Some folks are mistaken for movie stars. Others get taken for royalty. I should have such luck. People often confuse me with George Steinbrenner. Or at least they associate me with him. As you can tell from the photograph above, I don't look much like the mercurial owner of the New York Yankees. True, he and I are about the same height. And if I don't cut out desserts, we could soon be in the same weight class. But I'm 32, and he's 58. I have a mustache; he's clean-shaven. The mixup stems from the similarity of our surnames.
The Yankee owner's name undoubtedly is also German. The second e in my name is supposed to sound like a long a, but very few people have ever gotten it right. And after George became principal owner of the Yankees in 1973, even fewer did. I was then only 16, but my father was virtually the same age as the Boss, and the two of them had much the same build. Also. Dad didn't have a mustache, so he was forever being mistaken for George.
My family had a ski house in the Green Mountains of Vermont. The stock boys in the local grocery had seen Dad's name printed on one of his checks, and they became convinced that he owned the Yankees. "How's the team?" they would ask. "How are you going to do this year?" Sometimes Dad would play along. "Billy's back, and Guidry's throwing like a dream," he would say.
Inevitably, I had to get used to being called Steinbrenner by the kids I grew up with in Fairfield, Conn. Some did it teasingly, but most, including some of my closest friends, assumed that this was how my name was pronounced. After I came to work in New York in 1982, matters became even more complicated. When I called a restaurant to make dinner reservations, I would often get a syrupy "Ah, yes, Mr. Steinbrenner, how nice that you'll be with us." I tried to correct maitre d's and spell my name out, but still they called me Steinbrenner. When I was the one who appeared, they seemed confused. Nonetheless, I often got the best tables at the hottest spots, even on the busiest nights. I guess they figured I was George's son.
Sometimes restaurants got it right. On one occasion it was only because George and I were eating at the same midtown bistro on the same evening. I had a date, but I arrived early and was shown to my table. When my date showed up, the host said to her, "Did you say Steinbrenner or Steinbreder? They are both dining with us tonight." When she was brought to my table, which was just off the rest rooms, she had every reason to be disappointed. George, you may be sure, was better situated.
As a result of all this confusion. Dad and I became walking barometers of how the public felt about George. At first the name evoked mostly affection, but that changed for the worse as time went by. After George failed to sign Reggie Jackson in 1982. Dad had to field some pointed questions. "Why'd you let Reggie go, meathead?" somebody would shout. Or, later, "Hey. George, how could you be so dumb as to go sign Whitson?"
I caught some of this flak too. In April 1985, I was sitting at the bar of a restaurant in Manhattan, waiting for a table. The day before, George had fired Yogi Berra after only the 16th game of the season. The host, at the far end of the bar, summoned me by calling, "Your table is ready, Mr. Steinbreder." Heads turned. Obviously, I was not the Yankee owner, but the patrons couldn't have cared less. Hearing a name that sounded like Steinbrenner set them off. "Why did you do that to Yogi?" one asked. "Hey, George, you're such a jerk," another yelled.
The name also haunts me when I make business phone calls. No sooner do I identify myself to a secretary than she's likely to say something like "You're not related to him, are you?" Since coming to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, I have had some awkward moments, particularly when working on baseball stories. I'll give my name on the phone, and there'll be a pause at the other end. "No relation," I say. Only then can the conversation begin. Once, I went through this routine with an aide to a former major league executive I was trying to reach. "I'm sorry if I seemed taken aback," the aide said. "It's just that my boss and Mr. Steinbrenner haven't spoken to each other in years.' "
One morning last fall the similarity of our names brought me face-to-face with George. Hurrying into Manhattan's Regency Hotel for a breakfast meeting, I said, "The name's Steinbreder. I have an eight o'clock reservation for two. The other party is probably already seated. I'm a little late."
"Right this way, sir," the head-waiter said. He led me to a table. I began to sit down when I looked over and found myself staring straight into the eyes of a certain baseball owner, who was already seated.
"I think I've got the wrong table," I stammered, excusing myself.