George Steinbrenner: The Yankees owner was the last real studio mogul
I hate to admit it, since I've rooted against the Yankees for as long as I can remember, but I'm going to miss George Steinbrenner. Known in New York simply as the Boss, Steinbrenner was a boastful bully who only seemed happy when he was hoisting another World Series trophy. But he was a larger-than-life transformational figure in the game of baseball, embracing free agency and turning his team into a TV-driven cash machine.
In fact, he was really the modern media world's last great mogul, acting pretty much exactly the way the David O. Selznicks, Sam Goldwyns and Jack Warners acted before him, impulsively and instinctively, as if rules were something made to be broken.
Whenever the New York sportswriters would gleefully recount the latest example of a Steinbrenner temper tantrum, I was always reminded about the time, during a 1930s labor negotiation, when Harry Warner went absolutely nuts, shouting obscenities and curses ("You dirty commies!") until a pair of executives physically carried him out of the meeting, his shrieks heard echoing down the halls. (When they returned, one of them said, "We regret that Mr. Warner cannot rejoin us. He wasn't feeling well.")
The studio chiefs hired and fired producers and directors. Steinbrenner did it to his managers. In his first 17 seasons, he changed managers 17 times, including firing Dick Howser after his team had won 103 games in 1980 but committed the cardinal sin of losing the World Series in the AL Championship Series. Selznick went through at least three directors making "Gone With the Wind." If Steinbrenner had been running the show, he might have plowed through a dozen of 'em before he was satisfied.
Losing was for losers. As Bill Nack recounts in this great piece he wrote about the Boss, Steinbrenner had a pathological desire to win. "Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing," he once said. "Breathing first, winning next." Anyone who's spent any time in showbiz, where people root as much for their friends to fail as their enemies, can recognize the personality type right away. Winning is everything, no matter what the cost. If Steinbrenner had a movie up for best picture instead of a team preparing for the playoffs, he'd have outspent his rivals 10 to 1 on its Oscar campaign.
Back in the 1970s, when even the best ballplayers were lucky to make $150,000 a year, the Boss signed Reggie Jackson to a $3-million, five-year contract. As Reggie put it: "I'm a Yankee because George Steinbrenner out-hustled everybody else." Most of today's studio execs are like corporate managers, keeping a close eye on profit margins. Steinbrenner was a lot more Harvey Weinstein in his prime. For Harvey, if things weren't going well on a film, he'd charge into the editing room and bully a director into cutting 20 minutes out of the picture. With Steinbrenner, if the team wasn't playing well, he'd show up in the locker room and raise holy hell.
In its heyday, MGM had a fixer on the payroll, Eddie Mannix, an ex-bouncer who was the studio general manager, which meant that when the studio needed someone to intimidate a union activist or help out a star who got caught with an underage girl, Mannix would make things right. Steinbrenner was formed from the same mold, though he sometimes forgot that in this age of information, nothing could be hushed up anymore. He was banned twice from Major League Baseball, once for spending $40,000 to hire a two-bit gambler to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, then his star outfielder, who, after he went 1-for-22 in the 1981 World Series, earned the Steinbrenner nickname Mr. May.
No detail was too small to be noticed. With the old studio chiefs, actors' names could be changed (often to something less Jewish) and actresses could get plastic surgery. When Steinbrenner was reinstated as the Yankees' owner after his first suspension in the 1970s, he didn't waste any time, heading down to spring training camp and ordering outfielder Oscar Gamble, who had the biggest Afro in the league, to cut his hair.
The studio bosses eventually got old, lost touch with their audiences and were forced into retirement, though often not until they'd left their sons and sons-in-law the keys to the kingdom. Steinbrenner did the same thing, handing the business to his sons and staying out of sight, clearly not wanting anyone to see him as a frail, faltering old man. But he was the Boss and he changed baseball, in many ways for the good, just as surely as the original moguls left their mark on the movie business. I still can't root for the Yankees, but I tip my cap to the Boss. We're gonna' miss him.
Photo: Reggie Jackson, left, with George Steinbrenner at Yankees spring training camp in 1980. Credit: Fairall / Associated Press