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George Steinbrenner in peace and warBY: Dan Rottenberg 07.26.2010
George Steinbrenner, the imperious and fiercely competitive boss of the New York Yankees who died on July 13, made a fetish of modeling himself after military figures. Unlike his heroes, he seems not to have understood the critical differences between sport and warfare.
The armchair warriorDAN ROTTENBERG
George Steinbrenner, the imperious and fiercely competitive boss of the New York Yankees who died on July 13, made a fetish of modeling himself after military figures. He idolized Patton and MacArthur, generals who, he believed, demanded nothing less than victory. He kept a life-size cutout of John Wayne in his New York hotel suite. And he conspicuously flaunted the business management manual, Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.
But his emulation of Patton and MacArthur was truly ludicrous. Patton and MacArthur commanded soldiers who put their lives on the line against bullets and bombs; Steinbrenner’s charges wielded bats and balls. Patton and MacArthur mobilized hundreds of thousands of men and women to save the world from genocidal maniacs; Steinbrenner mobilized hundreds of millions of dollars to win sports trophies. Patton and MacArthur fought Hitler and Hirohito; the most ferocious enemies Steinbrenner ever confronted were Fay Vincent and Bud Selig.
Wellington at Waterloo
In baseball, winners rejoice with high-fives and losers look forward to the next game or season; in war, winners and losers alike find themselves permanently shattered, if indeed they’ve survived at all. A tin soldier like George W. Bush may perform a “Mission Accomplished” strut aboard an aircraft carrier, but genuine warriors rarely celebrate. As the Duke of Wellington remarked while surveying the dead bodies on the field after his great victory at Waterloo: “Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.”
Or consider Ulysses S. Grant, on accepting Lee’s surrender at Appomattox: “My own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of [Lee’s] letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought…”
What about George Washington?
Curiously, Steinbrenner found no place in his military pantheon for America’s most respected generals: Washington, Lee and Eisenhower— good, gray men who took up the sword as a necessary evil but yearned for peace and a return to their farms and homes. Patton and MacArthur, by contrast, loved warfare a bit too much and got antsy in peacetime. To their credit it can be said that they were unbalanced men who channeled their inflated egos and aggressive theatrical natures into a nasty but necessary public service; Steinbrenner, by contrast, was an unbalanced man who transformed a sporting pastime into a grim and nasty business.
Ralph Houk, the first of dozens of Yankees fired by Steinbrenner in his insatiable quest for baseball victory, keenly perceived, as Steinbrenner did not, the difference between war and baseball. Houk won a Silver Star for his courage as an armored corps officer in World War II. As he prepared to manage a World Series game for the first time, against the Cincinnati Reds in 1961, Houk was asked whether he was nervous. “Why?” he replied. “Is somebody going to be shooting at me?”
Pete Carril on victory
“Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing,” Steinbrenner once declared. Nobody, to my knowledge, ever asked him to explain why. In a world of 6 billion people, nobody remains Number One for very long in any field, and no sane person expects to. Someone should have asked Steinbrenner: What’s so terrible about being Number Two, or Number Ten, or Number 100?
To be sure, by applying military methods to baseball, Steinbrenner restored the Yankees’ championship dynasty and made many New Yorkers feel good in the process. But it’s too bad he never hung out with the great Princeton basketball coach, Pete Carril, winner of 514 college games. When asked to comment on the occasion of his 250th career coaching victory, Carril replied:
“I don’t give a hoot about the first one, nor the one-hundredth, nor will I care about the last one. They are so meaningless anyway. A victory is to be enjoyed for a while and then forgotten, and a defeat should be reflected upon for a while and then forgotten as well.”
Ultimately, George Steinbrenner’s legacy is this: He applied aggressive human impulses to a pastime that was intended as a way to work off those impulses. He turned a game into a war. Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall at the Pearly Gates when Mr. Victory-at-Any-Cost is muscled out of Heaven by the likes of Florence Nightingale and Albert Schweitzer?♦
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