The most discussed and cussed owner in professional sports, George Steinbrenner presides over his Yankee empire from an opulent office looking onto the Yankee Stadium field where his teams have made it to the World Series four of the last six seasons.
Once lords of all they surveyed, the Yankees fell on bad times in the late 1960s and early '70s. After the Columbia Broadcasting System sold the Yankees to a Cleveland shipbuilder in 1973, baseball soon learned that George Steinbrenner operates at only one speed.
"Full Speed Ahead," is the order dialed up on the brass ship's throttle displayed on a conference table in Steinbrenner's office. "Lead, Follow or Get the Hell Out of the Way," a little sign advises. Of the six leather chairs at the table, one is significantly taller than the rest in the manner of the bench at the Supreme Court or around the president's Cabinet table.
Steinbrenner took the tall chair the other day for an interview with Washington Post staff writers Jane Leavy and Dave Kindred, who prepared this article. Also present were Thomas Boswell, Ken Denlinger and Shirley Povich.
Question: As a by-product of the strike, will baseball in the near future adopt eight-team playoffs?
Answer: I think next year, in my opinion, the American League will definitely move to a three-division format with a balanced schedule. Or at worst, to No. 1 in the East playing No. 2 in the West. But, my first choice is three divisions. Now, the National League is still a question but I think the American League would move.
Q: In the wake of the strike, there has been a great deal of talk that there must be a change in the role of the commissioner, as well as replacing Bowie Kuhn.
A: We have to have a commissioner's office that's meaningful. The commissioner's office today, we've stripped him. He has no say over the players, he has no say over the PRC (owners' Player Relations Committee), he has no say over the officiating of the game. He has no say over really anything except to maybe reprimand an owner once in a while. . . Bowie Kuhn takes a lot of heat from a lot of people. He's ruled against me 11 out of 11 times in things the Yankees have had in front of him. But the man has taken it like a man. He's kept his mouth shut. Ownership, like idiots, have stripped him of most of his power. I say centralize that power in the office of the commissioner, have one leader.
Q: Kuhn's current term ends in August, 1983. Do you think his contract will be renewed?
A: I wouldn't want to predict anything. I find it hard to believe Bowie would not want to stay on as commissioner. I would rather have the man stand up and say, "I want to be your commissioner," instead of saying, "I don't have to do this. I've got other places to go." I don't like it when he says that.
Q: Many people believed that the strike this summer was really aimed at preventing owners such as you from spending so much on free agents, that it was a battle of the haves and the have-nots
A: I know there are jealousies in baseball. I was in a meeting with an owner who purchased his team in '74 and I purchased mine in '73. Well, he says, "You've got it all because you're in New York. You should share."
I have to say, "How much was your television contract when you bought in '74 and how much was your radio?" My Yankee radio contract I paid, the first year I bought the team, $175,000 to get a guy to broadcast my radio games. And my television was less than a million dollars (The Yankees now receive between $5-6 million for broadcast rights). He is not going to sit (and say it is) just because I'm in New York. Bull. I could have continued like they were doing and been in the same spot.
Q: How did you feel when you took over in 1973?
A: They didn't look too good. The Yankees then didn't embody what I felt that they should . . . Discipline is the basic ingredient. Lombardi had it. Don't love me but respect me and do what I tell you. That type of thing is a necessary ingredient in teams and I think we started out with that and got lambasted. We started out with stuff that almost seemed gushy. I was so overcome with Yankee tradition. But our people began to believe, we made the moves and we started to build.
Q: Very quickly, you became more visible than any other owner.
A: I think that's what the game needed. I think the game needs involved ownership . . . You can't just sit back and call it the grand old game and expect people to walk through the turnstiles.
Q: Fifteen years ago, a manager had complete authority over his players. But now when a player's average salary is three or four times a manager's, is there a point when the owner is the only person who can send a quiver of fear through a locker room?
A: You have to be an involved source in the discipline, help your manager in that way.
Q: But that's never been the way it's done.
A: No, it hasn't. But a lot of things are going on in this game that have never been done before. You've got to change with it. You can get involved at the wrong times sometime, I admit, and maybe I do. But I want my guys playing for this team to understand two things. When they're done playing baseball, life isn't a bowl of cherries out there and you've got to work hard and you've got to deliver.
It's a ridiculous idea that every time something goes wrong you keep it within a little circle in the locker room and you must never say anything bad about anybody on your team when they're not performing. That doesn't toughen a guy up for what he's going to face in life.
The second thing I want the guys understanding is this: I want the little guy in the stands who is a public citizen paying his hard-earned dollars to see this ball club to understand that there is some guy who is going to demand these fellas to perform for them. And that's why, for the last three years, we've broken the record of having over 5 million people at our games on the road and home. I want the customers to know there is somebody up there that's going to say to the players, when they're not doing the job, "You better get your butt moving."
Q: Is it necessary to publicly humiliate players, such as you did last week with catcher Rick Cerone?
A: I was personally hurt this spring when Rick went to arbitration over salary. Tripled his salary in a year. I was calling him Brutus and he called me Caesar. We got to laughing about it. But I cannot tolerate mental mistakes like he made running the bases. A player getting paid $500,000, $600,000, I can at least expect 2 1/2 hours of thinking every day for 160 games. That's why I got on Rick. A champion won't be a champion long if he allows it to go on.
I agree, it takes a great degree of mental toughness to play for the New York Yankees. I do it my way. Believe me, with today's ball players earning what they're earning, there are very few things that affect them.
Q: And public chastisement is one?
A: It's the only method we have. I don't like it, I will tell you that.
Q: The irony is that this chastisement makes the players more popular.
A: It can unify a team against an owner. That's a psychological thing, and I understand that. I don't mind. I can't change. After the first game of the Series, I went to the clubhouse. I told them not to read the papers, I told them they would play a great series. "One other thing," I said. "If we really get in trouble and have to leave prisoners, make sure it's the old guys." And I walked out, with everybody laughing and throwing gloves at me.
Q: Speaking of "old guys," how did you score the Reggie Jackson-Graig Nettles fight?
A: I told everybody I was the cut man.
Q: Jackson's contract is up this season. Considering what he has meant to the Yankees in your time, how can you consider not re-signing him?
A: Reggie and I are going to sit down as soon as this thing is over. Hopefully we will resolve something. But there is nobody, including Steinbrenner, who is bigger than the Yankees. There is a mystique about the Yankees. I'm convinced of it. They love us and they hate us.
Reggie is a very caring person. Sure, he drives me to distraction sometimes. but on balance, he's way over for the good. You take everybody on balance because you know nobody is without dents in their armor.
Q: Many of your players have expressed less than lovely sentiments about you.
A: I'm not looking for their love. I'll never have it. I'm not that kind of leader. I'm not an Eisenhower. Everybody makes fun of me. Baron von Steingrabber. Patton. I'm more of a Patton that I am an Eisenhower. Maybe I'd rather be different but you gotta go with what you got. If you're a fast ball pitcher, you shouldn't try to throw the screwball.
Q: In the press, you are known as The Boss, Herr Steinbrenner, George III, and the only convicted felon among baseball's ownership, an allusion to your conviction of making an illegal campaign contribution to former president Nixon. How does that make you feel?
A: It's part of what you have to bear. Nobody is without a dent in their armor. It's part of my life. I have to live with it . . . Sure, sure, it hurts me. Nobody likes to be thought of that way and I get hit with it all the time.
Q: If you were going to draw a caricature of yourself, how would it look?
A: I suppose just about like General von Steingrabber or Patton. Every time now I'm introduced at a dinner, they play the Patton theme. It gets embarrassing after a while.
Q: You have hired and fired seven managers and eight public relations men since 1973. Would you go to work for George Steinbrenner?
A: I'm not sure. I think I probably would. I'm not sure how happy I'd be all the time . . . I am very difficult to work for because I expect an awful lot of my people . . . Maybe sometimes too much. I would rather have them failing in trying to exceed their limits than failing by not even approaching their limits.
Q: Some people who have worked for you say you need to dominate them, that it brings out the dark side in you.
A: Sometimes I wish I could be different, I really do. I understand my shortcomings in those areas. I try the best I can. I'll put the amount of good I do for people up against anybody else who would be a detractor. But I don't go around tooting my horn about it. I can live with myself. If I can help somebody, maybe that's the check and the balance.
Q: You've painted a picture of an activist owner who gets things done even if he sometimes gets in the way. Could baseball use 26 owners like you?
A: (Laughing) God help us if we had 26.