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Steinbrenner was a tabloid titan
The man was tabloid gold, a limitless reservoir of great quotes, leaked stories, personal vendettas. That was George Steinbrenner in the '80s, back when I wrote about him as a beat reporter for the New York Post. He was one of those irresistible forces of nature, blessed with the power to draw you in; covering Steinbrenner was like staring at the sun.
THE BOSS: 1930-2010 Iconic Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died Tuesday at age 80. Get complete coverage right here.
He loved to be called The Boss, because that’s exactly how he envisioned himself, not just the biggest man in the Yankee family but larger than life. The Bombers were his team, of course, but that attachment grew into an obsession.
Steinbrenner routinely crushed anyone who got in the way of his dream, which was to turn the Yankees into a monolith. The list of victims stretched into infinity, starting of course with Billy Martin. But he had no problem taking it out on PR directors if the Yankees were bashed by the Post or Daily News — or even worse, if he felt the Mets were getting bigger play on the back pages.
Steinbrenner’s punishment in those days was to confine his media relations directors to varying prison sentences. If the Yankees were at home, Steinbrenner wouldn’t let them go on the next road trip. If they were on the road, they weren’t allowed to leave their hotel rooms until they heard from him.
Those were pre-cell phone days, so that meant literally sitting at the edge of the bed until George called. That was worse than getting fired, since Steinbrenner usually had a change of heart within the first 24 hours. Everyone at the Stadium had similar horror stories to share. He once canned a secretary for bringing him the wrong sandwich (she got her job back the next day, too).
As for actually covering Steinbrenner, it was either a sublime assignment or the sort of misery that drove a young reporter out of the business. It all depended on which tabloid Steinbrenner favored that week; he played the Post and Daily News against each other with the dexterity of a matador, returning phone calls with the full understanding of how much a “story” — usually blasting a slumping player — meant in the days of the full-blown newspaper wars.
But as manipulative as Steinbrenner could be, he was just as likely to show mercy. Back in 1975, Steinbrenner caught a young Puerto Rican kid spray-painting graffiti on the Stadium’s walls. He grabbed the boy and brought him to the police holding cell underneath the ballpark. But the kid’s sobbing apologies moved Steinbrenner to have a change of heart; he took the culprit to the Yankee clubhouse and shoved him into Martin’s office.
“Teach him something,” Steinbrenner barked at the manager, an edict that served as the starter’s gun on Ray Negron’s life. From punk to bat boy to video archivist to special assistant to Martin himself, Negron climbed the ladder of the Yankee family. Today he is a member of the team’s community outreach program, as well as the author of four children’s books.
Negron was in tears when reached by telephone Tuesday morning. “I just couldn’t prepare myself for this,” he said, despite Steinbrenner’s advanced age and declining health.
The Boss enjoyed playing surrogate father, even though his sons, Hank and Hal, spoke openly of the difficulties of being raised by such a tempestuous man. Still, Steinbrenner respected those who put family first.
YES Network reporter Jack Curry, who used to cover the Yankees for the New York Times, recounted a delightful tale on his blog recently. Early in his career, having just graduated from Fordham, Curry was still living at home in Jersey City with his parents as he tried repeatedly to get the Boss on the phone.
Finally, Steinbrenner decided to call back as Curry was sitting down to dinner. He got up and spent some 20 minutes interviewing the owner before the sound of another extension being picked up interrupted the conversation.
“Doesn’t he know there’s a dinner hour around here?” a voice said before clicking off.
“Who was that,” Steinbrenner asked.
“That was my mother,” Curry said, sheepishly explaining that he was expected back at the dinner table.
“She’s right,” Steinbrenner said. “I've always said that family comes first. Go have dinner and we'll talk some other time."
When Curry tried to protest, Steinbrenner cut him off.
“Go have dinner,” he said. “That’s more important.”