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The little-known George Steinbrenner

Matt Schudel

George Steinbrenner, the owner of the Yankees, had been in poor health for some years, though no one really knew what was wrong with him. (The New York Daily News reported that he had had a series of strokes.) His death on Tuesday at age 80 was, therefore, not entirely a surprise.

Still, it required a good deal of hustle to get the obituary pulled together. I had actually begun to go through some background material on Steinbrenner during some idle moments last week, but I hadn't actually written a word of the obituary until Tuesday morning, when I hurriedly put up a 30-inch version online by about noon. During the afternoon, I expanded the story with additional research and more details about Steinbrenner's early life and his ownership of the Yankees.

The final version that ran in the newspaper was 47 inches long, but inevitably there were many interesting tidbits about Steinbrenner that I had to leave out.

Steinbrenner grew up outside Cleveland in a family dominated by his excessively demanding father. His father, who ran the family's shipping business, was a graduate of MIT and once won the NCAA championship in the 220-yard low hurdles (an event no longer run). If anyone wonders where Steinbrenner's obsessions with order, cleanliness and punctuality came from, look no further than his father. In the Steinbrenner household, if you weren't seated for dinner by 5:45 p.m., you would go hungry.

Steinbrenner's father made young George wear a jacket and tie to junior high school and did not give him an allowance. Instead, he had chickens and sold the eggs door to door. Steinbrenner was sent off to the Culver Military Institute in Indiana to toughen him up. (Steinbrenner sent his own children there, as well.) He was a very good athlete and competed in both in football and track -- like his father, he was a hurdler -- at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

In college, Steinbrenner was president of the glee club, studied classics and majored in English. He wrote his senior thesis on the female protagonists in the novels of Thomas Hardy. Years later, a Sports Illustrated writer decided to test him by asking about Eustacia Vye, the heroine of "Return of the Native." Steinbrenner could still discuss Hardy's heroines with insight and authority, though his reading in later years tended toward military history.

Steinbrenner's disputes with his managers, players and fellow owners are well documented, and it's true that for many years he was a widely hated man. He belittled his employees, fired people at will and seldom apologized. He was convicted of making illegal contributions to Nixon's reelection campaign and for years was angry that his felony conviction kept him from voting. (In one of Ronald Reagan's final acts as president before leaving office in 1989, he gave Steinbrenner a full pardon,)

Steinbrenner was suspended by the commissioner of baseball in the early 1990s for paying a gambler to dig up unsavory facts about his star player Dave Winfield. After his 2 1/2-year hiatus from baseball, Steinbrenner seemed to mellow. (The gambler, by the way, was later convicted of trying to extort money from Steinbrenner.)

The Yankees regrouped in his absence, restocking a depleted minor-league system that produced such future stars as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams -- the core of the team's four World Series champions from 1996 to 2000.

One other point about Steinbrenner isn't well understood: his generosity. He contributed a great deal of money to charity over the years, including the single largest donation -- $1 million -- to a fund set up for the families of the victims of the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech. He even had the Yankees go to Blacksburg to play an exhibition game with the Virginia Tech baseball team.

Steinbrenner also set up a charity to pay the college tuition of children of police officers killed in the line of duty; he gave $1 million a year to the symphony orchestra in Tampa; he salvaged the Florida Folk Festival with a substantial donation. When his favorite restaurant in Tampa fell behind on its mortgage, he paid it off. Countless people had their medical bills taken care of by Steinbrenner.

He often kept old friends and aging athletes on the Yankee payroll for sentimental reasons, including a clubhouse attendant who did little more than tell stories. For many years, the 1950s Ohio State football star Howard "Hopalong" Cassidy worked for Steinbrenner as a physical fitness trainer for minor-leaguers.

He was deeply sentimental, despite his gruff exterior. When he attended the opening of the new Yankee Stadium in April 2009 and was introduced to the crowd, he received a huge ovation. Surprised by the outpouring of affection, he broke into tears.

Billy Martin, the manager Steinbrenner hired and fired five times, made a Lite Beer commercial with Steinbrenner that poked fun at their prickly relationship. When Martin died in a traffic accident in 1989, Steinbrenner quietly found a burial plot for him not far from the final resting place of Babe Ruth.

When Steinbrenner found out Yankee great Joe DiMaggio was driving a Toyota, he bought him a Cadillac. Later, when DiMaggio was dying in 1999, Steinbrenner was one of the people admitted to the Yankee Clipper's apartment. Steinbrenner visited him on his deathbed.

"I came into the room and Joe was sitting up in bed, wearing a coat and tie," Steinbrenner said. "That's an image you never forget."

Here's an excerpt from a 1987 interview with Steinbrenner on "60 Minutes" that encapsulates his style, manner and forcefulness:

By Matt Schudel  |  July 14, 2010; 11:32 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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