Commentary

The man, the myth, and always The Boss

The reign of King George Steinbrenner, who turns 80 on Sunday, is the stuff of legend

Updated: July 4, 2010, 12:26 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

George Steinbrenner turns 80 on the Fourth of July, which creates a little predicament: What do you give a man who's done or been called nearly everything? Long before anyone thought of slapping the nickname "The King" on Steinbrenner's fellow Ohioan LeBron James, let alone wooing James to come to New York, Steinbrenner had already been called King George, The Boss, The Fuhrer, the ruler of baseball's Evil Empire, and "an overbearing, arbitrary, arrogant SOB."

The last line is an old quote from Steinbrenner's close friend, C.L. Smythe, who added: "I love the guy!"

Steinbrenner has an irresistible pull, all right. Whether you loved him or hated him before he ceded the day-to-day running of the Yankees to his two sons in 2008, Steinbrenner always made you look. He's been a true original.

In his heyday, before health concerns forced him to slip offstage, Steinbrenner was perhaps the most voluble mouth in sports since Muhammad Ali. Given he's celebrating a milestone birthday Sunday, a quick rundown of what you may have liked, forgotten or never known about Steinbrenner and his 37 years as Yankees owner seems appropriate:

HE'S A THROWBACK BOSS, ALL RIGHT: It isn't just the way they still play Kate Smith's "God Bless America" at Yankee Stadium today, or Steinbrenner's military-style grooming policy for players. The late Cardinals announcer Jack Buck once quipped that he had seen Steinbrenner's personal yacht and, "It was a beautiful thing to observe, all 36 oars working in unison."

AT LEAST YOU KNEW WHERE YOU STOOD: Former Yankees general manager Bob Watson once said this about working for Steinbrenner: "If things go right, they're his team. If things go wrong, they're your team."

WHO ELSE IN BASEBALL INSPIRED A TROVE OF SECRET TAPE RECORDINGS? One of the more fascinating revelations in "The Last Lion of Baseball," New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden's new best-selling biography about Steinbrenner, is Steinbrenner's first general manager, Gabe Paul, used to come home from work, pour himself a scotch, then unload into a tape recorder about his boss. (Been there, done that, right?)

[+] EnlargeGeorge Steinbrenner and Gabe Paul
AP Photo/Preston StroupGabe Paul, right, had a lot to say about his boss. If you worked for George Steinbrenner, you'd probably need to vent a little, too.

Paul's son, Gabe Jr., found the tapes in the garage along with a diary his father kept, and he allowed Madden to listen to some of them, which provided an invaluable look at the early years after Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973.

The takeaway: Yes, Steinbrenner was always unpredictable and ruthlessly driven to win, dominate, succeed.

AND TANTRUMS? YOU WANT TANTRUMS?: Madden writes that in 1978, when Al Rosen, the Yankees' president, lost the coin flip to the Red Sox to host the American League sudden-death playoff game, Steinbrenner became enraged at the side of the coin Rosen chose. "'Heads?' Steinbrenner screamed at Rosen over the phone. 'You imbecile! How in the hell could you call heads when any dummy knows tails come up 70 percent of the time? I can't believe it!'"

You can't make this stuff up.

After reading that, aren't you dying to know what else is on those recordings? Don't you think the entire unabridged Paul tapes -- all gazillion hours of them -- should just be put up on iTunes as a book on tape or a podcast or something? Billy Crystal could narrate. Maybe Cooperstown could set up a side room with a bank of headphones and a slide show. This is history, people. Are you with me, or what?

[+] EnlargeGeorge Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, and Lou Piniella
AP Photo/Bill CookeNobody hired and fired managers like King George.

GEORGE DOES HAVE A GOOD SIDE: Steinbrenner has always been a snare of contradictions. He changed managers 23 times in his first 20 seasons but he's also kept friends and down-on-their-luck baseball men on the Yankees' payroll for years. He was convicted of a felony for illegally giving money to CREEP, Richard Nixon's Watergate-era Committee to Re-Elect the President, but he's also poured money into patriotic causes like the U.S. Olympic team and quietly funneled millions to other charities.

He's an only son who was shipped off to a military boarding school at 13 and never stopped longing for the respect of his own impossible-to-please father, then later took personal interest in wayward Yankees players from Doc Gooden to Darryl Strawberry, Gary Sheffield to David Wells.

You have to give Steinbrenner this: His urgency lifted and drove the entire Yankees organization. His willingness to pour more than a billion back into the payroll made the Yankees perennial winners. At times he could be the best owner in sports.

IT HELPED THAT STEINBRENNER COULD LAUGH AT HIMSELF, TOO: Remember when he criticized Derek Jeter for partying too much around town, then turned up in that credit card commercial spoofing the whole blowup? Ever see the 1990 "Saturday Night Live" show Steinbrenner hosted, and the skit where he starred in a parody of a Slim-Fast commercial with fellow dictators Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein? What do you make of the fact that Steinbrenner was a regular at the Tampa Armory pro wrestling cards in the 1970s and 1980s and he wrote the foreword of the 2005 Dusty Rhodes autobiography? Was at least some of the bluster and fight-mongering just play-acting for Steinbrenner, too?

[+] EnlargeGeorge Steinbrenner
AP Photo/Dave CantorThe Boss aimed to build the Bombers to reflect the Big Apple: tough, gritty and full of fight.

After returning from his second ban from baseball for trying to buy dirt on Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield from gambler Howie Spira, Steinbrenner didn't tiptoe back in. Oh no. He posed for a Sports Illustrated cover sitting atop a white horse, wearing a gold-buttoned military uniform and a Napoleonic hat with an ostrich feather. He had one hand tucked inside the coat. The imperious look on his face is priceless.

STEINBRENNER FITS NEW YORK: He grew up in Cleveland and spent most of his life in Tampa, but Steinbrenner has always said he liked New Yorkers and the push and pull of life here. He has claimed it even shaped the kind of Yankees teams he liked to field. "New Yorkers are strong people," Steinbrenner once said. "They've got to fight in the morning to get a cab. They go to a lunch place at noon, they gotta fight to get a table or a stool off the counter. You have to give the city a team that's filled with battlers."

He's never apologized for hoarding big-name stars, either, because "you measure the value of a ballplayer by how many fannies he puts in the seats."

On Thursday, Steinbrenner's PR man issued a statement about Steinbrenner's 80th birthday. Steinbrenner thanked some family and friends for the party they threw him late this week, and he added he may spend part of Sunday night watching a fireworks display somewhere in Tampa. Reading it was like feeling the passage of time rushing by. Remember when Steinbrenner himself used to be the fireworks display?

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

More from ESPNNewYork.com »

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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