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Let us remember George Steinbrenner, not whitewash him

Jul 13, 2010, 3:15 PM EDT

George Steinbrenner was a titanic figure in baseball history. He was also a sonofabitch. Let's hear about all of it.

This morning I said “I’m not a believer in whitewashing things when someone dies because the
last thing we should be doing when we lose someone is telling lies that
push their true essence further away from us.”

I really mean that.  There are damn few saints in this world. Even fewer who become billionaire businessmen. George Steinbrenner wasn’t a saint. I suspect he’d be the last person to even suggest it.  Watching the day’s coverage unfold on ESPN and on the Internet, however, and the Big Stein has grown more saintly by the hour.

If you read Bud Selig’s statement about Steinbrenner you’d think that the guy was the salt of the Earth. Rather than mere niceties at the time of one’s passing — which I understand — it’s actively deceptive. Maybe Selig and Steinbrenner were friendly on a personal level, but the fact is that Selig’s entire rise to power as Commissioner was premised on his and a group of like-minded small-market owners’ opposition to Steinbrenner’s financial largess. Indeed, the story of baseball labor relations between the advent of free agency and the 1994-95 strike cannot be understood without reference to the battle between big clubs led by the likes of George Steinbrenner and small clubs led by the likes of Bud Selig.

But Bud Selig is, at his essence, a politician, so I understand why such flavor doesn’t make it into his official statements.  But how, then, do we account for the numerous talking heads who have shown up on my TV screen today painting, however unwittingly, an inaccurate or, at the very least, incomplete portrait of the man?

No, I don’t expect people in the Yankees family, widely defined, to offer up unvarnished truth about their patriarch on a day like today, but could ESPN or MLB Network have found someone today who could shed some insight into — as opposed to making mere footnotey mentions of — his felony conviction for illegal campaign contributions and obstruction of justice?  Or how about Steinbrenner paying Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield so Steinbrenner might find a way to get out from under the ten-year contract he gave him?  And rather than merely use his parade of managers in the 1980s as a wide brush with which to paint color on The Boss, could someone be found who could point out that Steinbrenner’s erratic behavior in the 1980s probably did more to cost the Yankees championships than anything else that happened that decade?

I’m not suggesting that these uglier parts of the Steinbrenner legacy should be the lead story.  The man died just this morning for crying out loud.  But if you weren’t Steinbrenner’s family or his close friend, or if you didn’t work for or passionately root for the Yankees, it seems to me that you’re obligated to be thorough and balanced when it comes to covering his death.  The hagiography-to-news
ratio on the Death of George Steinbrenner is growing increasingly larger as the day progresses, however.

I stand by what I said about George Steinbrenner this morning. He was a great figure in baseball in general and for the Yankees in particular. His impact was massive and any true understanding of the game in 2010 is impossible without first understanding George Steinbrenner and his legacy.  The words “titan” and “icon” are thrown around too much when major figures pass, but they are entirely appropriate in the case of Big Stein.

But he was more than that.  In fact, he was a lot of things. The term “a real piece of work” probably describes him best, but under that very large umbrella lies rogue, champion, rake, father, felon, firebrand, leader, fighter and about dozen others I could think of.  I may even go so far as to say that the guy was — in the best sense of the term — a bit of a
sonofabitch too.  I bet he’d agree with me.

In light of that, I’m growing a bit distressed as the day goes on and King George starts to look more and more like Saint George.  It kind of galls me, really. Not because I have a thing against Steinbrenner — I really don’t — but because, when I die, I want people to remember me for what I truly was not for what they feel comfortable saying I was. To do otherwise is to whitewash and to whitewash is to paint over.

And once we’re painted over? We simply disappear.

UPDATE: Charles Pierce at the Globe managed to work in the sonofabitch angle.  The New York Times now has something with a color other than white as well.  And now Dave Brown at Big League Stew has a great post as well. The lesson: I write too damn fast sometimes. Next time I’ll wait for the backlash to come to me.

  1. Quixote's Whore - Jul 13, 2010 at 10:21 PM

    My pimp just told me that Mr. Steinbrenner was born on third base and then believed he hit a triple. Hmmm. So now “Big Stein” has found his way home. I don’t mind taking the good with the bad. Rest in peace George Steinbrenner.

  2. YANKEES1996 - Jul 14, 2010 at 12:49 PM

    Before you label George Steinbrenner a “scumbag” you need to do several things, one of which is set aside all you know about him on the plane of baseball. George Steinbrenner was one of those people who helped people from every walk of life through his efforts and donations. He made donations to the Boys and Girls club of America on a regular basis and always did so under the veil of anonimoty. He cared about his community and helped people with no interest in being recognized or rewarded for his contributions. If he is a “scumbag” and does those kinds of things then this world needs more “scumbags”.
    On the baseball side the number of people he influenced, helped and guided is immeasurable. It is a well known fact that he regularly kept people on the payroll when they were no longer contributing to or actively working for the Yankees. He kept tabs on people such as Daryl Strawberry when he had his drug problems and made sure that he had access to rehab and provided other benefits for him as well simply because he played for the Yankees. There are countless stories of how George Steinbrenner helped former employees and players once they left the organization all you have to do is be willing to listen. Mr.Steinbrenner made some errors, who amoung us has not, but this was a man who had a good heart and was considerate of others and those are the things he will be remembered for, and that is a good thing. As a lifelong Yankee fan I can say that I was proud to have him as an owner and he most certainly had a hand in restoring the Yankees to prominence and for that I say “Thank You”. It is very easy to be harsh on someone, but it is extremely hard to recognize and applaud the good that a person does and that is truly ashame. George Steinbrenner was a winner and he demanded the best from people and there is nothing wrong with demanding someones best effort when performing a job, but demanding that persons best will earn you the reputation of being a “son of a bitch” when actually you should be labeled a “winner” and that is what George Steinbrenner was!

  3. lind - Jul 17, 2010 at 1:15 PM


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