Two books about George Steinbrenner, the principal owner (a designation he insists on) of the New York Yankees, have been published this spring. They are Steinbrenner! by Dick Schaap (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $14.95) and Steinbrenner's Yankees by Ed Linn (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $14.95). I would tell you not to waste 50 or five minutes on either of them, except for the embarrassing fact that I found them fascinating. Like it or not, there is always something irresistibly intriguing in the story of a really rotten guy. Nice guys make good friends, bad guys make good copy—a fact, by the way, that Steinbrenner thoroughly understands and exploits. He's the only team owner who consistently steals the headlines from his players, even when his players are winning the World Series.
Unless you're a Steinbrenner scholar, you won't want to read both books, and I can't really recommend one over the other. Both Schaap and Linn are veteran reporters with excellent credentials.
There are differences, however. The Schaap book is a true biography, with far more material about George's youth. From Schaap we learn that George had a stern and demanding father who was apparently incapable of expressing affection, that he ran his own business at age nine, selling eggs door to door, and that he was a versatile athlete at Culver Military Academy, in Indiana. At Williams College, Steinbrenner was a first-class hurdler and captain of the track team. He was also president of the glee club, in which, he says, he stood behind Stephen Sondheim, the gifted composer. "I could sing better than he could," says George. (Sondheim doesn't dispute this claim but does point out that he never belonged to the glee club.)
Schaap's book is lighter in tone and style, a sportswriter's book that almost reads as though he had fun writing it. If you want agonizing detail about Steinbrenner's baseball scrapes, though, you'll prefer Linn. His literary models are Woodward and Bernstein, and the result of his documentation is an ugly portrait of Steinbrenner. But George won't resign and isn't subject to impeachment.
Evidence of Steinbrenner's obnoxiousness permeates these books. His abuse of office workers (who don't have contracts). His vile treatment of decent men. His boorishness. His duplicity.
After the fourth game of the Yankees' divisional playoff against Milwaukee last fall, Steinbrenner directed a shouted criticism at Rick Cerone, the New York catcher. Cerone replied with the most common two-word obscenity in the English language. The p.o. made some additional comments. Cerone repeated his catchy request.
Then Steinbrenner sent Cerone a note in which he piously forgave the catcher for his "vulgarity." A generous gesture, because Steinbrenner deplores vulgarity as he does beards, long hair and sloppy dress among his players; he feels they're alien to the Yankee tradition.
Now go back one year to the league championship series against Kansas City, second game, ninth inning. Mike Ferraro, the Yankees' third-base coach, waves Willie Randolph home with what would be the tying run, but Randolph is called out at the plate. George is unhappy. According to Linn, George spots Ferraro's wife, goes to her and screams in her face, "Your husband really f——-this game up for us today!", using the same verb in public that he will later find vulgar when Cerone uses it in the locker room.
I think these two incidents best exemplify what I see as Steinbrenner's hypocrisy, arrogance and cruelty. But he is, I must grudgingly add, successful. The Yankees have won and prospered since he took over the club nine years ago.
There is a widespread belief, probably false, that no one is all bad, so biographers of villains tend to include a few favorable anecdotes to prove their even-handedness. Steinbrenner sent poor boys to college and paid for a young girl's desperately needed operation. These things take money and that, at least, George has. But there always seems to be a dollar figure attached to his good works.
Steinbrenner has proved that you can buy social acceptance. If he weren't rich and powerful, who would even hang around with him? Well, some people would, because he can be charming. But that may be a characteristic of all interesting villains.