Friday, July 30, 2010

Steinbrenner's Legacy

I always admired Yogi Berra for standing up to his bullying, unprincipled employer the way he did. Berra vowed never to return to Yankee Stadium—in any way, shape, or form—as long as the blustering man upstairs, George Steinbrenner, owned the team. Bullyragged from on high, he rightfully felt dissed by his superior, who not only promised him an uninterrupted season as the Yankees manager, and then fired him after only sixteen games, but had an emissary deliver the knockout punch. From Yogi's perspective, it was this weaselly latter act that was the straw that broke the camel's back. Berra ultimately returned to the "House that Ruth Built" fifteen years later when the both larger than life and smaller than life Steinbrenner uncharacteristically apologized.

I'm currently reading Bill Madden's biography Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. This compelling page turner underscores yet again how the truth really is stranger than fiction. Hollywood couldn't craft a more colorful bully boy to own and operate a professional sports team than King George himself. Nor could it create a manager for him to hire and fire five times as animatedly unpredictable and unstable as the scrappy Billy Martin. And intermingled in the decades of bluster and blather as the owner of the most famous sports franchise in the world are incredible acts of generosity and kindheartedness.

Quite often in the life and times of George Steinbrenner, the battered and bruised in the man's march to the sea returned for more abuse, and frequently they were rewarded with largess, and sometimes a lifetime's worth of it. There were individuals who left the Boss's employ with utter scorn for him and desired no second acts. But many came back for seconds and sometimes thirds and fourths, and fed out of the the multi-millionaire's deep trough in perpetuity.

Exhibit A: Hall of Famer Bob Lemon was hired and fired a couple of times by the Boss. He was subsequently given a scouting position for life in the organization—at $50,000 per year, which was a nice piece of change for a player who plied his trade in the financially unrewarding 1940s and 1950s. Who could blame him for accepting such a sweet deal?

If somebody regularly lied to me, publicly humiliated me on occasion, and then offered me security for life, my pride just might have to take a back seat to this warm and reassuring pipeline of green until death did us part. I guess this moral and ethical conundrum is George Steinbrenner's lasting legacy.

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