Late in 1999, with the millennium fast approaching, I was asked to draw up a list of New York's most laudable and most despised sports figures of the 20th century. After giving it some thought and talking with several Newsday colleagues, I wrote 10 names in one column and 10 in another. Only one appeared on both: George Steinbrenner.
I remain ambivalent about The Boss to this day. As his former manager and nemesis Billy Martin used to say in those celebrated beer commercials, I feel very strongly both ways. He was at times the best of owners. At other times, he was the worst. One thing of which he never would be accused was boring. He was a shipping magnate who abhorred calm seas.
With the possible exception of Babe Ruth, he may have been the biggest gift New York sports writers ever received. He could turn a ho-hum day at Yankee Stadium into a tragicomedy just by walking 20 steps from his office to the back of the press box. He literally wore out reporters with his phone calls, impromptu announcements and frequent firings not only of managers but also of underlings who dared to go home for Thanksgiving or weren't sitting by the phone when he called. Those who covered his teams in the late 1970s, when Billy, Reggie and Thurman inhabited the same clubhouse, counted seasons in dog years.
I remember a pressroom conversation many years ago, when the ownership of the Daily News was up for grabs. When I proposed that Steinbrenner buy the newspaper, Dave Anderson, the wise columnist for the Times, shook his head. "Why should he?" Anderson said. "He already owns the back page."
And so he did. The 1978 season was so crazy that the theme for the baseball writers' show that winter was "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," with Steinbrenner running the asylum. We quietly cheered when players stood up to his bullying. When he needled Graig Nettles for a labored race around the bases, Nettles retorted, "I felt like I was carrying you on my back, George."
Steinbrenner earned some affection in his later years, which may never have happened had not commissioner Fay Vincent ruled him ineligible in 1990 for paying $40,000 to gambler/extortionist Howie Spira for information damaging to Dave Winfield, his own player. That sentence drew a standing ovation at the Stadium.
In his absence, general manager Gene Michael and manager Buck Showalter rebuilt a crumbling organization and, when the Boss returned in 1993, the Yankees were ready to win again. Fittingly, Steinbrenner put an exclamation point on the new era by firing Showalter in 1995 and hiring Joe Torre. The rants subsided and the good times rolled.
Whatever his means, they resulted in seven world championships, the YES Network, a beautiful spring training site in Tampa and the magnificent new Stadium. His accomplishments surpassed those of his peers in any other pro sport, and the controversy he created pushed baseball back into the forefront in New York.
Expect that another plaque soon will be erected in Monument Park with those of Ruth, Gehrig and other famous Yankees. Perhaps they can position the one that honors "The Pride of the Yankees" adjacent to the one honoring "The Prod of the Yankees," George M. Steinbrenner III.
Joe Gergen is a former baseball beat writer and columnist for Newsday.