Mort de George: What we learned from Steinbrenner

George Steinbrenner, who in his prime was an out-and-out crank prone to inexplicable thought and macabre action, now, in death, becomes revered by the public — which is only to be expected, because organized baseball’s former role as the National Pastime has been taken over by ritual mourning of dead-people-once-seen-on-television. (And in case you think the attention paid to this Mort de George is something, consider it a down-payment and dress rehearsal for the real occasions, when the bell tolled for Peppard in 1994 and Harrison in 2001, and whenever George Herbert Walker Bush finally gets the signal to steal the celestial home plate.)

Say this about Steinbrenner: He was half-nuts and anal-retentive long before it became the fashion. He set exacting performance and deportment standards at a time when everyone else was encouraging you to do their own thing, and let it all hang out.

Jim Bouton, in his landmark memoir, “Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues” (1970, World Publishing), described pro ball in the pre-Georgian era as a grubby industry pretending to be a wholesome sport. Sparse ballpark audiences, accustomed to thinking that their bland heroes named Bobby, Mickey and Roger were antiseptic as astronauts, initially recoiled from Bouton’s revelations of debauchery, misconduct and lewd talk in the clubhouse. And then the fans reconsidered, and decided Bouton’s tattle was actually pretty cool, and the game’s popularity subsequently soared, ignited by stringy-haired,  counterculture exemplars such as Bill “Spaceman” Lee and Mark “the Bird” Fydrich.The intervening distress caused by “Ball Four,” however, momentarily allowed Steinbrenner to buy (for a pittance) and operate (noisily) the storied (as a tarnished legend) New York Yankees, in the process becoming an overdrawn caricature of a madcap team-owner to the extent that his televised signal drifted over from the sports broadcasts, and into the generation’s most popular sitcom, where it stayed put.

A locker-room bozo out of the Buckeye State, not especially interested in his father’s shipbuilding business until he ran through all attempted independent job options, Steinbrenner tithed semi-generously to cronies in the Ohio Democratic Party for purposes of contract-securing, until Nixon came into his life. Nixon’s man, John Mitchell, squeezed and threatened Steinbrenner until he capitulated and pulled out the checkbook, scribbling an illegal campaign contribution to the Republican National Committee that would later land him deep in the stew-pot, after things went bad for RN. The always-pragmatic Steinbrenner hired the right legal defense team and managed to stay out of jail.

The New York Daily News baseball columnist, Phil Pepe, recently published a  not-quite-satisfying little book about Steinbrenner’s stormy relationship with the Yankees’ intermittent manager, Billy Martin. Both men were egomaniacal hotheads, with Martin having the additional attribute of being a mean drunk, and a public one, to boot. Those aren’t the usual ingredients for a creating a harmonious employer-employee bond, and the constant feuding drove both men crazy, to the sustained amusement of audiences. This is a familiar old tale — so,  nearly any writer’s first thought would be to approach its retelling, in describing Billy and George’s co-dependency and shared admiration/loathing, as a metaphor for the state of the modern capitalist system in America, with all the influencing factors of class, money and power.

That’s not the style of Pepe, who is as much an old-school sportswriter as you’ll find still ambulatory. ‘The Ballad of Billy and George: The Tempestuous Baseball Marriage of Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner’ (2008, Lyons Press) is workmanlike and affectionate, and Pepe knows how to keep tabs on balls, strikes, and men-away, but he’s unschooled within the framework of being able to summon up the references to class and economics that would be required to explain what it all means.

I wonder what it does mean. How could the image of Steinbrenner — a cartoonish capitalist derisively called ‘The Boss,’ an outsized creep of inherited wealth who delighted in belittling his workers — thoroughly capture the nation’s current mood in 2010? Last night I saw Larry King on TV, getting all teary-eyed remembering the purple-faced plutocrat who bought, and sought to diminish, Reggie Jackson.

But give the fat bastard his due: Steinbrenner snapped up the Yankees franchise, something no one else wanted at the time, at around a seven-figure price, and built it into an enterprise now worth $1.6 billion, largely by the force of his dysfunctional personality and cruel passion. Along the way, the soul of the game just happened to be destroyed, while the wrecking-ball was being applied to a few other obstacles to success that might be regarded as a Loser’s Mentality.

Winning, we discovered, wasn’t just the main thing, or the only thing, it was our thing, il cosa nostra. Winning became all that we share as  individuals and everything we ever knew as a culture — and not to win was not to be, to paraphrase some Englishman. The players, accepting the nature of their mission, began each new day in a black-market medical clinic, where they would swallow down a whole human pituitary gland, surgically removed from a living orphan, and flown in fresh from a strife-torn country somewhere. We reshaped our cities to build grand temples to these winners, and named the shrines for the most meaningful forces in our lives, the banks and insurance companies. We filled these sites with the giant likenesses of mobile phones and beer labels.

We did all this, yet still our teams lost, and Steinbrenner’s won. Consequently, we died a little more with each passing year. We became worshippers of the philosophy of winning, but we ourselves were losers, and pathetic ones at that. Was George Steinbrenner ultimately responsible for the transformation of baseball, America, and the planet? Hardly. According to the scorecard, it was Bud Selig and a couple of dozen team owners who ruined baseball, Rush Limbaugh and a few hundred radio talkshow hosts who shattered society, and Dick Cheney and five oil companies who wrecked the planet. All Steinbrenner did was train us to root against the underdog, cheer for cheaters, confuse character with hairstyle, and accept that life’s true champions speak loudly and carry a fat wallet.

Our memories of the Boss eventually will be forgotten, or will become confused with those involving some other Boss, but we will always have the lessons he imparted. Remember always: The money. It’s never about anything except the money.


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