JUDGING BY the happy chants of "No more George" that filled Yankee Stadium Monday evening, Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent wasn't risking his own popularity when he ordered that George Steinbrenner give up control of the New York Yankees. But if Mr. Vincent was doing the popular thing, he was doing it for the right reasons.
Mr. Steinbrenner, principal owner of the Yankees, was not punished for plunging the team with baseball's most glorious past into the cellar (actually, the Yankees were down when he bought them in 1973 and rose to the top before descending to their present low condition). Nor was his removal caused by his annual firings of managers, his fevered pursuit of pennants, his lamentable lack of patience or his meddling in the team's operations.
Mr. Steinbrenner was ordered to surrender control of the Yankees because he got into a characteristic mess of the first order. He had been engaged in a long-running -- and to most people bewildering -- feud with one of his team's stars, Dave Winfield, almost from the day Mr. Winfield was lured to New York 10 years ago by what used to be big money. In 1986 a man named Howard Spira -- described this week by the commissioner as "a known gambler" -- got in touch with Mr. Steinbrenner and offered to furnish information that could be used against the player.
Mr. Steinbrenner eventually paid Mr. Spira $40,000. The Yankees' owner subsequently gave what the commissioner calls "multiple and conflicting" explanations for the payment, one of which involved allegations of extortion by Mr. Spira. In his decision Monday, Commissioner Vincent said, "These claims of fear and of extortion are not credible." Mr. Spira, meanwhile, is under federal indictment on charges that he attempted to extort more money in addition to the $40,000 and threatened to harm Mr. Steinbrenner and Mr. Winfield. Some of the issues here appear to be a good bit heavier than the question of whether Mr. Steinbrenner gets to sit in the owner's box and continue to make bad trades.
Mr. Steinbrenner has a history. Shortly after taking over the Yankees, he pleaded guilty to felony and misdemeanor counts involving illegal donations to the Nixon campaign, and was suspended from baseball for 15 months. In the years since, he has run up hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for himself and his team. Mr. Vincent had all that to take into account in ordering that Mr. Steinbrenner yield control of the team.
The baseball commissioner operates under a grant of authority that would make a czar blush; under Article I, Section 2 of the Major League Agreement, he can act unilaterally against just about anyone or anything within his purview that is "alleged or suspected to be not in the best interests of the national game of Baseball . . ." To make that work, you need someone who is honest, tough and not given to grandstanding. So far, Fay Vincent has filled the bill nicely.