Just a few generations back, many professional teams were family-run operations that were in business for the long haul. Now there is just one (at least in baseball), and the end of an era is in sight, according to STEINBRENNER: The Last Lion of Baseball, by award-winning sports columnist Bill Madden.
There are many adjectives used to describe George Michael Steinbrenner III, principal owner and chair of the New York Yankees, and most are not complimentary. Since he took over the team in the early 1970s, there has been no shortage of fodder for the local press, including Madden, who has followed the game for the Daily News and New York Post. “Der Boss” (one of Steinbrenner’s many nicknames) was famous for a fiery temper; prior to Joe Torre’s lengthy stay as skipper, the Bronx Bombers went through 20 managerial changes between 1973 and 1995, including many repeat performances, most notably by the late Billy Martin. And that doesn’t even take into account the front office. He would order his underlings to handle a task or acquire a certain player, often disregarding the objections of those far more knowledgeable in such matters, and then explode when things didn’t work out the way he desired (and his staff expected). He would fire, then rehire, at the drop of a pin, often excusing the hasty behavior with “I didn’t really mean it” or “I’ll let it go, this time.”
Yankees fans and haters are well aware of Steinbrenner’s mercurial nature. His apologists point to his success; his enemies note the distractions and bad feelings among the team’s personnel. Forget the infamous quote from Reggie Jackson about being “the straw that stirs the drink”: that sobriquet should go to Steinbrenner. In fact, one has to wonder: does such drama like this occur on other teams (the husband-and-wife owners of the Dodgers are going through a nasty divorce, for example), or do we hear more about Steinbrenner’s antics because his team plays in the media capital of the world?
Does Steinbrenner’s megalomania come from some deep-rooted desire to both win the approval of his father --- a strict, hardworking and successful businessman --- and yet prove himself as his own man? Hard to say, although Madden certainly pushes the reader in that direction, albeit without the psychological profiling. Citing one example after another, he chronicles the Yankees chief as a bully and a liar, who could be incalculably mean and cruel, then turn around and create a foundation to make sure the orphans of New York City police and firefighters could go to college, or drop everything at the news of a friend in trouble. Madden includes the praise as well as the lash, but the former is far-between or generally underreported throughout the years; for all his penchant for being the center of attention, Steinbrenner didn’t go after the press to note his good deeds.
Madden --- who was recently named winner of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s annual Spink Award for outstanding career accomplishments as a writer --- strives to be even-handed. His role for the New York papers put him in a position to write a first-hand account, but he uses that relationship with a light hand, relying on his skills as a journalist rather than employing his personal observations. While dutifully covering Steinbrenner’s rightful banishment from the game in the 1970s because of his illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, Madden goes to great lengths to show that his subject was unfairly treated by Commissioner Fay Vincent, who kicked him out of the game in 1990 for giving $40,000 to Howard Spira, a hustler and gambler, for his role in digging up dirt on Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield, with whom Steinbrenner was feuding over financial matters. Baseball, it seems, is not a law unto itself, and even Steinbrenner has rights of due process.
Sadly, the last few years have not been kind to the Yankees’ leader. Ill health has rendered him a shell of his larger-than-life persona. Madden reports this with a mix of professional objectivity and personal sadness (after all, the two had had a working relationship and had even been fairly close at one point).
Are there elements in here that might embarrass Steinbrenner and his family? Perhaps. But as Madden relates in the introduction, he undertook the project at their suggestion. And judging by all accounts, he seems to have done a fair and balanced job.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 23, 2011