrorizing powerless underlings, but it's a personality type that's more common than many people realize.)

Things change, though, and I think most of us have long since made our peace with George. He didn't always, or even often, get it right on the first try, or necessarily on the second or third or fourth, but he was capable of learning -- about baseball, about New York, about his own place in the cosmos. And he not only made the Yankees competitive, but he actually sold his sport, a job that few other baseball owners can be troubled to take on.

Within hours of the announcement of George's death, you could find online links to comments (here, for example) by seemingly everyone who ever had contact with him. The one name that caught my eye was ESPN's Buster Olney, the best baseball beat writer I'm aware of the NYT ever employing, who covered the Yankees for four years in the '90s, and spoke to ESPN Radio about the differences between the Boss he knew and the man he heard all those stories about from the '80s, and also about George's contribution, not just to the Yankees, but to baseball.

There's understandable resentment around the baseball world about the way the Yankees spend money. Hey, it gets fatiguing for us here in New York too, and you wish the team would go back to other ways of making the product on the field competitive -- the rest of the baseball world likes to forget how much of the last great Yankee teams was built on home-grown talent. And loudmouth idiots in the rest of the baseball world manage to ignore how much money the Yankees pour into other teams' coffers; most everywhere they play, they're the biggest draw the home team has, putting fans in the seats whom the local ownerships have no other way of getting there.

Even in the matter of free spending, the rest of the country likes to play dumb (they are just playing, right?) when it comes to the dimension of what the Yankees have achieved commercially. The fact is that the great old Yankee teams of history rarely drew a lot of fans -- it just doesn't seem to have mattered much to the franchise. But George developed the Yankees into an attendance machine. (You can see the numbers here.)

And what the country's Yankee-haters manage not to consider is the dimension of the selling problem a New York sports franchise faces. Sure, this is a "big market." But the competition for local entertainment dollars is several orders of magnitude fiercer than in even the other big markets, let alone the small ones. Not only that, but attendancewise the Yankees are competing with themselves. With the exception of a few games each season that fall into network cracks, every single Yankee game is on television -- and Yankee telecasts are also orders of magnitude better than anything I've seen from anywhere else in the country, not just in technical quality (which money can buy) but in the competence and outspoken frankness of the announcers (money is often used to buy the exact opposite).

Not that George grasped all of these things all at once. For example, he spent a lot of years bitching and moaning that he was afflicted with an antique stadium in ferchrissakes the South Bronx -- without any damn luxury boxes, and in the damn Bronx. He pulled every damn crony string he could to get himself a shiny new stadium somewhere else, maybe anywhere else. He talked to Jersey people. He had Rudy Giuliani trying to hustle him a Midtown Manhattan stadium. In his desperation to escape the Bronx, he all but double-dog-dared Yankees fans to show up in the Bronx. And when attendance crossed the 2 million mark, he kind of had to shut up. Eventually he did get his new stadium, luxury boxes and all, right across the street from the old Stadium, right there in the South Bronx.

Like I said, George was capable of learning.

Thank goodness, while he was still able, he made peace with Yogi Berra. The old George seemed genuinely incapable of understanding how deeply he had hurt Yogi by firing him as manager near the start of a season he had said Yogi would manage all the way through, win or lose, and especially by not doing it himself. Yogi vowed that he wouldn't set foot in Yankee Stadium again while George ran the show, and how hard this must have been for him became clear after the rapprochement, when suddenly it seemed you couldn't keep Yogi away from the Stadium, which is as it should be. Yogi is the beating heart of the Yankees.

And then came George's decline, physical and mental. It's a horrible thing -- horrible to experience, obviously, but pretty horrible to watch, all the more so in George's case when so much of the animus of previous years had dissolved. The Steinbrenner family and the Yankees have been pretty close-mouthed about the extent of that decline, and with his having been kept mostly out of view for years now, it seems safe to assume that the direst rumors about how far gone he was weren't far from the mark. There's something almost scary about seeing someone who had been that controlling, that autocratic, so reduced by time.

All the obituaries are recalling, and rightly so, the weird and wonderful version of George Steinbrenner that Larry David created for Seinfeld (with David providing the voice himself, while actor Lee Bear, always photographed from behind, flailed away) during the time when George Costanza (Jason Alexander) was employed as assistant to the traveling secretary of the Yankees. It wasn't the tyrannical Steinbrenner, although there was never any question about the Seinfeld Steinbrenner's dictatorial powers. It was a rather addled, borderline-ADD dictator, who could fixate on such arrant nonsense as the famous calzones.

But what I remember best about George's (George Steinbrenner's, that is) Seinfeld career is that George himself professed to love it. While it's true that the character soft-pedaled some of his less attractive qualities, it can hardly be said to have been a flattering portrait. But suddenly George found himself a hero to his grandchildren! I remember the late Lloyd Bridges saying something similar -- and some of his grandchildren had pretty famous dads, who probably didn't much impress them either, never mind old Gramps, until he turned up on Seinfeld as that old crackpot Izzy Mandelbaum. If no man is a hero to his valet, the grandkids can be a pretty tough audience too.

So George is gone. I don't even know what to say.

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