George Steinbrenner's stormy stewardship of the New York Yankees was brought to a halt last night when Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent announced Steinbrenner will be stripped of his control over the club's operations. Steinbrenner was permanently barred because he paid a self-described gambler for information he intended to be used as ammunition in a long-running feud with former Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield.
Steinbrenner, 60, will have to resign as the Yankees' managing partner by Aug. 20. He has held that position since 1973, when a group he headed purchased what may be the world's best-known professional sports franchise from CBS for $10 million. Steinbrenner, whose conduct was found to have been "not in the best interests of baseball," has agreed not to mount a legal challenge of the decision, Vincent said.
Steinbrenner essentially has agreed "to be treated as if he had been placed on the permanent ineligible list," Vincent said. If Steinbrenner actually had been placed on the permanent ineligible list, Vincent said, it would have been "tantamount to requiring him to sell his interest in the team.
"I didn't want to do that," Vincent said. "The equivalent is a suspension, if you will, on a permanent basis. . . . He is not able to function in any capacity within baseball. . . .He can never be involved in the management of the team. Ever."
Thus, Steinbrenner probably will have to be satisfied with 18 managerial changes in his 17 years. He likely has fired his last pitching coach, hitting instructor or other front office person -- all regular fall guys under "The Boss."
With Vincent's approval, Steinbrenner will be able to participate in "major financial and business decisions . . . solely in his capacity as a limited partner," Vincent said. Steinbrenner is to have no involvement in trades or player contracts. In addition, in spring 1991, he will be allowed to seek in writing Vincent's permission "to attend a limited number" of major league games under conditions to be established by Vincent.
Vincent said he had asked Steinbrenner to reduce his interest in the club to below 50 percent. Steinbrenner currently owns 55 percent of the club. There are 18 other partners in the club's ownership group. A new managing general partner will be appointed by Aug. 20, subject to Vincent's approval and that of the other major league clubs.
The candidate Steinbrenner will select as general partner, according to his attorney Stephen Kaufman, is his son Hank. Vincent said he hasn't "ruled out" that possibility. But he added "if a member of his family were found to be consorting with Mr. Steinbrenner or dealing with him in a way that violated the agreement, the member of the family would be subject to expulsion from baseball."
This is the second time in less than a year that a major baseball figure has been suspended permanently. "This sad episode is now over," Vincent said, in words echoing those used last August by the late commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti when Giamatti announced Pete Rose had been banned. "My decision in this case and this result will serve, I trust, to vindicate once again the important responsibility of the commissioner to preserve and protect our noble game."
"I will not comment on the decision," Steinbrenner said. "I'm very happy it was resolved. I'm very satisfied with the resolution, and that's all I'm going to say."
Vincent began examining the matter in March, not long after Howard Spira said Steinbrenner had paid him $40,000 for information Steinbrenner could use to discredit Winfield.
Permitted by baseball rules to investigate "any act, transaction or practice charged, alleged or suspected to be not in the best interests" of baseball, Vincent asked Washington attorney John M. Dowd to lead a probe of the relationships between Steinbrenner, Spira and Winfield.
Dowd, who led baseball's investigation of gambling allegations against Rose, submitted a confidential report to Vincent on June 7. Steinbrenner testified before Vincent during approximately 10 hours of hearings that began July 5 and concluded the following day. Vincent subsequently received additional documents from Steinbrenner.
Word of Vincent's decision was spread quickly and joyously by fans attending the Yankees' game last night against the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium. Early on, there was a standing ovation. Later, as the Yankees were cruising to a 6-2 victory, the crowd chanted "No more George! No more George!"
In a written opinion, Vincent summarized the reasons for his decision in what he called "two fundamental and, in my view, indisputable premises:
"An owner of a Major League Baseball Club may not initiate and maintain for months, without the knowledge of the Commissioner, a working relationship with a known gambler . . .
"An owner of a Major League Baseball Club may not pay a gambler for information intended to be used in a dispute involving the owner and a ballplayer."
Spira is a 31-year-old Bronx resident who worked for radio stations as a New York sports stringer and as an aide to Winfield's former agent, the late Al Frohman. He said he received the money from Steinbrenner in exchange for damaging information about Winfield and the David M. Winfield Foundation, a charity for children. Earlier this month, he pleaded not guilty to federal charges of attempting to extort money from Steinbrenner and attempting to threaten Steinbrenner and Winfield.
Steinbrenner initially said he gave the money to Spira "out of the goodness of my heart." He subsequently has offered a variety of other explanations.
According to the transcript of his testimony before Vincent, he said Spira "scared me and he really scared my children . . . Safety of my family had a lot to do with it." Steinbrenner also said Spira "was a nuisance to my friends and to my people that worked for me. . . . I just wanted him to get away from here. He did tell me his mother had cancer . . . I felt, felt for his family . . . " In addition, Steinbrenner testified that Spira had threatened to sell damaging information about three former Yankees employees, inluding information about ex-manager Lou Piniella's "sports betting habits."
Steinbrenner's testimony regarding Piniella prompted Vincent to issue a statement that said in part: "I regret the public disclosure of this testimony has unfairly insinuated Mr. Piniella into this affair. Mr. Piniella is in good standing with me and my office."
Vincent wrote that Steinbrenner "offered multiple and conflicting explanations of his decision to give $40,000 to Spira, ranging from charity to extortion . . . I am persuaded that neither extreme was at work here. Rather, the payment was in consideration for Spira's help and was an exercise in expediency . . ."
Steinbrenner has been disciplined by the commissioner on a number of other occasions. After pleading guilty in August 1974 to a charge of conspiracy to make illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's 1972 presidential campaign, Bowie Kuhn suspended him for two years. Suspended in November 1974, Steinbrenner was reinstated on March 1, 1976. President Reagan pardoned him in January 1989.