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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Despite blemishes, Steinbrenner's public image revered

George Steinbrenner talks to Hillary Clinton at the

George Steinbrenner talks to Hillary Clinton at the White House in 1999. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images

The admiring tributes flowed all day from New York's political and civic figures. Even after so many true tales of his high-handedness, George Steinbrenner's image, at the end, suggests a VIP triumph that the politicians themselves might envy.

Sen. Charles Schumer called the one-time head of an Ohio shipbuilding company a "champion." Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, "Few people have had a bigger impact on New York over the past four decades." The Rev. Al Sharpton cited a friendship his daughter and The Boss' granddaughter developed. Attorney Gen. Andrew Cuomo evoked a "personality that transcended sports."

Such accolades might once have seemed unlikely. Many forget, or never knew, that Steinbrenner once pleaded guilty to a felony related to illegal contributions to President Richard Nixon's 1972 campaign. He was ordered suspended from baseball for two years in 1974, and paid a $15,000 fine. But commissioner Bowie Kuhn reinstated Steinbrenner after 15 months. President Ronald Reagan, leaving office in 1989, pardoned him.

Ever controversial, Steinbrenner's civic profile was laced with setbacks and comebacks.

Admire him or not, Steinbrenner was simply too big and too dramatic a regional player to ignore. The privileged Steinbrenner gave to charities and kept himself relevant in ways as controversial as his decisions about Yankees managers.

For years, Steinbrenner had elected officials scramble to respond to his expressed desire to either get a new stadium or move, perhaps to New Jersey. This was a show that seemed to last almost as long as "The Fantasticks."

His clearest municipal ally would prove to be the first Republican mayor in a generation, Rudy Giuliani. It went beyond what one writer called the ex-mayor's status as "underboss" and premier-fan-on-display in the Steinbrenner box. One enduring symbol of the close link is how Yankees president Randy Levine's career is marked by service to both Giuliani and the Steinbrenners.

At one point, in the late 1990s, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone moved to put the stadium issue to a public referendum, which it never faced. As to the Jersey threat, Vallone said, "How many people do you think will go to see the Secaucus Swampers as opposed to the New York Yankees?"

By then, "Seinfeld" had made Steinbrenner a quirky point of comic reference that played off his famous, driving impulsiveness. The show's fictional Steinbrenner, in the voice of sitcom co-creator Larry David, hires character George Costanza - apparently because he accuses The Boss of reducing the team to a laughing stock.

Ultimately, a new stadium opened next to the old one in the Bronx. And it still has some New Yorkers debating the merits and public costs.

Maybe a nice, blunt argument would be a fitting New York tribute.

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