Bauman: An even-handed look at the Boss
Madden's biography of Steinbrenner shares the good and bad
What you look for in a biography, particularly a biography of a controversial individual, is balance. And balance is precisely what you get in Bill Madden's biography of George Steinbrenner, "Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball."
The Yankees owner has been a man apart from his peers in many ways since he bought New York's American League franchise in 1973. Steinbrenner has been adored by many Yankee partisans for his win-at-all-costs approach. And he has been detested by the ever-present legions of Yankee haters for some of the same reasons.
Madden, a columnist for the New York Daily News, has covered Major League Baseball for more than 30 years. He is also the 2010 recipient of the National Baseball Hall of Fame's J.G. Taylor Spink Award. Madden has been around this block numerous times. He has the knowledge, the experience, the insight that make him the ideal candidate to write this book in the first place.
And Madden delivers the goods in this biography, a book comprehensive enough, detailed enough, big enough for its subject. It is apparent that Madden has a level of admiration for the work that Steinbrenner has done, the unprecedented baseball/media empire that he has built. But that doesn't get Steinbrenner a pass. This is a warts-and-all biography. And with a character of Steinbrenner's nature, where the pluses and the minuses were in almost daily combat, how could it be otherwise?
Steinbrenner could be arbitrary, infuriating, fundamentally unfair to his underlings. Madden is blunt about the manipulative aspects of Steinbrenner's nature, noting in the book's introduction that he and the owner had managed to remain friends for a decade after Madden began covering the Yankees in 1978.
"That ended when he fired [Lou] Piniella [as manager] after the 1988 season and, in an attempt to justify this, fed me a cockamamie story about how Lou had stolen furniture from the Yankees," Madden wrote. "That he would use me to discredit Piniella was, in my opinion, a new low ..."
If you're looking for someone who comes off extremely well in this book, Piniella, now manager of the Chicago Cubs, would be a good candidate. He appears as one of the few people consistently willing to stand up to Steinbrenner, and he frequently stands up to Steinbrenner by saying something extremely funny.
Madden's reportorial eye for detail is ever-present. And he was helped in the period of the early Steinbrenner years as Yankees owner by the discovery of nearly 100 hours of recorded tapes made by former Yankees executive Gabe Paul, as a kind of memoir of his years with Steinbrenner.
Like a lot of other people who worked for Steinbrenner, Paul, a respected baseball executive, came to the end of his relationship with Steinbrenner with some significant bitterness.
It's all in here, from Steinbrenner's formative years -- surprise, his father was incessantly demanding and did not demonstrate affection -- to the on-again, off-again world of Billy Martin managing the Yankees. There were five firings of Martin by Steinbrenner; had Martin not been killed in a car accident there is no telling what the final number could have been.
Steinbrenner's two banishments from baseball are reported in full; the first was the result of illegal contributions made to the 1972 presidential campaign of Richard Nixon. Also reported is the fact that during the second ban, with Steinbrenner at least partly out of the picture, Gene Michael was able to create the foundation for the great Yankees teams of the late 1990s.
But there were moments, unforgettable moments, when Steinbrenner demonstrated real humanity. One of those occurred after the death of Yankees catcher and captain Thurman Munson in a plane crash.
"...in those numbing, awful days during the first weeks of August 1979, he was their forceful and trusted shepherd through an unimaginable tragedy," Madden wrote. "In terms of being a leader, boss and commander-in-chief, even 30 years later, those who were there in that time of crisis would still agree that it had been George Steinbrenner's finest hour."
To subordinates, Steinbrenner was fully capable of being a bully. He was also completely capable of giving serious amounts of money to virtual strangers whose hard-luck stories touched him.
In the end, all of these aspects made up the man who, driven to win, suffered both an 18-year and a nine-year championship drought, when truly large amounts were spent on the wrong players. But this is also a man, driven to win, who put in place the Yankees/YES Network combine that has given the Yankees unparalleled economic resources. And with the 27th World Series championship in 2009, the Yankees remain in tip-top competitive shape, as well.
In recent years, the same George Steinbrenner has not been in evidence, his associate noticing, as Madden puts it, "a marked decline in his mental acuity and overall health." But the George Steinbrenner who frequently towered over the baseball landscape is fully detailed in Bill Madden's book. You might not want to work for a man who goes into a rage because his team lost a Spring Training game. But you might be in reasonably good hands rooting for that man's team.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.