Remembering Steinbrenner: the man of so many adjectives

Much -- doubtless too much -- has been written and said about George Steinbrenner since the mighty fellow finally ran out of rage and bombast after an extraordinary 80-year run full of sound and fury signifying much.

Like him or loathe him, as you may please. But don’t ever deny what mattered most to him, and that was the sheer immensity of his own transcendent importance. Sure, he was a bully and a walking paradox of fierce and infuriating contradictions. But you may further say this for him. He never denied it.

Actually, George was born a century too late. He would have been much more comfortable coming along in the 19th century when ferocious ambition (no matter how ruthless), the courage of your convictions (no matter how grasping), and a manic lust to conquer (often for its own sake) were not only entirely unregulated in our boisterous Republic but widely regarded as saintly virtues as defined and enshrined by the young nation’s hallowed Protestant ethic.

The thought of it tickles me. How grand a time George would have had matching strides with the likes of Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Belmont, or even Gould and Rockefeller. It’s easy to imagine him presiding with the requisite bluster over vast enterprises of rails or sails or industry or fields of gold, totally a law unto himself.

George could have run with the best, brightest, and most brutal of them for he had the mentality, temperament, and arrogance of the legendary robber barons. Plus, he also had -- in high spades -- that extraordinary gift they all featured of being utterly merciless in the pursuit of empire and tenderly merciful in the dispensing of its favors.

There’s a certain genius to this fabulous contradiction although it’s sure hard to put your finger on the whys and wherefores of the thing. Andrew Carnegie could crush a union movement with total contempt, then build a library, a hospital, and a ballpark for the poor suckers he had so casually brutalized. So it was with George. His fury over the pettiest of disappointments -- be it in business or on the ball field or simply in the aimless give and take of life -- is at the core of his legend and the terror he visited upon those who disappointed him makes a reasonable person squirm 30 years later. Make no mistake about it: George could be a major league bully.

Yet for every person he needlessly humiliated there are dozens he rescued with corporal acts of kindness and generosity that left them breathless and forever grateful. Their stories abounded these past weeks and many of them were mighty touching. It seemed like everyone who had ever known him had a rich anecdote illustrating his capacity for selfless goodness. That he kept the best of his good works private and never played to the crowd with his charity made the tales the more appealing. George at his best had the compassion of Mother Teresa and the jolly good will of Santa Claus.

But all that tender stuff only leaves you more confused. How do you fathom these odd ducks? What accounts for the twists in their makeup? Is it guilt that prompts their charity? Is it a yearning for redemption, the haunting fear of some dim and distant reprisals? In the end, is all their sweet charity more a matter of covering their bets?

They are questions none of us has the ability to answer. Yet you sensed they preyed on all the folks in the media and the game of baseball and the high and mighty councils of the popular culture who had so much to say after he died. The outpouring of comment, reflection, and eulogy was staggering. But then George Steinbrenner was truly a Big Man. Big in sport, big in the culture, big in business.

You think what makes him “big” is the fact that he badgered the fabled Yankees back to the very pinnacle of the sporting industry? That was nice but it wasn’t the key factor in making him so important. Much more important, my friend, is the fact that over four decades he parlayed a personal investment of $186,000 in the $8.8 million purchase price of the Yankees into a $1.6 billion fortune by the time of his death.

That’s what makes him a Hall of Fame corporate buccaneer every bit the equal of a Carnegie or Vanderbilt. That’s what makes him a legend not just of the sports world, which has its limits, but of American life itself. For as Cal Coolidge so succinctly put it, “the business of America is business.” Amen!

That he did it in New York was the crowning touch. It could never have played so big elsewhere. New York City was the only stage worthy of what the man was able to bring to the table. He was a smart, successful, totally unknown Cleveland shipbuilder barely in his ‘40’s when he arrived in Gotham and snared the Yankees thanks to a series of improbable breaks sprinkled with his customary wiles. It was a lucky moment for the team, the town, and the man.

“When you’re a shipbuilder, nobody pays any attention to you,” he once observed. “But when you own the New York Yankees, they do. And I love it.” For George, it was all about power and importance and being King of the Hill, just as one of his dearest idols, Mr. Sinatra, intoned every night at George’s palatial ball yard after his beloved team had won yet another game. The need is understandable, even acceptable. But the degree to which he came to hold it became pathological and that was hard to take. What accounts for such eerie compulsion remains the question. Maybe you’ll find the answer in Freud. Maybe!

If New York doesn’t create these supreme characters it sure has a way of bringing them to full flower. For generations Broadway abounded in them. Some, like George, came from elsewhere. But all of them hit the town running, and reveled in controversy, and dominated the tabloids, and had an instinct for responding brilliantly to the town’s towering sense of theater. Georgie Cohan was one of them. So were Teddy Roosevelt, Alva & Amy Vanderbilt, Babe Ruth, Fanny Brice, Flo Ziegfeld, the Hammersteins, Anita Loos, and Jimmy Walker, the mayor they called ‘Beau James’, and no doubt you can think of a dozen more. ‘Ziggy’ is the one George most resembles, I’d say. Because like the Great Ziegfeld, George was utterly dauntless and had a capacity for daring that had no limit.

Was George the last of them? We always look around at times like this and say that and it’s never true. But in recent years the ranks of these gloriously irascible and inscrutable characters have unquestionably thinned and when you check the bench you only see tinhorns like Donald Trump ready to step up to the plate. So maybe this time it is true. Maybe they don’t make ‘em like George anymore. If so, only the most boring of the holier than thou goo-goos will applaud. Because it’s the Steinbrenners -- for all of their enormous flaws and conceit -- who bring zest to the scene and can strike up the band and spark a roar from the crowd.

When he died I was reminded of that wonderful opening scene of Orson Welles’s incomparable flick “Citizen Kane” when the big voice of doom declares, “As it must for all men, death came for Charles Foster Kane,” because Kane, of course was a thinly disguised parody of William Randolph Hearst, yet another outsized and excessively driven madman who came to the Big Town and turned it on its ear and amassed an empire while fighting his demons every inch of the way.

Like Kane and Hearst and the others, George Michael Steinbrenner turned out to be mortal in the end. It must have come as a helluva surprise.