The late George Steinbrenner was one of the most dynamic owners in the history of baseball. In the long run he will rank with Branch Rickey, Bill Veeck and others who changed the game. He was the first modern owner who actually took his role seriously. Like any CEO watching the bottom line, "The Boss" believed his team should be successful. He understood that the "bottom line" for a baseball team was in wins and losses and World Series rings. Winning for him was the most important thing. He was willing to invest in the team -- investing huge amounts of money to win. But, he also understood that winning wasn't the only thing.
Profits did matter and so he brought his very considerable entrepreneurial skills to the business of baseball. The result was a fabulous marriage of winning, innovation (such as his YES network), and profits. Even those who hated George Steinbrenner -- starting with frustrated Boston Red Sox fans and owners -- will in the end miss him. The owner of the Red Sox called the Yankees under Steinbrenner the "Evil Empire'," But without the formidable "Boss" as Darth Vader, the Red Sox would have just been another losing team, instead of ther heroic (in the minds of Red Sox fans) underdogs. Even for those who hated him, Steinbrenner made the game more exciting, more interesting, and more profitable for everyone. Indeed, he forced the other teams to compete to the point that in 2004 even the once pathetic Red Sox finally won a World Series by out Steinbrennering The Boss himself.
By all rights George Steinbrenner should be elected to the Hall of Fame the first time he is eligible. I hope he gets in, and with him they induct Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson. They are not in the Hall of Fame. Instead, they are banned from baseball. Why, because they broke some baseball's rules about gambline and embarrassed the game. They consorted with gamblers, and because Rose actually bet on his own team. Baseball is harsh to those who break the rules.
Except George Steinbrenner was a convicted felon. In 1974 in an elaborate plea bargain the owner of the New York Yankees pled guilty to one felony count and one misdemeanor for his role in the Watergate Conspiracy. Yes, George Steinbrenner the ultimate American patriot and baseball leader, tried to undermine the American democracy by illegally giving contributions to Richard Nixon's reelection campaign. Steinbrenner also pressured his own employees to lie to government agents and to the grand jury about his illegal activities.
George Steinbrenner was also guilty of consorting with gamblers -- kind of like Shoeless Joe and Pete Rose. In 1990 he admitted to paying a gambler he had hired to dig up dirt about one of his own star players, Dave Winfield. Why? Because Steinbrenner did not want to pay $300,000 to Winfield's charitable foundation, as required by Winfield's contract. Winfield had to sue for the money and that led Steinbrenner to become involved with a gambler, who was himself involved with organized crime.
So, how did baseball treat its most famous owner after his felony conviction and later his admission of consorting with known gamblers. For the felony -- a felony that was directed at the people of the United States, the Constitution, and our system of government -- baseball suspended Steinbrenner for two years, and this was later reduced to one year and three months. Steinbrenner was then back in baseball, running his show. For the gambler who was an owner, the suspension lasted three years; for the players like Jackson and Rose the suspension is forever.
Apparently being a felon, trying to undermined the government of the United States, and consorting with gamblers did not embarrass the game sufficently to keep Steinbrenner away.
Shoeless Joe Jackson was banned from baseball for life (and remains banned from the Hall of Fame even though he is dead) after he allegedly accepted a bribe to throw the World Series. He had one home run, six RBIs and hit .375 in the Series. It is hard to imagine he was throwing the game. A jury did not think so, since he was acquitted in a court of law. But baseball has its own law and Shoeless Joe was banned forever from the game he loved. He is still not in the Hall of Fame although everyone knows he should be. So, of course, should Pete Rose. He was one of the greatest hitters in the game and one of the most exciting players to watch. He stupidly bet on his own team. It made him more competitive since he had even a greater stake in winning. But, he is still banned from baseball and not in the Hall of Fame.
In 1989, just as he was leaving office, Ronald Reagan pardoned George Steinbrenner for his felony conviction for his role in Watergate. That was just before he consorted with a known gambler with connections to organized crime in his unconscionable effort to defame Dave Winfield. No one pardoned him for that, but he was back in baseball three years later.
As we mourn George "the Convict" Steinbrenner (and I do mourn him) isn't it time for baseball to pardon Jackson and Rose? Or, will Major League Baseball continue to have its great double standard, that allows convicted felons and those who admit they have consorted with gamblers to be in upper management, but punishes a few hapless players, including those who like Jackson, who have been acquitted of any wrong doing?
Paul Finkelman, Ph.D. is the President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School in Albany, New York. He writes about baseball and the law and was an expert witness in the lawsuit over the ownership of Barry Bonds' 73rd Home Run Ball.
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