You don’t have to be a Yankees fan to read “Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball.” Any baseball fan, especially those in New York who lived through George Steinbrenner’s reign of terror in The Bronx, will likely enjoy an inside look into perhaps the most controversial owner in baseball history.
The book, written by longtime Daily News baseball writer Bill Madden, confirms what we’ve known all along — Steinbrenner was a colossal prick. I don’t like to speak ill of the dead or use foul language, but it is the word that best describes him. Many people raised their eyebrows at the glowing obituaries written after Steinbrenner died in 2010, as people seemed to forget what a tyrant he truly was and focused on his few positive attributes.
Yes, it came out later in his life that Steinbrenner was a very generous man, giving millions to charities and to people in need. And yes, he paid his employees very well, often giving managers, players and general managers lucrative, long-term contracts, knowing full well he would be paying them after he would eventually fire them.
But the book clearly shows that Steinbrenner thought his money allowed him to act any way he wanted with his employees. He often yelled things like, “I’m paying you well” while dressing down an employee who dared to cross him, whether real or imagined.
The treatment of his employees was simply abhorrent. He would curse at people and fire them, then the next day wonder why they were not at their desks. One particularly humiliating incident detailed in the book stands out. After a family was kidnapped at knifepoint from a Yankee Stadium garage, Steinbrenner ordered his executives to his office to talk about the incident. Everyone sat around his large round desk, except for stadium security chief Pat Kelly, who was ordered to stand, facing a wall like a five-year-old.
How Kelly and other people did not just slug Steinbrenner in the jaw or simply quit is beyond me. Perhaps the money and glory of working for the Yankees trumped the daily degradation at the hands of George Steinbrenner.
But Steinbrenner was the classic bully — stand up to him, and he will meekly back down. There are several examples of this, one of them involving Don Mattingly. Steinbrenner criticized Mattingly’s performance to the media, so Mattingly answered in kind. They later discussed it over the phone. Steinbrenner said Mattingly cannot talk about him like that, saying, “I’m your boss and I expect and deserve respect.”
Mattingly responded, “Respect is what I’m talking about here… I play every day banged up, and you complain about the team and belittle my performance.”
“I pay you well,” Steinbrenner predictably said. “I have a right to say what I feel.”
“Money is not respect!” Mattingly yelled back. “You think because you pay us a lot, that’s respect. Well, it isn’t.”
Steinbrenner then said, “Well, if you don’t think it is, then good luck to you,” and hung up the phone.
Mattingly was sure he was going to be traded. Instead he said he never had a problem with Steinbrenner again. “You just couldn’t let George beat you up.”
Steinbrenner is right up there with the likes of Pete Rose and Lance Armstrong when it comes to being a class-A liar. From breaking promises to managers such as Yogi Berra that they would not be fired mid-season to lying about statements he made to the media, Steinbrenner lied about everything. It seemed normal to him.
The book was a very quick, interesting read. It followed the standard season-by-season breakdown that many sports biographies use. But Madden was smart in that he didn’t dwell on the on-the-field exploits of the Yankees. Yes, he would briefly discuss season highlights and struggles, but he understood that the book was about George Steinbrenner, not the Yankees. That was one criticism I had about the Gil Hodges book — it spent too much time talking about Dodgers wins and losses that had nothing to do with Hodges.
Regrettably, though, there were several mistakes. One will stand out to any self-respecting Mets fan. While documenting the Mets climb to the 2000 Subway Series, Madden wrote that they beat “both the NL West Champion Diamondbacks in the Division Series and the NL East champion Atlanta Braves in the NLCS…” Of course, the Mets beat the Giants in the NLDS and the Cardinals in the NLCS. Madden was likely thinking of 1999, when the Mets beat the Diamondbacks and lost to the Braves. Still, this in inexcusable.
Overall, I highly recommend this book. Say what you will about George Steinbrenner, but we will never see the likes of him again. That’s probably a good thing.