NEW YORK, AUG. 19 -- With less than 36 hours left in his reign over the New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner pulled a surprise today -- he re-hired a manager instead of firing one.

Stump Merrill's contract was extended through the 1992 season, the team announced. If Merrill were to stay until the end of the contract, it would be the longest tenure for a Yankees' manager since Billy Martin's first stint, August 1975 to July 1978.

Steinbrenner, who has changed managers 18 times in 18 seasons, must resign as the team's general partner by midnight Monday under an agreement reached with Commissioner Fay Vincent.

Merrill was hired June 6 after Steinbrenner fired Bucky Dent. The Yankees, 18-31 under Dent this year, have gone 31-39 with Merrill through today's victory over Seattle.

"It's the second-happiest day in my working career," Merrill said. "The first one is June 6."

The Yankees are still in last place in the AL East but, with several players called up from the minors, they are 16-13 since July 27.

"Stump has done a fine job with the club and worked hard with the young players," Steinbrenner said in a statement. He was not at Yankee Stadium for today's 3-1 victory over Seattle. But he showed up about 6:15 p.m. for a meeting with General Manager Pete Peterson. He left at 8:30 p.m. and would not comment on his next move or if he would ever be back. There have been reports Tom Seaver will take over as general manager.

Merrill, 46, is in his 14th consecutive season in the Yankees organization. He began his minor league managing career in West Haven in 1978 and this year led Class AAA Columbus to a 33-25 record and first place in the International League's West Division before joining the Yankees.

"I was happy. I didn't know what he had in mind," said Merrill, who never before had a multiyear contract with the Yankees. "I am absolutely elated and, as I stated before, I'll be indebted to this man {Steinbrenner} for the rest of my life."

Merrill was in his office about 45 minutes before the start of the game when Steinbrenner called. "He said he was extending my contract through 1992 and we'd take care of the details later," Merrill said.

Merrill was asked if he considered holding out for a three-year extension.

"Believe me, pal," he said. "I'd take anything that's offered."

Don Mattingly, an occasional critic of the tumult of the Steinbrenner era, was asked if this was the start of the creation of a normal baseball atmosphere.

"I hope so," he said.