Steinbrenner: 'The Last Lion of Baseball' by Bill Madden

Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball
By Bill Madden
Harper; 480 pp, $26.99

In his 80th year, George Steinbrenner is said to have mellowed dramatically. This unlikely transformation is not the result of a late-life personal reckoning. According to sources, it's the by-product of a series of attacks that have temporarily reduced the flow of blood to his brain, leaving confusion and dementia in their wake. Whatever the cause of Steinbrenner's decline, there is no doubt that the biggest bully in the history of professional baseball no longer leaves his employees trembling.

As Steinbrenner moves closer to that place where World Series rings don't matter, it does no one—well, no one outside of the Steinbrenner clan—any good to speak nostalgically about the New York Yankees' majority owner as a "lion in winter," as many have. Not, that is, when impressionable readers of Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball can take the wrong lesson from his financial success. Because the math is indeed sensational: In l973, Steinbrenner contributed just $168,000 of his own money to a group of investors who bought the team for less than $10 million; in 2009, Forbes estimated the Yankees' value at $1.5 billion and the Steinbrenner family's assets from baseball—stemming mainly from its hagiographic YES Network and share of a concessions company—at $2 billion to $3 billion. Given that level of asset appreciation, some entrepreneur might sensibly conclude that Steinbrenner had a rare gift for business and try to imitate his methods.

By the numbers, there's no argument that Steinbrenner produced a dynasty. His Yankees have won seven World Series titles. Some of the greatest stars of his era wore pinstripes: Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Catfish Hunter, Thurman Munson, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera—and that's just a quick pass at a Yankees highlight reel. Clearly, the principal owner had something to do with his team's dominance during the long decades of his rule. But what exactly was his contribution? Was it just his checkbook? Do his "baseball people" and his managers deserve some, or most, of the credit? Could his teams have been as successful without his incessant second-guessing, compulsive harassment, and gratuitous cruelty? And here's the essay question for business school ethics courses: Were his teams' triumphs worth the price he made others pay?

For all his erratic behavior, Steinbrenner did have a management theory: "I'm always hardest on the biggest guy on the team. I feel that's the way to motivate the other players. I'm a football guy, and that's how the great coaches in football do it." He applied this approach to Jackson, Winfield, Don Mattingly, and Goose Gossage—with predictable results. "You come here, you play, you get money, and that's it," Mattingly fumed. "They think that's respect."

Bill Madden, who covered the Yankees for the New York Daily News for more than three decades and conducted more than 150 interviews for this book, says he still can't decide if Steinbrenner should be in the Hall of Fame. He prefers instead to "faithfully tell his story." Not exactly the boldest point of view, but the story does speak for itself, and the Hall of Fame is the least of it—this is the biography of an unloved boy who grew up to be an unlovable executive.

As Madden outlines Steinbrenner's childhood, it's postcard simple. Nothing George Steinbrenner ever did was good enough for his father, and, later, George's surrogate children never satisfied him. He kept everyone in his organization off-balance, hiring and firing and rehiring in a blizzard of unfocused rage. In 1982 he burned through three managers, five pitching coaches, three hitting instructors, and 47 players. All to end the season in fifth place.

His style was even less effective with his off-field employees. Horror stories abound: firing a $50,000-a-year public-relations man three days before Christmas; reaming an aide who called "heads" in a coin toss that would determine the home stadium for a playoff game because, he screamed, "Don't you know tails comes up 70 percent of the time?" (It came up tails.)

After winning the World Series in 2000, Steinbrenner deprived coaches of bonuses and scouts of rings. He decided to eliminate dental benefits, forced executives to scrape gum off stadium ramps, and even criticized the inspiring one-handed pitcher, Jim Abbott, for his charity work. Most memorably, he turned Billy Martin into a human bungee cord. (Has any chief executive in any business ever hired and forced out one guy five times?)

Like Donald Trump, Steinbrenner had the great good fortune to be a larger-than-life character at a time when increased media exposure fed America's obsession with celebrity. As a result, many of his defects became assets. By paying outrageous salaries and launching blood feuds with his own employees, Steinbrenner made headlines for himself and money for the media. In return, the media made money for him.

He may have been a bumbler, a meddler, an out-of-control Machiavelli, but when it came to making broadcasting deals, selling corporate boxes, and securing public funding for a new stadium, Steinbrenner was the guy sitting under the TV lights—and dictating terms. He deserves credit for grasping the power of cable TV and for understanding how signing foreign players would transform his team into an international brand and stretch the Yankee banner across the planet. He was convinced that his outsize belief in the importance of the Yankees would convince others of the same.

Readers of Michael Lewis' Moneyball know there's another way to run a baseball team effectively. As Lewis describes the management theories of Billy Beane, the general manager and minority owner of the Oakland Athletics, a deep relationship to statistics about baseball players may be more valuable than an open checkbook. Yet speed, taking pitches, and consistency were of no interest to Steinbrenner—he didn't want to play "small ball" if he could afford to stock his roster with home-run hitters.

Steinbrenner ignored innovation. He went by his gut and had no use for common sense. To funnel money to Richard Nixon's reelection campaign, he chose to break the law rather than write a larger check himself. To humiliate Dave Winfield, he accused the Yankee slugger of loaning money at outrageous interest to a man Steinbrenner knew was a gambler. Even Derek Jeter—the first Yankee since Lou Gehrig to be beatified while still wearing pinstripes—got knocked, in 2002, for using the off-season to enjoy his bachelor status.

The elegance and beauty of baseball were not what drew Steinbrenner to the game; for him, it was merely a convenient arena in which he could wage war and test the limits of his power. As he looked at life, he was Mr. Big, everyone was out to get him, and so he had to get them first. When he gave Jeter a book, it was Patton on Leadership: Strategic Lessons for Corporate Warfare. To Bill Madden, he recommended the teachings of Attila the Hun.

There's no evidence that he benefited from these books. What's most remarkable about Steinbrenner as an executive is his seeming incapacity to learn from experience. Banned from baseball for more than two years, he celebrated his return by posing as Napoleon for the cover of Sports Illustrated. Over and over in these pages he claims all the oxygen in the room for himself. As one of his investors noted: "There is nothing in life quite so limited as being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner."

You're Fired!

Long before another voluble executive made waves for dismissing (and alienating) employees, George Steinbrenner ran a tight ship—with positive and negative results:

Billy Martin

The legendary manager led the Yankees on five occasions during the '70s and-'80s. He was fired or forced out each time.

Dave Winfield

Though he signed the slugger to the game's richest salary in 1980 (10 years, $23 million), Steinbrenner so despised his star that he paid a source to unearth embarrassing details about the player.

Buck Showalter

Despite leading the Yankees to their first postseason apparance in more than a decade, Steinbrenner fired Showalter after losing to the Mariners in the 1995 Division Series. His replacement, Joe Torre, went on to win four championships.

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