Byline: David A. Kaplan
Twenty years ago, I got my taste of George Steinbrenner. We were doing a NEWSWEEK cover on the notorious owner of the New York Yankees--the "George" who no more needed a last name than a king of England. This was the blowhard the tabloids loved to call The Boss, and the owner we would soon describe as "The Most Hated Man in Baseball" because of his brushes with the law, the baseball hierarchy, the players, and his own psyche. Back then, in 1990, Steinbrenner was under investigation by the baseball commissioner for paying $40,000 to a gambler in an attempt to embarrass Dave Winfield, a player with whom Steinbrenner was feuding.
Steinbrenner agreed to talk to me in his Tampa offices. I got the full treatment: a signed baseball (alas, "George Steinbrenner," not "Babe Ruth"), a navy-blue Yankees cap, an arm around my shoulder, and an outpouring of compliments for the work of mine he professed to know. We discussed Patton, Lincoln, Manhattan cabbies, and the history of Custer's land stand he was reading. He understood none of the irony of the Little Bighorn topic, even though within weeks he would get thrown out of baseball (again) for two years. A few days later, Steinbrenner called me to amend his answers. He wanted me to know he was reading a great book on journalism and the Graham family--which just happened to own The Washington Post Company, which owned NEWSWEEK.
I couldn't help but laugh. "George," I said, "are you kidding? Are you really calling me up to tell me that? I work for the Grahams."
"I know that, but that's not why I'm telling you!" he protested.
We did our story and George never complained. While he was a bully and at times a self-caricature--not that removed from the unseen Yankees boss that George Costanza had on Seinfeld--he wasn't stupid. In the 37 years he owned the team--until his death last week at 80--he …