It's an end of an era with the passing of George Steinbrenner, one of the most renowned sports owners of our time and a New York Yankee, through and through.
Many personalities who were connected to George Steinbrenner professionally and personally will come forth to share their memories of this sport's giant -- the dedicated, driven, intensely committed, bombastic owner of the NY Yankees.
I have my own stories that I would like to share. I first met George Steinbrenner as a student at the University of South Florida in Tampa. As one of USF's student 'Ambassadors,' we met with leaders in the Tampa Bay community and George Steinbrenner was leader 'personified.' When one looks up the meaning of the word 'leader,' George Steinbrenner's name should pop up. If any one individual in business had the ability to motivate a group of people toward a common goal, it was the Boss. You may have questioned and/or criticized his tactics, but the man was a true leader and innovator in sports. He did not follow. He led. And he did that consistently throughout his career.
Steinbrenner donated millions of dollars to University of South Florida, particularly to their athletic and music departments and mobilized Tampa business leadership on behalf of the University. Every time I had an opportunity as a student to talk with him at an event in Tampa, he seemed genuinely interested in my work at the University and my broadcasting career. Needless to say, to me, at the time, he seemed larger than life.
After I graduated and became a young reporter/producer working in broadcasting in New York City, George Steinbrenner not only remembered me but offered to give me an exclusive interview for ABC Radio Network when I worked for the network's sport department. When Steinbrenner fired Yogi Berra 16 games into the 1985 season, the Executive Producer of ABC Radio Sports at the time, Shelby Whitfield, knew of my USF -Tampa connection with George and asked if I could get an interview with Steinbrenner. I called George's office and not only did he pick up the phone immediately, he told me he would give me an 'exclusive.' An hour later, I was sitting in his large office at Yankee Stadium, overlooking the baseball diamond, with all kinds of photos and memorabilia on the walls and shelves. I was mesmerized as I watched this sports icon conduct business and bark orders with power and authority.
While I was in his office before my radio interview started, George picked up several phone calls from various broadcasters (Al Michaels and Bob Costas come to mind) and I remember him telling them or their representatives that he was giving me the first interview and that he would have to call them back!
He certainly did not have to impress me and whether it was out of niceness and/or him just wanting to help a young reporter that he knew from Tampa, I never forgot his kindness. The firing of Yogi was a huge story and the interview played all over ABC Radio Network that day.
After witnessing his charitable side first hand in Tampa while a student at USF, (as he donated millions of dollars to the University, got the Yankees to design and install the USF baseball field, put the lighting system and scoreboards in, organized exhibition games between the Yankees and USF baseball team, just to name a few), it was remarkable to later get to know the sports and media icon himself up in New York, as the most well known owner in sports who dominated the headlines, sports stories and the NY sports scene.
And in addition to running into him at the usual charity and celebrity sports dinners around town, I often spoke to George at another one of his favorite venues -- the Olympics. George was a big supporter of the United States Olympic Committee and in other interviews with me, always talked about how proud he was of the young American Olympians, their discipline, dedication and commitment to their sport and in representing our country.
George Steinbrenner's record as the owner of the Yankees speaks for itself -- seven World Series Championships, 11 American League pennants and 16 AL East titles. Yes, he had a penchant for intimidating and firing people and clashing with Yogi Berra, Billy Martin and Dave Winfield, to name a few. Although many of his decisions and moves seemed harsh and questionable at best, I would always defend the Boss when the subject of over-spending for players came up on my weekly sports call-in show on WFAN Radio which I hosted for 23 straight years. I figured if he was the owner and had the money, he had every right to spend the money on putting a winning team together. And that is exactly what he did for most of the years he ruled the team - win! Obviously, it was easy for non-Yankee fans to criticize his spending but he helped popularize the sport of baseball world wide. I'll never forget stepping off a ferry in Italy on the Isle of Capri and the first guy I saw was a fisherman wearing a New Yankess hat! All of his aggressiveness to attract the top players in the game, his will and determination to win and his emotionalism created to his larger than life persona.
But I'll most remember his leadership, vision and his own style of ruling the New York sports scene for over 37 years. There will never be another George Steinbrenner. He was an original. And behind the gruff persona of 'The Boss' who ruled with an iron fist, Steinbrenner was a most charitable, kind-hearted guy when he wanted to be. I feel privileged that I got to know that side of him.
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