I had the opportunity to be in George Steinbrenner's company a handful of times during my years as sports editor. That period - from 1976 to 1983 - was when Steinbrenner's Yankees had turned the corner and moved back into a place of baseball prominence. Making occasional forays to Yankee Stadium to write columns and cover World Series and All-Star games was a heady experience for this Bronx native who had been going to Yankees games since the mid-'50s.
Of course, with one exception, being in Steinbrenner's company for me meant the fringes of packs of beat reporters with whom he was on a first-name basis. But I do have one personal story to tell.
It was around 1980. I can't be exactly sure. I was alone at my desk around lunch time when one of our three telephones rang.
"Sports, Ira Fusfeld," was the way I typically answered the phone back then.
"I'm calling for Bruce Goldberg," said the voice at the other end.
Goldberg was one of our sportswriters. (He now runs the press club in Denver, Colo.)
"Sorry, he's out to lunch," I said. "Can I take a message?"
"This is George Steinbrenner, returning his call."
I paused, mainly because I thought it was some wise guy pulling my leg.
"George Steinbrenner?" was my witty reply. Fortunately, I waited another beat or else I would have put my foot in my mouth.
"Yes, I'm calling about the golf course project up there."
By then, there was no mistaking his voice. Yes, it was George Steinbrenner and he was personally returning Goldberg's phone call about the old Carvel golf course in Pine Plains. Rumor was that Steinbrenner and his pal John Fugazy were working on a deal with ice cream magnate (and golf course owner) Tom Carvel to renovate the club and add condominiums.
Certain that if I told Steinbrenner Goldberg was out of the office, we'd never again have the opportunity for a second telephone connection, I asked him the necessary questions myself (Steinbrenner said there was no such deal regarding Carvel) and after several minutes concluded the call.
Now, understand, this was at the height of the Bronx Zoo era of Steinbrenner's ownership. It was a time when many journalists and fans mocked the bombastic owner; it was long before he toned down his act and began to be recognized favorably for what he did to put his Yankees in position to win every year.
But that brief personal encounter made me see him in a new light. I mean, what was the owner of the New York Yankees doing returning a phone call to a sportswriter in Kingston, N.Y.? You'd think that would be a job for a minion.
This was the other George Steinbrenner, not the one who dumped on Kingston's Mike Ferraro, then the team's third-base coach, for sending home a runner in a decisive playoff game. (The runner was out, because of a perfect relay by the Kansas City Royals. ABC cameras caught Steinbrenner in the stands throwing up his arms in disgust. Ferraro's days with the Yankees were numbered.)
No, this was George Steinbrenner the mensch,
the one who did good things for people behind the scenes. His phone call to a small-city sportswriter wasn't much in the big picture, but for us, it was memorable for all the right reasons.
I'm about 100 pages into Bill Madden's "Steinbrenner" book. So far, there's a lot of craziness, with more to come. I'm looking forward to fondly reading the rest of it.