WNYC's Brian Lehrer Reflects on Steinbrenner's Life

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Flags were lowered to half-staff at City Hall as fans gathered at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday to pay respects to the late team owner, George Steinbrenner. Many Yankees players and fans are singing the praises of 'The Boss.' But WNYC's Brian Lehrer talks to Richard Hake in the WNYC Newsroom about another side to Steinbrenner.

So, Brian, let's just put it out there. You're not a Steinbrenner fan. And while we don't want to speak ill of the dead, this was a man with a complicated past who was part of some controversial history outside of baseball. And that was politics.

Ok, politics. This was outside of baseball. This is not being much talked about. This is off the field, way off the field. Steinbrenner was convicted of conspiring to make illegal corporate campaign contributions to the Nixon re-election campaign in 1972. One of those counts was a felony, so Steinbrenner lost his right to vote. And then, Ronald Reagan pardoned him as one of Reagan's last acts in office.

Did he ever serve time for that?

No, he never served time. He was only fined $15,000. So you may wonder, 'Why did Reagan bother to pardon him as one of his last acts in office?' And my understanding is that Reagan pardoned him to restore Steinbrenner's ability to vote because he was a guy born on the Fourth of July, as he loved to say, George Steinbrenner, and he had been stripped of his right to vote. So, one Republican president pardoning an illegal donor to the previous Republican president..so that he could vote for future Republican presidents, presumably. And Steinbrenner lived in Florida, so, who knows? Maybe he was the deciding vote in 2000.

Ok, let's turn to what Steinbrenner, of course, is better known for--and that's always striving for those World Series rings. A lot of Yankee fans have kind of a love-hate relationship with him. Do you at least admire him for that a little bit, Brian?

Well, certainly for his drive to win. I mean, you know, there's a greatly admired excellence in the pursuit of excellence. But, I detest arrogance and selfishness and entitlement. And here's my take, which again, I think is being underplayed today. I actually think that the Yankees dynasty of the last 15 years came more as a result of Steinbrenner's two-year suspension from the Yankees than from his involvement with them. Remember, another one of 'The Boss's' glory days -- and forgive me for mixing 'Boss' metaphors -- another one of the Steinbrenner's excesses was that he hired a gambler named Howard Spira to dig up dirt on one of his star players, Dave Winfield, in the '80s for various reasons. And then, Steinbrenner was suspended for two years by the Commissioner of Baseball. Now, what happened during those two years? The Yankees went from flailing away under Steinbrenner, buying every high-priced free agent in sight, and not winning for 15 years -- this is the early '90s -- to using their money much more wisely and building the core of the team from the ground up through the minor league system and a few well-placed trades. That was what produced the core of Jeter, Posada, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, and the trade for Paul O'Neill -- all the most beloved Yankees of this generation. And so, I would say, maybe they couldn't have built their dynasty of the last 15 years without Steinbrenner. I'm not sure of that, but I am convinced that Steinbrenner's forced disengagement with the Yankees for a few years was at least as important.

And do you think, ultimately, he was good for New York? I mean, you're from the Bronx, you go up there, we have a brand new stadium and kind of a revitalized neighborhood...

Born in the Bronx, raised in Queens, live close to the Bronx now in upper Manhattan. And you know, Steinbrenner: good for New York in an entertainment sense. He's another one of these larger-than-life New York figures. You know, Steinbrenner, Donald Trump, Robert Moses, he kind of goes in that category. But for me, as a father of two athletic sons, if it's life lessons through sports, it's still, 'You don't have to behave like George Steinbrenner in order to be great at what you do.'