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The day “The Boss” kicked me out of his office

steinbrenner 1 george-steinbrenner01 cropin-face sz299“The Boss” was and still is George Steinbrenner. Not Springsteen or Diana Ross (do people still call her that anyhow?) And, yes, George once kicked me out of his Yankee Stadium office. Yet I still love the Yankees. It’s an interesting story…….

The year was 1983. I was a Management Supervisor at BBDO/New York working on the Campbell Soup account. I was recently promoted so Campbell Soup was a particularly important assignment. I remember the day Dick Bonnette, my boss at the time, said that Tom Clark, BBDO’s President, recently had a meeting with Lee Iacocca and Lee’s buddy, George Steinbrenner, and Lee suggested to George that BBDO had a lot of smart marketing people who could help him with the Yankees. I was one of those “smart marketing people”. When I was tabbed for the assignment, I was in heaven.

The Yankees account, whatever it was going to be, was not going to be a big one monetarily. It paled in business importance to the Campbell Soup account. But to me, broth and egg noodles couldn’t hold a candle to Yankee Stadium and Monument Park.

In March 1983, we went to Fort Lauderdale to the Yankees spring training home during that era (that’s where they trained before they moved to Tampa) to meet with George. When we met at his trailer by the field, George was extraordinarily gracious. He fell all over at himself offering coffee, donuts, etc. He had two of his senior front office people in the meeting along with our team– Tom Clark, BBDO president, Arnie Semsky, the BBDO Worldwide Media Director, Dick Bonnette, a senior BBDO exec and yours truly. We talked about Yankee merchandise, Yankees Magazine, overall Yankees marketing. Short of playing center field for the Yankees, I felt like I had reached the zenith of my career. I took copious notes as I was the person to make the ideas come to life. It would be my pleasure.

Then I recall the second part of the meeting when George dismissed his execs and introduced his daughter, Jenny. George explained that he had recently purchased a couple of city magazines in the Tampa area and Jenny was to be their publisher. He asked softly whether we might consider looking at these publications for BBDO clients. We said we would and Tom Clark felt Lee Iacocca/Dodge would surely run a page or two of advertising in the future. That would be easy. My sole focus was on the Yankees.

That day I also recall walking past Dave Winfield and George made a major point of commenting what a “fine young man” Winfield was. (I remembered this because years later George was suspended from baseball for paying $40,000 to a small time hustler, Howard Spira, whose job was to dig up embarrassing info on Winfield).

Be that as it may, I focused the bulk of my energies and time during March 1983 on Yankees ideas and marketing programs. I met back in NY with some of the Yankees brass and prepared a detailed marketing presentation to be given to George when he returned to New York after the team came north.

I recall going to Yankee Stadium for a meeting with George in April 1983 (how cool was that!) along with Bonnette and Semsky and we were ushered into George’s palatial office on the mezzanine level. Big glass windows overlooking the field, a humongous chair in the shape of a baseball glove. It was the most incredible office I’d ever been in.

Then “The Bad George” burst into the room. He was abrupt, maniacal and had a crazy look in his eye. No “would you like another donut” today. Then out of the blue he blurted, “Where are the 12 pages each month you guys promised that you’d run in Jenny’s magazines”. We were dumfounded. He had no interest in us working for the Yankees. He wanted BBDO clients’ money and lots of it. Like it was yesterday, I remember him stammering “If you don’t have those 12 pages each month that you promised, then the meeting is over. I don’t need you to do work for the Yankees. Anyone would be willing to do work for the Yankees. No pages? No meeting. Good bye.”

Then as quickly as he came in, he left. The whole “meeting” was no longer than two minutes. I packed up my presentation and we were gone. Back to Manhattan to our office to meet with Tom Clark, our President, who wasn’t at our butt kicking. “Did we miss something in Ft. Lauderdale?” I remember asking Tom. “George has the impression we promised 12 pages every month in his city publications”. No, obviously we missed nothing.

There were no more meetings and presentations. No Yankees account. No games. No meeting the players. No Monument Park. Just a bitter taste of what working for George must have been like. I can’t imagine the abuse he must have heaped on his employees every day.

Did I disavow the Yankees the day George planted his foot in my behind? Not even close. I was and still am able to separate the “ugly George” from the one who wanted so badly to win the World Series every year. Truth was that his ugliness in the 80s hurt the team. The merry-go-round of managers and front office leaders created a divisive atmosphere. Free agents were reluctant to sign with the Yankees and, despite a handful of premier players during that era (Mattingly, Winfield, Henderson, etc), the Yankees went through a 14-year playoff drought from 1981 to 1995. I knew then as I know now that George’s commitment is winning at all cost. As a fan, I couldn’t ask for more. His passion back then was too great and led to wrong headed, impetuous decisions and bad results.

Today George is no longer the lion he was when he was younger. His health is failing. His trips to NY are few. He wasn’t even able to attend the 2009 World Series. But I do recall his ceremonial drive around Yankee Stadium at the conclusion on the 2008 season, the final season at the old Stadium. There was Jenny was on his arm, 25 years older than I remembered her. We all get older. The world changes, but one thing remains the same: The New York Yankees continue to be the premier franchise in all of sports and we have George Steinbrenner to thank for that.

Yes, George I’d like another Boston Cream donut. Boston and cream should always go together in the same sentence.

Note: Alas George is no longer among the living, and in a strange way, I appreciate him and respect him more and more over time. He wanted so badly for his team to win. As a life long passionate fan, I couldn’t have asked for more.

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9 Comments

  1. Very, very interesting!

  2. I grew up in Chicago in the 60s, so was taught at an young age to appreciate and despise the Yankees. As I have grown older the respect remains and I have outgrown the youthful hate over yankees constantly beating

    • Lonny Strum says:

      Kimbery, glad to see you outgrown your youthful Yankee hatred. PS I like your Cubbies. White Sox, not so much.

  3. Happy to find that there are blog possessors that care about their blogs and not release all kind of useless stuff but rather try to sustain it fresh and worthy for the sake of their readers. You’ve done a great job and i thank you for that and also for not traumatizing me with useless garbage and spam.Thank You

  4. Lonny Strum says:

    Appreciate your comments. Trying to keep it fresh. Kick my butt if it ever gets stale.

  5. I met him once or twice. But the best story is when I did not meet him. It was the late-1970’s, just after he purchased the Yankees. I was an agency guy then and had tickets to Forrest Hills, before the first new tennis stadium was open. My seats were in the end-court. They were fabulous for watching both the match as well as watching the tennis players who were not on court. Connors was there. As was a young John McEnroe. I believe Chris Evert was there. There were a bunch of others.

    All of them sitting about six or ten rows in front of me. And right behind them was George Steinbrenner. The first thing I noticed was a line of kids with US Open programs. They were waiting for autographs.

    One would assume from Connors and Evert and McEnroe. Wrong. They only wanted George Steinbrenner. He had owned the Yankees for a few years and I realized then that he was fast becoming an icon. He was gracious and accommodating to all the kids. It was really nice to watch.
    And I bet the tennis players were happy to be left alone to watch the match!

  6. DaveGold says:

    Lonny….

    Great post. You lost me with that last sentence, however. I know not the creme of which you speak.

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