Baseball literature is in a class by itself. The volume of hard-bound tomes pumped out annually is downright staggering. Give your pet journeyman slugger a couple of 20 home run seasons sandwiched by a career long enough to earn a pension and you have, apparently, a guaranteed market. Stand by for The Life & Times of Virgil Stallcup, due any day at your neighborhood book nook.
There’s no mystery left to be revealed about the give and take between the lines for the happily anointed who are young, rich, and able to either hit or throw a fastball. And ever since Jim Bouton liberated the genre with the notoriously impish Ball Four 40 odd years ago, there are few secrets left about what life is like for these lucky lads after the game is over and the nights are still young and the lights are low and all the world is their stage.
What may have been lost in terms of the innocence of adoring readers in this era of “anything goes” is another matter. Personally, I prefer the more adult approach, having long ago shed the illusion that Christy Mathewson and Lou Gehrig set a standard of exquisite deportment that has been unequivocally adhered to ever since. That was the nonsense I was force-fed as a kid. But (having grown up) I have no problem with jock heroes having feet of clay. Boys will forever be boys. Nor should it be pretended otherwise.
No aspect of the game or its people has been ignored. Every championship has been deeply dissected, every splashy character fully revealed, and still mostly with a reverence the better popes and presidents neither expect nor receive. But there is one group of highly important baseball characters that eludes this phenomenon – the owners.
Which is odd, actually, because it could be argued no single group affects the game’s course, drives its history, or more determines what happens on the field from age to age, year to year, or even day to day than the corporate buccaneers who have owned baseball teams in the roughly century and a half since Alexander Cartwright and the Wright Brothers got the ball rolling. They’ve been a colorful collection of saints and sinners, sportsmen and playboys, noblemen and cheats, wily robber barons and gold-plated saps.
It is the more driven, egotistical, and bold of the moguls who usually answer the call and fare best, although that’s probably the case in most high-profile industries. Heavy fortunes have been made or multiplied in baseball and some have been lost. But it’s hardly the burial ground for suckers that it is widely perceived to be. You have to be thick-skinned and in love with the limelight. It helps if you know the game, understand the infield-fly rule, and appreciate the gum- snapping, snuff-snorting rubes who remain its dominant characters. A seat at this table, friends, is no place for the faint-hearted.
Rich material, are they not? Yet, how many memorable books have been written about owners? Or even easily dismissed and long forgotten books, for that matter. It may have much to do with the fact that the overwhelming majority of baseball owners over the years would much prefer to take their secrets to the grave.
Our own Tom Yawkey was a character right out of Hollywood’s central casting. You could not have made up Uncle Tom. Yet there has never been a worthy study of him, only bits and pieces here and there. The very same goes for Charles Oscar Finley. Bill Veeck, who was utterly priceless, wrote extensively about himself. Veeck was totally an open book and thereby unique in this lodge. The life and works of Branch Rickey have been adequately explored. But while he did own pieces of teams at various times, he was never truly an “owner,” being too smart to risk his own dough. The big books on such important owners as Jake Rupert, Walter O’Malley, the Stoneham and Wrigley clans, Barney Dreyfuss, et al, remain to be written. The role of Charles Comiskey in the 1919 Black Sox scandal begs for fuller explanation. On the other hand, there’s been too much on Connie Mack, all of it pap. You get the picture.
All of which makes a biography of George Steinbrenner by Bill Madden, which has just hit the stalls, the more compelling. It is, I believe, a decidedly important baseball book.
Bill Madden is the man to tell it. He has covered the Yankees for more than 30 years, first as a relentless wireman for United Press International, then as the lead baseball writer and, in recent years, as a columnist for the New York Daily News, which is near omniscient on this subject.
Madden is a superior reporter from the old school. In his press box, there is no cheering. He knows everybody and he keeps dang good notes. He has seen it all and is hard to impress. Most important, he knows “The Boss” probably better than anyone on our side of the fence. He writes clearly and evenly without belaboring style. He is, you might say, a New York version of the legendary Boston sporting scribe Willie McDonough. That doesn’t make him infallible but it does make him someone who has the skills and authority to write this book.
And he has done it well. This is not a review. I’ll leave that to those who have been charged with that responsibility and it’s one that anyone who has labored on the writing of a book will never take lightly. It is only my opinion that I am here to share and I shall tell you I think this is a fine rendering of a very complex tale.
Above all, Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball is a triumph of fine reporting. Madden has re-traced all the controversies, chasing down details that have become frayed, even lost, over the years. Madden says he conducted 150 interviews with all the key characters. More important, he actually got them to talk. This is not some painstaking probe of the very depths of the clip-files spiced with personal memories and charming anecdotes. This stuff is fresh and meaty and, I believe, will prove to be definitive.
What evolves is an extraordinary profile of a deeply torn and troubled man capable equally of acts of greatness and sham, tenderness and cruelty, immensely moving generosity alongside the most trivial of spite. They are contradictions that seem to have haunted him every day of his life, leaving you to wonder if it is right to loathe the man when he is equally deserving of pity. At times it all borders on the ludicrous.
Madden smartly avoids playing the role of pop-shrink, the quicksand too many writers don’t have the good sense to shy from these days. He leaves the conclusions to people more qualified to draw them. But he piles up the evidence to heights that can only be termed monumental. And it makes quite a story.
Indisputably, as Madden asserts, George is the most controversial owner in baseball history, although much of the furor has been about silly stuff of little lasting import however outrageous, even infuriating it might briefly have seemed. George’s capacity for being a nuisance should never be minimized. It’s all that nonsense that has mainly kept him riding high on the back pages of New York’s tabloids over the last four decades and that has tended to minimize his actual importance, which has been huge. He’s dominant in the history of the modern game. He’s the man that turned a personal investment of $168,000 into a $1.6 billion gem. He is unquestionably The Last Lion.
Doesn’t all that qualify him for Baseball’s Hall of Fame? But of course! Madden ducks that question by merely noting that George’s peers could have nominated him on the last two executive ballots of the Veteran’s Committee but took pains to make sure it didn’t happen. Even at the end of the line he’s still too hot for them, so they’ll wait until he’s departed, then they’ll put him in with much bogus fanfare because that’s their style.
You can say this much for George. That sort of craven pussyfooting wasn’t his style.