Monday, May 18, 2009

George: Interview with Steinbrenner Biographer Peter Golenbock

A former The New York Times and The Boston Globe writer, Peter Golenbock is perhaps best known in sports circles for co-authoring Sparky Lyle's Yankees diary, The Bronx Zoo in 1979. Through connections with team personnel and players, he also helped pen Craig Nettles' Balls (how dirty), and Number 1 with Billy Martin. Altogether, he is credited with 5 NYT best sellers.

His latest release, George: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built the Yankee Empire, takes a deep look inside the life and career of George Steinbrenner. To the average fan, who likely knows the Boss candidly through Larry David's portrayal on Seinfeld, the book is, for a lack of better terms, dark. Steinbrenner's upbringing and personality - that of a domineering manipulator who will stop at nothing to both succeed and save face in the light of criticism - produced among the most abusive, yet successful owners in American professional sports.

We caught up with Golenbock to talk about the book and its subject.

HuggingHaroldReynolds: From the title through most of the 300-some pages of text, "George" is a scathing look at the life of a man whose personality traits and professional shortcomings many fans either chose to ignore, never knew or conveniently forgot. Given your existing relationship in covering the team and working with several of the organization's members, was your intention to write a blistering piece before you began working on it or was it something that came about as your research progressed?

Peter Golenbock: George was never intended as a "scathing" look. Rather I interviewed almost a hundred people, and this book is the result of what they told me. A writer should never go into a project with any preconceived notions. The fun of any project is interviewing someone and learning what he or she has to offer. It is then the writer's obligation to present that information fairly and accurately.

HHR: Tell us how the book's subtitle came about.

PG: What struck me early on was the duality of George Steinbrenner's relationship with his father. On the one hand, his father was a tyrant who ran his life with an iron hand, and on the other he was a father who would come to George's rescue any time he got in trouble. Growing up rich George learned how to take advantage of his station from an early age. It also allowed him to grow up arrogant and feeling that the rules didn't apply to him. I feel the title accurately reflects this.

HHR: In the opening pages you characterize two personality disorders, traits of which become recurring themes throughout the life of Steinbrenner (and subsequently the book). Can you briefly give readers examples of signs of the Boss' possible (if not likely) Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

PG: Narcissism: George was a person who felt he was right all the time, that he was the only one capable of making key decisions, and that no one else, including the top people working under him, knew what they were doing. As a result, he felt his employees to be interchangeable and easily replaced, no matter who they were. If he didn't get his way, he would turn vengeful. If he felt embarrassed, he would turn vengeful. Also he was into becoming famous, no matter how he did it. He allowed himself to be lampooned on Seinfeld, even though the show made fun of him week after week. Obsessive-compulsive: He was a workaholic who never took a vacation. He was a micro-manager who felt he needed to be involved in every decision of every department of the Yankees. He was the first to arrive at the office and the last to leave. He could never have a period of rest. He had to be doing something, which accounted for his extraordinary stamina and his ability to work on many different projects at once.

HHR: While Billy Martin is the obvious and most well-known example, how would you categorize the numerous employees that Steinbrenner has abused over the years? Why did so many put up with it for so long, despite it being so prevalent over the years? Is the Yankee mystique that alluring or is Steinbrenner that manipulative?

PG: You can't categorize the employees who George abused. You can only categorize the nature of the abuse. You have to understand that no matter who was working for him, whether it was Billy Martin, Lou Piniella, Yogi Berra, or Joe Torre, that person wasn't as good at his job as George would have been in George's mind. As a result, the manager, no matter who he was, was subjected to a constant stream of suggestions, criticisms, and second-guesses. Why did anyone put up with it for more than one day? The salary was excellent, the job was a plum, and often that person was sure that he could handle Steinbrenner when others couldn't. Torre was the best at handling Steinbrenner because his father had been abusive, and Torre had learned how to handle the abuse.

HHR: Many of George's nuances can be seen in Hank and Hal. You attribute this much like you attribute George's personality as a result of his father's rearing. Yet you ensure that the sons' reign will be, in many ways, different from that of George. In your best estimation, what can Yankee fans expect in years to come?

PG: What the Yankee fans can expect in years to come is a much more rational approach to running the team. With George at the helm, he would ignore the advice of his talented baseball scouts and general managers, often making stupid or ill-advised personnel decisions. Buying Steve Trout was just one of many such decisions.
Hal and Hank will be more likely to trust their baseball people and sign players who will help them more often than not. The signing of Sabathia, Burnett, and Teixeira are proof that they will sign talented players, not too-old retreats or pitchers with reputations who are injured, as George did. Since the Yankees will be making a fortune from ticket sales and from the YES nature, their overspending won't break the bank. In my opinion, the Yankees will be a much more dangerous franchise going forward.

HHR: As his health and public appearances rapidly diminish, what will be the legacy of George Steinbrenner be? How big a footnote will the fact that the Yankees saw their biggest turn arounds over the periods when Steinbrenner was suspended from the game and other, more level minded individuals were making personnel decisions?

PG: His legacy will be that he was the most visible and voluble of owners over the last thirty years. He took the Yankees from a team valued at $10 million to one that is now worth $1.5 billion. He made the Yankees the most loved and hated franchise in all of sports. He became the most loved and hated figure in all of sports. No one will remember that the teams won during the two periods after he was suspended. What they will remember is the Steinbrenner character on Seinfeld, demanding his cannolis.

HHR: Has there ever been a more unintentionally humorous boast than Steinbrenner's 1987 claim to Lou Pinella, "I just won the pennant. I got you Steve Trout."?

PG: If he boasted about getting Roy Smalley Jr. to play second base, that would also qualify.

HHR: On that topic, George orchestrated bringing several "big-name" flops to the Big Apple. Which signing will go down as the biggest blunder?

PG: One of the biggest blunders was paying a fortune for John Mayberry, the big first baseman from the Kansas City A's. I think the Yankees are still paying his salary. Raul Mondesi was a bust. Omar Moreno too. There are plenty others, including Steve Trout and more recently Carl Pavano, who was paid twenty million for very little productivity. You have to look back at all the Yankee rookies George gave away, kids with talent who would have helped far more than the vets he traded for.

HHR: Is there any figure in history and/or society to whom you can compare George Steinbrenner? Would you stick with the literary figure (I believe mentioned by Leo Hindery), F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby?

PG: Napoleon perhaps, though in the end Napoleon was seen as a loser. George won't be. I liked the Jay Gatsby reference. Leo should know.

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