Reviewer’s note: As we mourn the passing of George Steinbrenner ’52, many EphBlog readers may be thinking about ordering up a Steinbrenner biography to learn more about his life and times. Because I just finished this review of the most recent Steinbrenner biography, I’ve moved up its posting date to make it more timely. In a nutshell, Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball is a great account of the Steinbrenner-era Yankees, filled with fun stories and anecdotes, but it’s not the book for a reflection on Steinbrenner’s legacy or his impact on baseball. Other significant biographies of Steinbrenner — none of which I’ve read — include Other biographies of Steinbrenner include Steinbrenner! by Peter Scaap (from the early 1980s), Peter Golenbock’s George: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built the Yankee Empire (released last year in hardcover; just out in paperback), and All Roads Lead to October: Boss Steinbrenner’s 25-Year Reign over the New York Yankees by Maury Allen (the early ’00s).

Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball, Bill Madden

George Steinbrenner ’52 is one of the most famous — and probably the most infamous — Eph of the 20th century. Perhaps predictably even in 1952 — he came in 2nd in student voting for “Shovels It Most.” Yet there haven’t been many biographies of him: his notorious personality and his interest in privacy have turned many would-be biographers aside. Within two years we have two new ones, and following hard on the heels of last year’s George: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built the Yankee Empire, is this year’s Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. Bill Madden, a long-time sportswriter (on the Yankees beat) for the New York Daily News, and the author of several biographies and memoirs: all Yankee-focused. He treats his subject in a standard sports-writer format: vivid prose, strong on the anecdotes, lighter on the deep inquiry. But it’s an enjoyable read — even for those who are not Yankees fans — especially with the nice sprinkling of Eph references throughout.

Steinbrenner’s life ended on a high note: he celebrated his 80th birthday last month, saw the Yankees finally break their $2 billion, decade-long playoffs hex, and watched son Hal Steinbrenner ’91 start to earn his own headlines by banning Lady Gaga from the clubhouse. On the downside, by 2010 TV viewers could finally flip through all 900 channels at 10:00 p.m. without finding Larry David voicing him in a rerun of Seinfeld.

The Last Lion of Baseball is an amalgam of the two inseparable stories of its titular figure and the Yankee teams he owned. As a season by season recap of the glamorous years of Yankee victories, it makes for a great read. Yankee partisan Madden is somewhat less interested in the down years, which shows through a little — although baseball books are always more interesting in the winning than the losing. And the story of Steinbrenner himself is excellently done. Told through anecdotes, interviews, and Madden’s own experience, the book showcases him at his best and worst, without descending into too much of the pop-psychology that often infects biographies (one exception: Madden sees in Steinbrenner’s relationship with Lou Piniella an echo of Steinbrenner’s own relationship with his father). Madden demonstrates that nothing you’ve heard about the late Yankees owner was false, simultaneously mercurial, narcissistic, maniacal, charming, caring, and charitable. Larger-than-life, indeed.

Steinbrenner is best known, of course, for two aspects of his ownership: his free-spending ways and his love/hate relationships with his managers. Becoming owner just as challenges to the reserve clause opened the door to free agency, he was the first owner to take full advantage: opening his checkbook to sign every high-priced free agent star he could get his hands on. Sometimes, that led to success (Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson). Sometimes, less so (Doyle Alexander, Steve Kemp). Interestingly, Madden recounts how Steinbrenner’s player recruitment philosophy began — not with the Yankees, but as owner of the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League, where he signed infamous college point-shaver Bill Spivey and Bevo Francis, who set a college record by scoring 113 points in a game. Neither fit in, much to Steinbrenner’s chagrin.

As for the managers, all the details are here. Billy Martin, Gene Michael, Dick Howser, Bob Lemon. It’s with the managers and general managers that Steinbrenner’s legendary anger most often shows through, and these anecdotes can be almost embarrassing in their profanity and disrespect, as well as Steinbrenner’s rapid emotional reversals after nearly every fight. By the end, it’s clear that both sides are equally the true Steinbrenner.

The Last Lion also touches on other aspects of his life and legacy. Madden chronicles how Steinbrenner’s successes and failures in shipbuilding paralleled the industry (in the United States) as a whole, even as they affected the fortunes of the communities of Cleveland and Tampa. Steinbrenner’s patriotism and desire to see the United States win in Olympic competition have greatly invigorated our Winter Olympics programs from their nadir in 1988. His patriotism for New York helped drive one of his most successful charitable endeavors: the Silver Shield Foundation, providing educational opportunities to the children of police and firefighter heroes. (Steinbrenner began this in the 1980s, long before the outpouring of enthusiasm for first responders following the terrorist attacks of the war with Islamic takfiris).

One topic The Last Lion fails to treat in sufficient depth is Steinbrenner’s larger place: his legacy. Particularly in light of the outpouring of snap opinions in the wake of his passing, a more substantial consideration would have been valuable. In life, Steinbrenner was often presented as the villain of a modern era where players hold press conferences to announce their disrespect for loyal fans. Where does Steinbrenner fit in, and did baseball need him to adapt to a world of rising disposable incomes, increased fairness for ballplayers, and an international market for talent? We’re left to wonder.

However, Madden doesn’t give short thrift to Steinbrenner’s Eph identity. Indeed, Williams College appears on the first page (in the paragraph describing Steinbrenner’s birth), the very last page (as Dick Kraft ’52 — who has sadly, since departed — joins Steinbrenner in his suite to watch the Yankees win the 2009 World Series), and a lot of pages in between. The best highlight of his time at Williams (besides the dueling piano act, about which I’d love to hear more), was his self-deprecating sportswriting — columnist and co-sports editor of the Record, he regularly ridiculed Amherst, but was no less merciless regarding his own words. The conclusion of his final column is representative: “To those of you who have found my columns of any interest at all, I extend my sincere gratitude for your support — to both of you!”

Madden brings Williams into one of Steinbrenner’s finest moments as Yankees owner — his response to catcher Thurman Munson’s heartbreaking plane crash. After calling the veteran players to tell them personally (younger players were called by the GM), Steinbrenner gives out the marching orders for the next day’s pregame tribute. And then, “reaching back to his days as an English major,” he pulls out a sheet of paper to pen Munson’s moving epitaph, still on his plaque at Yankee Stadium today. It’s an interesting bit of credit — and one that, in my experience, isn’t often given by professional writers.

Unfortunately, there’s also an Eph link to one of the lowest points in Steinbrenner’s career. In 1972, concerned about hostility towards his shipbuilding business from the Nixon administration, Steinbrenner hired Thomas Evans ’52 as his company’s general counsel. Evans, who had close ties to the Nixon campaign (chief counsel in ’68), introduced him to Herbert Kalmbach — a key figure in financing Nixon’s illegal activities and the connection that would lead to Steinbrenner’s felony conviction and ban from baseball as an associate in the Watergate mess.

And if Steinbrenner took any stats classes, the math department sure won’t be bragging after reading the story of Steinbrenner’s angry call with Al Rosen after the latter lost the coin flip that would determine where the one-game Bucky Dent playoff of ’78 would be held: “Heads? You called heads? You f–ing imbecile! How in the hell could you call heads when any dummy knows tails comes up 70% of the time? I can’t believe it! I’ve got the dumbest f–ing people in baseball working for me!” Click.

With the era of George Steinbrenner having drawn to a close, The Last Lion is a worthy look back at a life and persona that every sports-minded Eph ought to be familiar with. If this week’s epitaphs, obituaries, and reflections don’t satiate your interest, pick up a copy. And if you run into the current Ephs credited by Madden for their assistance (Dick Quinn at Sports Information and the Library’s Linda Hall and Lori DuBois for their assistance in archival research), let ’em know you read the book.

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