STEINBRENNER: The Last Lion of Baseball

Published Jul. 16, 2010 2:26 a.m. ET

George Steinbrenner's philosophies are scattered through the Yankees organization.  He redefined the relationship between an owner and his team.  His constant thirst for success and winning earned Steinbrenner the reputation as "the Boss", which was especially relevant during his activity in free agency.  Bill Madden, author of STEINBRENNER: The Last Lion Of Baseball, covered Steinbrenner for more than 30 years and writes about the businessman.  Below is an excerpt from his book telling the story of George Steinbrenner.

In later years, Steinbrenner had a motto, engraved on a wooden nameplate atop his desk at Yankee Stadium—lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way—which was in keeping with his “General George Patton” management style. And in the months leading up to his final approval by the AL
owners at their June meeting, Steinbrenner had made it quite apparent he was going to be anything but the absentee owner he professed to be at the January 3 press conference. The Yankees front office staff could sense that their new boss was creating an environment far different from the benign ownership of CBS, with many of them quickly concluding it was probably best to just exercise the third option and stay out of his way.

At the same time Mike Burke began plotting his exit, Howard Berk, the VP of administration, was deciding whether he’d be able to follow the new owner or if he should exercise the clause in his contract allowing him to return to CBS in the event the Yankees were sold. Steinbrenner’s
stinging condemnation of Burke overheard by Berk’s wife by the pool at Schrafft’s had certainly been dire enough warning of what was to come, but, on Opening Day at the Stadium, Berk got his own initial firsthand indoctrination of this when Steinbrenner ordered him to move a VIP lunch
of over 200 people from the stadium club upstairs to another dining room
on the main level.

What ultimately convinced Berk that he couldn’t work for Steinbrenner was the rainout of the Yankees’ April 27 game with the Minnesota Twins.

All afternoon, as the rain came down in torrents, Berk was on the phone, getting the latest updates from the weather service at Newark Airport.
After consulting with the umpires, Berk announced that the game was going to have to be postponed. As soon as Berk made the announcement, Steinbrenner, who was in Cleveland, had him on the line, screaming: “How the hell can you call that game? It’s not raining there!”

“I’d been hollered at before by a lot better people,” said Berk, “but this was so illogical! Finally, I just shouted back at him: ‘How in the hell can you tell me it’s not raining here when you’re not even in the city?’ ”

In his letter of resignation to Steinbrenner, Burke wrote:
“The scope of responsibilities and authority proposed to be assigned to me are so limited as to be incompatible with even the narrowest definition of ‘chief operating officer’ and I must conclude that you do not want me to operate the Yankees. Slowly and sadly, I have come to this conclusion. It represents a stunning, personal setback.”


Burke concluded by saying that he would not serve as general partner, would not be directly involved in the day-to-day operations of the club and would continue on the Yankee payroll for a maximum period of four months, during which time he would actively seek other employment.

Upon learning of Burke’s departure while listening to a Yankee broadcast on the radio, a startled Howard Berk immediately called his old boss.

“I’ll never forget his words to me,” Berk recalled. “He said: ‘I was tired of going to the mat every day. Life’s too short. It’s just not worth it.’ ”

Three months later, on July 27, Mike Burke was named president and chief operating officer of Madison Square Garden, with an annual salary of $100,000. In 1981, he sold his 5 percent share of the partnership for $500,000. The listed buyer on the sale agreement was Leonard Kleinman of Shaker Heights, Ohio—Steinbrenner’s tax attorney, who was merely serving as an agent for the principal owner.

Steinbrenner was still waiting to be approved by the American League owners when that spring’s juiciest story broke: the stunning announcement by Yankee pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich that they had decided to trade wives and, by extension, their families. The ever-cynical Dick Young wrote in the New York Daily News, “At least they did it before the inter-family trading deadline.”

On Opening Day against the Cleveland Indians, Steinbrenner was sitting in the club box behind the Yankees dugout, frowning as the Yankees stood at attention, caps off, for the national anthem. “The hair,” he grumbled: “unacceptable.” He began jotting down uniform numbers of the players he deemed in need of a haircut. After the game, he presented Houk with the list, which had a half-dozen numbers scrawled on it, including “1” for Bobby Murcer, “15” for Thurman Munson, “17” for Gene Michael and “28” for Sparky Lyle. “Tell these players they have to get their hair cut,” he
told Houk.

The next day, in a clubhouse meeting before the game, Houk carried out the new owner’s edict, to the number.

“It was really kind of funny,” recalled third baseman Graig Nettles, who had just come over to the Yankees from the Cleveland Indians the previous November and had taken an instant liking to Houk, reputed to be the ultimate “players’ manager.” “There’s Ralph, standing there in front
of us and announcing: ‘I’ve been instructed to inform the following players to get their hair cut,’ and then he reads off just the numbers. We thought it was funny that George didn’t even know us by our names—only by our numbers and our hair.”