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The two sides of George Steinbrenner.

 

steinbrenner-1-george-steinbrenner01-cropin-face-sz2992-115x881George Steinbrenner was a brilliant businessman in life and in death. He bought the Yankees, along with others, in 1972 for $8.7Million (reportedly he put in less than $200,000 cash). The value of the Yankees today is estimated at $1.5 Billion, obviously largely through his efforts over the past 38 years.

But he was also brilliant in death. By dying in 2010 he slipped through the one year when estate taxes were eliminated, saving his heirs $500 Million in taxes! Good timing. So once again, George knew how to both make money (and save it) for his family.

But George was an enigma. So here’s an easy pop quiz:

True or False?

1. George was a wonderful man who was generous and kind.

2. George was an ugly bully. Crude, rude and brutal.

Answer: True for both.

I had a small first hand glimpse into both of these sides. For those who haven’t it seen it, the story of how ”The Boss”  kicked me out of his office is an interesting one and gave me some first-hand insight  into the two Georges. But even his shoe planted in my behind didn’t diminish my respect for his passion for winning. The story is a re-run of  January 3, 2010 Struming. Here it is….

The day “The Boss” Kicked Me out of His Office

January 3, 2010

“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.




More Strumings

2 Comments

  1. Cole Clark says:

    Mr. Strum,

    My father (Tom Clark) has shared this story with me and I have been fortunate enough to meet Mr. Steinbrenner on many occasions. I was even able to be the batboy for the Yankees through the friendship George and my father developed over the years and it all started with the story you have told here. My father recounts that after your meeting, George called up Tom or “Detroit” as he called him, and lambasted him for “being to busy” to meet with “The Boss”and tried verbally firing him over the phone. Tom responded to George by stating that first off you can’t fire us, because BBDO doesn’t work for you and this was being done as a favor to Iacocca and Fugazy (one of George’s close friends) and and hung up on him. Now being a lifelong Yankee fan myself, I could never imagine taking such a stance with George, but Tom believes it was the way you had to deal with him when he escalated a situation. But hanging up on “The Boss” come on! Well it turned out to be something George respected. A few months later Tom was in New York with Lido after a banquet of some sort, getting a burger at PJ Clarke’s, when who walks in but George with Fugazy. They came over to the table and George never made any mention of the melee. Tom bought them a couple of burgers and George wrote my father a personal thank you note for the kind gesture and they were friends ever since. I myself was always perplexed by the way George was portrayed in the media as a tyrant and ruthless dictator. Business is business and George ran the Yankees like Patton ran his army. Outside of business I doubt you could find a more compassionate and charitable individual in the world. George never did anything for fame or fortune he did it, because he though he was right (though sometimes he was definitely wrong), but that conviction is what turned the Yankees into the dynasty they are today. I definitely can agree with you that George had two sides two him, but for all the “bad” George moments, his true character and passion came from helping those in need and making sure no one knew it was him doing it. That to me is the greatest trick ever played on the public, everyone hates George for winning and for being the George they saw on TV and read about in the papers. And that was the way George wanted it. He didn’t want the credit for being the actual great humanitarian he was. George knew better then anyone, that it is far better to be feared then loved in business, but only in business, and that is the only George the public ever go to know.

    • Lonny Strum says:

      Cole,

      George had admirable qualities and was a great owner, yet flawed. It’s a shame he wasn’t elected to the Hall by the Veteran’s committee this past year. His 2 suspensions from the game probably held him back. As a life long Yankees fan I couldn’t help but respect him, despite kicking me out of his office. It’s not the same without him. Regards to your dad.

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