Sunday, July 18, 2010
Racing Was Lucky To Have a Part of Him
I lost count of how many stories the New York Times ran the day after George Steinbrenner died. Even Maureen Dowd, The Times' op-ed star, weighed in with yet one more entertaining insight into the crotchety owner of the New York Yankees. But it was Dave Anderson, on the sports page, who succinctly summarized how complicated Steinbrenner was. ". . . In a social setting with strangers, he was a nice guy, pleasant and friendly. But if you worked for Steinbrenner. . . as any Yankee employee. . . would confirm, you were an almost daily victim of his impatient bluster and bombast. He fired managers and public-relations directors and anybody who didn't get his lunch order correct."
Ken Nigro and I were newspaper colleagues about an eon ago in Baltimore, and became good friends. Nigro took the Yankee PR job and not long afterwards, moved on. "The pay was good," he told me after he had left the Bronx. "But when you figured up how many hours you had to put in to please George, you might have done better per hour at a fast-food restaurant."
Steinbrenner didn't just beat up on the minions in the front office, anybody who collected a paycheck in his employ was fair game, and that included family. Hank Steinbrenner, one of his sons, had dabbled with the Yankees before moving on to manage the family's breeding operation in Ocala, Florida. When Hank Steinbrenner bought a mare named Sharon Brown for $13,000, his father crabbed: "I thought we were done buying these cheap mares."
To which the son said: "She's not a cheap mare, dad." Sharon Brown was the dam of Holy Bull, an unraced 2-year-old at the time but a future Horse of the Year. Later, Sharon Brown could have been re-sold for $400,000, before Hank Steinbrenner bought her back.
It's hard and actually impossible rooting for a baseball team that went out of business in 1954, but I still get my kicks from the St. Louis Browns Fan Club, which holds an annual dinner or luncheon. In 1994, the Browns' diehards invited Artie Richman as their principal speaker. It was the 50th anniversary of the Browns' only league championship, during a time when many of the good players were committed to World War II.
Richman worked in the Yankees' front office in 1994. He and his brother Milt, a crack sports columnist for the old UPI wire service, had improbably become Browns' fans while growing up in New York, because they found the visiting Brownies were the most generous in signing autographs. Some of the Browns befriended the Richmans, and took them as their guests during spring training. Artie Richman began his St. Louis speech by saying: "When George found out about this engagement, he told me I couldn't go. But I'm here anyway. You might be witnessing my last official appearance as an employee of the New York Yankees."
Well, Richman returned to New York, Steinbrenner didn't fire him and two years later the Yankees were looking for a manager again. Richman had gotten to know Joe Torre when he worked for the New York Mets and Torre was manager. He pitched Torre's name to Steinbrenner. No sale. Something about damaged goods. Torre had already been fired by the Mets, the Atlanta Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals. "George," Richman said, "this guy can still manage." I would think that Artie Richman was allowed to go anywhere he wanted to after that.
I talked occasionally with Steinbrenner during my baseball run, but got to know him better as a horseman. He bred and raced good horses, ran five times in the Kentucky Derby, and had a real shot to win before Steve's Friend finished fifth in 1977. In 1985, his Eternal Prince, about the only speed in the race, had trouble leaving the gate and lost all chance. There was a ruckus about the gate crew possibly mishandling the horse, and naturally Steinbrenner was in the middle of it. Eternal Price's dawdling changed the race into a Spend a Buck cakewalk.
Steinbrenner used the best trainers, including Nick Zito and Wayne Lukas. Lukas later discounted this story, but I was there when he told it, probably for the first time. Lukas got a call from Steinbrenner, who complained that he was tired of being 1A to another owner's No. 1.
"I got a lot of owners, a lot of horses," Lukas said. "Somebody's got to be 1A."
"Well, I don't like it that it's me," Steinbrenner said. "We'll talk about this some more later."
"No, we better get it out now," Lukas said. "Because I can't see it changing."
Before the morning was out, Steinbrenner's horses were still at Santa Anita, but in trainer John Fulton's barn.
I was at Hollywood Park the day the Minnesota Racing Commission denied Steinbrenner's owner's license because of an illegal campaign contribution to Richard Nixon 13 years before. I caught up with Steinbrenner at his table in the Turf Club.
"Minnesota's going to have nothing more than country-fair racing," Steinbrenner said. "No other state has refused me a license. What's Canterbury Downs? I had two horses there, and one of them belonged to my wife. So what if they don't run there? That's a bush-league track, and will always be bush league. Their racing's going to be like Custer and the Seventh Cavalry against the Indians. I own a controlling interest in Tampa Bay Downs. There might be some Canterbury horses that have trouble getting stall space in Tampa after this."
Before Steinbrenner's Bellamy Road, a spectacular winner of the Wood Memorial, ran seventh in the Kentucky Derby, the owner returned my call.
"What do you want to talk to me about Bellamy Road for?" Steinbrenner said. "My son Hank's in charge of the horse business now."
Then he talked for 20 minutes about Bellamy Road.