Every city in the country, I suppose, has its own relationship with New York City -- you know, much the same way that every college basketball team in the old ACC had a rivalry with North Carolina. The City is just omnipresent in American life. Everyone knows about Boston's rivalry with New York and the friction between Philadelphia and New York and the long-distance relationship between Los Angeles and New York. Chicago calls itself "Second City," and while technically this is because of the way it rebuilt itself after the Great Chicago Fire, I know many people in Chicago who believe it is in some way a reference to New York and its entrenched role as the First City. Kansas City* has a chip on its shoulder about New York that goes back to before the days when the Kansas City Blues were a Yankees minor league team and before the Kansas City A's traded Roger Maris to the big city. People in towns big and small all across America have long placed their own city's charms and ease and little town blues against the madness they caught on that vacation when they saw Cats, caught the Rockettes and nearly got killed three times in cab rides through the streets.
Cleveland's relationship with New York, though, always seemed just a little bit different to me, it always seemed that of a little brother or sister who wanted to wear the same clothes. Growing up, I can remember hearing about New York every week in one way or another. Someone would mention that, for many years, the Terminal Tower was the tallest building in America* ... you know, outside of New York. Playhouse Square was (and is) the second largest performance arts center ... after Lincoln Center in New York. There's a big fashion week in Cleveland, one of the biggest in the country, probably THE biggest outside of, well, New York. The Cleveland Orchestra has always been one of the best in America, right there with the New York Philharmonic. Little Italy in Cleveland had food about as good as you could find outside of Little Italy in New York. And I cannot even tell you how many times I heard growing up that the collection in the Cleveland Museum of Art was as good as anything you might see in New York City.
Yes, the New York comparisons were all-consuming, but the weird part is I just never felt the same bitterness from Cleveland toward New York. Sure, Clevelanders hate the Yankees because, well, you HAVE to hate the Yankees, it's a law. But beyond that, Cleveland always seemed perfectly content to be sort of a little New York, to have good things that were just about New York quality, to dream about moving to New York for a business deal someday.
It's not out of character that
And it seems to me that Cleveland-New York relationship is close to the heart of the story of
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The story of King George is fascinating to me because, at the end of the day, the story goes wherever the narrator wants it to go. Do you want a hero? Do you want a scoundrel? Do you want a tyrant? Do you want a heart of gold? Steinbrenner is what you make him. He is the convicted felon who quietly gave millions to charity, the ruthless boss who made sure his childhood heroes and friends stayed on the payroll, the twice-suspended owner who drove the game into a new era, the sore loser who won a lot, the sore winner who lost plenty, the haunted son who longed for the respect of his father, the attention hound who could not tolerate losing the spotlight, the money-throwing blowhard who saved the New York Yankees and sent them into despair and saved them again (in part by staying out the way), the bully who demanded that his employees answer his every demand and the soft touch who would quietly pick up the phone and help some stranger he read about in the morning paper.
As Steinbrenner walks away from the New York Yankees -- and as rumors about his failing health grow louder -- everyone looks for his epitaph, for the few sentences that sum up his messy career. Is George Steinbrenner essentially good or bad, a Hall of Famer or a scourge on the game, a decent man who simply had to win, or a callous bully who showed a little decency in his spare time? The answer to all of that, I suspect, is "Yes."
At different times in his life, George told the most famous story about his father differently -- most often, the story goes that when George put together the consortium to buy the New York Yankees in 1973 (putting in $168,000 of his own money), Henry told the newspapers it was the "first smart thing he's ever done." At other times, though, George says it wasn't until his Yankees actually reached the World Series in 1976 that Henry said, "It's the first smart thing he's ever done." Either way, it's clear Henry did not have much regard for his son's intelligence.
And George never hid from the idea that he was just a son trying to prove his worth to his old man. That's another funny part of the story: Nobody has spent more time psychoanalyzing George Steinbrenner than ... George Steinbrenner. He has lived such a public life, and has come across so many opinions about himself ("If I believed half the things said about me, I wouldn't go home with myself," he has said), that he cannot help but develop his own theories about himself. He seems to believe that his father's hard distance is the key to his own story, the reason he has been so driven to win, the reason he has never been able to tolerate weakness or ineptness in others ? even if the weakness and ineptness were only imagined in his mind.
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First, he tried to buy the Cleveland Indians. That was in 1971, when the Indians were in so much trouble there were rumors that the team would begin playing roughly half its games in New Orleans, in a new domed stadium, beginning in 1974. Things were getting bad in Cleveland then, and Steinbrenner offered $6 million for a team that had been valued at about $8 million. Then he denied making any offer at all. Then when it looked like he would lose the bidding he brought in Cleveland Indians legend
Then, it's also true that the New York Yankees were hardly a bargain in the early 1970s. They were owned by CBS, and they were terrible in just about every way imaginable. In 1972, for the first time since the end of World War II, the Yankees drew fewer than a million fans. They had not won a pennant since '64, which was BY FAR the longest gap for the Yankees since the years before
Steinbrenner, though, saw it all differently, and I feel certain this was the Cleveland in him. He still saw the Yankees as the team he remembered from his childhood, that the Yankees were still the Yankees of DiMaggio and Ruth and Gehrig. To him, New York was still New York, it was all so glamorous and thrilling and, yes, big time. "Coming to New York was like a different world," he told the
He and his group paid $10 million for the Yankees -- though Steinbrenner has long said it was only $8.8 million because he sold some parking lots and land that came with the deal back to the city for $1.2 million -- and Steinbrenner famously said that he would stay in Cleveland and not be active in the day-to-day operations. People who knew Steinbrenner understood there was no chance of this, but nobody in New York knew Steinbrenner then. They would very soon.
The Yankees were lousy again in 1973, and before that season got going, Steinbrenner fired president
Point is that by 1974, Steinbrenner was already Steinbrenner, fully formed, fully obsessed, fully determined to be a star. "Although I was born in Cleveland, I can remember as a boy how much appeal the Yankees always had," he told
He talked about how he had seen "Pride of the Yankees" at least 15 times.
In early 1975, with Steinbrenner serving his suspension, the Yankees spent millions to sign
Well, George could not help himself. He never could help himself. "George is an overbearing, arbitrary, arrogant SOB," his longtime friend and Cleveland businessman
Steinbrenner never stopped telling people about the importance of the New York Yankees. It was that word: Importance. Steinbrenner always loved axioms, sayings, quotations, a few collected words that speak to the larger truth. He can quote a hundred of them, and in virtually every interview he will quote at least a half dozen.
And so on. Steinbrenner never tires of memorizing these quotes. It seems to be how his mind works ... he sees things as IMPORTANT and SWEEPING and SIGNIFICANT and HISTORIC. It's probably the old football coach in him -- Steinbrenner for a time was a graduate assistant under
Point is, Steinbrenner has never been much for the tedium of every day. No, he needed constant victories in his life, he needed perpetual action in his life, he needed to believe there was something momentous going on. He never saw the Yankees as a baseball team or even THE baseball team. No, he saw the Yankees as the American way of life. He expected his players to be clean shaven, he made sure patriotic songs like "Yankee Doodle Boy" were played at games, he had his legendary public address announcer,
That attitude seeped into everything. When the Yankees lost, Steinbrenner did not just see it as a loss, he saw it as an affront, a sign that someone was not living up to the Yankee Way, someone had failed the team, the city and, yes, America too. You better believe he had 16 managers from 1979 to 1995*. The Yankees weren't winning. Somebody had to pay. Somebody had to suffer. "Do your job or you will be gone," Steinbrenner said to someone pretty much every day;
Of course, at the same time Steinbrenner punished himself too. He poured his baseball profits back into the ballclub, sometimes foolishly, sometimes recklessly, but always with the unmistakable intent of winning championships and glorifying the New York Yankees (and if he got a little credit along the way, well, why not?). Sure, it is true that the Yankees made more money than any other team -- hundreds of millions per year more than some small market teams -- but Steinbrenner did not have to spend so much of it on baseball. Only he did. In the 1980s, when the Yankees were floundering, he had to get every washed up
There are different theories about how much the second suspension was responsible for the 1990s Yankees dynasty. In the late 1980s, Steinbrenner paid gambler
This is true, though I don't think it's the whole story. King George's money was still good around baseball. Plenty of multi-million dollar signings --
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There's a wonderful three-word expression that is often used when talking about George Steinbrenner. The expression is: "Nobody can deny." Think how often you heart those words put in front of a Steinbrenner trait.
I love that expression because, really, it doesn't mean anything. If nobody can deny it, why even bring it up in the first place? You wouldn't say, "Nobody can deny that the Magna Carta was issued in 1215" or "Nobody can deny that
You can deny anything when it comes to George M. Steinbrenner III -- even hard facts. That's because he really has been one of a kind. You know how at the end of certain movies the screen will go blank and then words will appear, words that tell you how the story REALLY ended up -- like at the end of Walk the Line, it said: " "John and June were married in 1968. In fall of 1969, John sold 250,000 copies of his Folsom Prison and San Quentin albums, more than any other artist including the Beatles ... John and June shared their artistry, compassion, wisdom, humor, lives and love with the entire world."
Well, what words could you put at the end of George Steinbrenner's movie? I've read a bunch of columns and stories about the man -- some which make him out to be a hero, some which make him out to be a bum, some which make him out to be a complicated character, some which make him out to be as predictable as San Diego weather. I've enjoyed all of them, because it seems to me they all have truth. He IS the
My theory is simply this: Steinbrenner is a Cleveland man who wanted to be a star. Cleveland has always been filled with those people. Steinbrenner needed parades, he needed fireworks, he needed something to be remembered by. You may know the story of