Steinbrenner truly was a close, personal friend

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 14, 2010 - 6:17 AM

I knew the Yankees owner for more than 50 years. He had a tough reputation but was generous, too.

Many years ago I had a radio show on WCCO called "Sports Hero."

The late Steve Cannon was the announcer when I did the show, and in introducing it he coined the phrase, "Here is Sid Hartman with one of his close personal friends."

Well, of course, most of those sports heroes were only acquaintances.

But one guest I had on any time I wanted him was a very, very close personal friend.

His name was George Steinbrenner, and I have a very heavy heart today. The owner of the Yankees, who died Tuesday at age 80, has been very important in my life for more than 50 years. He was a man who did so much for me. I loved and adored him.

But maybe I wouldn't have wanted to work for him because he was a really tough boss.

George was an assistant football coach at Northwestern when we met in the mid-'50s. In the old days, every Big Ten school would hold a dinner the night before the Saturday game. It would be attended by coaches of both teams. In those days before modern video, every team scouted opponents in person, and for some reason George was here almost every time the Gophers played a home game. We went to dinner one night after the party was over, and for some reason we hit it off.

George had a lot of Twin Cities connections.

I will never forget one three-hour luncheon we had at Interlachen Country Club with a relative of Frances Genter, whose horse, Unbridled, won the Kentucky Derby in 1990. It turned out there were at least 25 big horse owners in town, and George knew them all.

If you asked George what he liked better -- owning the Yankees or owning race horses -- he always said the horses.

George also owned a shipbuilding company. His ships hauled a lot of grain for local companies and that business occasionally brought George to town. Whenever he was here, we got together.

The Nederlander family for years owned the Lyceum Theater in downtown Minneapolis and are Yankees stockholders.

For many years the Yankees also held spring training in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where our family has a condo. When the Yankees were in town, George was there and I would sit with him.

There are a lot of Yankees stockholders who are mad they didn't get a big dividend check every year. It was because George spent big bucks to sign players the team needed and he has many, many former ballplayers and poor athletes on his payroll.

For example Lou Saban, who was Northwestern's head football coach in 1955-56 and gave George his first job, held the title of Yankees president at one time.

I remember one situation when I mentioned to George that one of his former third basemen had cancer. George picked up the phone and told his secretary to put the player on the payroll for $75,000.

You will hear a lot of negative stories about the relationship of former Yankees Hall of Famer Dave Winfield and George. Well, Winfield went on New York television and gave me credit for helping get those two feuding personalities back together.

Winfield went so far as to fly to Tampa in the past year to see the ailing owner

Yes, he fired Billy Martin five times. And whenever Martin did something wrong, I got a call from George saying it was my fault because I kept on encouraging him to hire Martin, who in my book is the best manager who ever lived. And you can rest assured Martin's widow is on the payroll, like so many others.

George had a good heart. The Yankees had a stewardess who moved to Minneapolis after she quit. When she died, I attended the funeral with George. He later visited the woman's mother and handed her a big check.

If you asked him, the biggest thing he accomplished in his life was taking over the U.S. Olympic program and make the USA winners again.

One big disappointment I have is that Bud Grant isn't in the College Football Hall of Fame. Well, nobody worked harder to get Grant in the Hall of Fame than George, who was on the board of directors. But he failed to accomplish this for reasons I still don't understand.

Another example of his good works was the case of three young men being arrested at Yankee Stadium. George happened to be walking into the stadium that day and told the cops he would handle it. One of the trio is a Yankees vice president today.

When he hired manager Joe Torre at the suggestion of one of his public relations men, Artie Richman, the New York press blasted it. But George never got the credit he deserved for making that appointment.

If he had one big fault, it was that he had a football mind. He believed baseball players could be "up" for 162 games each season like an NFL player for 16 regular-season games.

He hated the Metrodome and called it the "Homer-dome." But one of his closest friends in baseball was the late Carl Pohlad, owner of the Twins.

When the Yankees were in a World Series, George -- as long as they were winning -- was a guest on WCCO before or after every game.

All modern baseball players should get on their hands and knees and thank this great man for raising the salaries of all players in the game.

He was great to me. If I needed autographed balls or tickets or anything connected with the Yankees, I would call his secretary, Joan, and the request was granted.

And how about him showing up at my 50th year at WCCO banquet five years ago, when he hadn't made a speaking engagement all that year? That's the George Steinbrenner that I knew.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. • shartman@startribune.com

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