New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, contrite and apologetic, told Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent he had several reasons, including fear his family would be harmed, for giving gambler Howard Spira $40,000 even though he knew the money would go to pay off gambling debts.
Steinbrenner was questioned by Vincent during a hearing July 5-6 in New York. A copy of the extraordinary transcript, obtained by the National Sports Daily and printed in yesterday's editions, revealed Vincent hammered at Steinbrenner and was clearly unsympathetic to Steinbrenner for associating with an admitted gambler.
Steinbrenner said he paid Spira, in part, because he feared him. He also said Spira had become a nuisance and threatened to sell damaging information on three former Yankees employees, including manager Lou Piniella. Later, Steinbrenner said he felt sorry for Spira, whose mother had cancer at the time of the payment. Steinbrenner said he wanted to give Spira a chance to leave New York and start anew.
According to the transcript, Vincent several times scolded Steinbrenner for using poor judgment and asked him why he didn't seek the help of the commissioner or law enforcement authorities if he was really concerned about his family.
The testimony reveals a Steinbrenner rarely seen in the public eye. Far from the blustering, arrogant owner of the Yankees, the man who fires managers and publicly chastises his players, Steinbrenner is portrayed as a man fighting for his life in baseball.
That life is being considered by Vincent and his advisers. After the hearing, Vincent gave Steinbrenner 10 days to submit more evidence. That 10-day period expired Monday and sources say Steinbrenner did indeed submit more. Vincent has since taken a transcript of the meeting along with the report of investigator John Dowd and several close associates to his summer home in New England where he will decide Steinbrenner's fate. He said he would announce a decision in about two weeks.
"I've been reading the materials," Vincent said. "I'm just about through them. It was substantial."
His wide-ranging powers as commissioner probably allow him to fine or suspend Steinbrenner, and, in a worst-case scenario, to force him to sell the Yankees. Various Yankees sources have said that Steinbrenner has no intention of leaving baseball and probably would challenge any such order in court.
"You have testified . . . gambling is really something that troubles you," Vincent tells Steinbrenner at one point in the transcript. "Yet, you pay 40,000 dollars to a man who tells you he is going to take the money to pay off gambling debuts."
Steinbrenner later admits the payment was a mistake, saying, "Commissioner, I have to tell you if I made a mistake in judgment. I made an honest mistake . . . I can't erase that."
When Steinbrenner tried to justify his reasons for making the payment, Vincent brushed them off, saying: "It doesn't really matter. The real issue is what did you do? Why did you do it?"
The National also said Steinbrenner wrote a letter to the commissioner after the hearings, acknowledging that, "in hindsight, I used poor judgment in giving Spira the 40,000 dollars," but added, "I do not believe it is fair to judge me in hindsight . . . I do not believe my actions were contrary to the best interests of baseball."
But in the transcript, when Steinbrenner said he believed his actions to be proper, Vincent asked why he had made the payment "through a law firm with a bunch of steps -- I'm being critical here -- that were not straightforward."
Steinbrenner concluded his letter by offering to pay "whatever part of the investigation's costs you deem appropriate."
It has been widely believed that he used the $40,000 to buy information damaging to former Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield and his Winfield Foundation. Steinbrenner told Vincent he believed funds had been mismanaged there and that Spira, a former employee of the foundation, could help him. That eventually led to the $40,000 payment.
Vincent hammers at this point, asking: "Didn't it occur to your advisers? Weren't they saying to you, 'George, look, when this is all over and you pay him 40,000 dollars, it's going to look as if we bought this information about Winfield?' "
Steinbrenner replied that "I didn't think about it. I had so many things going through my mind at that time about the things that I have told you; never occurred to me and nobody told me. . . . If I had to answer it now . . ."
Instead, Steinbrenner said he had other reasons: ". . . he scared me and he really scared my children . . . And I didn't know what to expect." he was a "nuisance to my friends and to my people that worked for me and these calls, hundreds of calls, 10, 15 times, sometimes three, four times a day." "I just wanted him to get away from me and get away from here. He did tell me his mother had cancer . . . I felt, felt for his family, as I do for my family as I do for my own family." That Spira had threatened to sell damaging information about three former Yankees employees, including Piniella's alleged gambling habits. Vincent said yesterday he had no evidence that Piniella had done anything improper.
The Yankees employees Steinbrenner referred to are Pat Kelly, longtime Yankee Stadium manager, and David Weidler, the former controller and chief financial officer of the club. Steinbrenner testified that both took various giveaway items, "great bulks of them, and selling them to this fellow or giving them to him . . . at this warehouse."