delanceyplace.com 7/8/11 - george steinbrenner's red phone
In today's excerpt - Bill White, an African American and five time All Star baseball player whose recent book Uppity recounts his times playing baseball in the racist south, his years as a broadcaster for the New York Yankees, and his tenure as President of the National League. Here he tells of a run-in with George Steinbrenner, who bought the Yankees in 1973 for $10 million and turned it into the billion dollar franchise it is today. Steinbrenner had a reputation as the most hands on manager in modern baseball history and was feared for the abusive way he treated his employees, "screaming and cursing at them, summarily firing them for little or no reason, publicly humiliating them." (It was Steinbrenner of whom one of his limited partners, John McMullen, once said, "Nothing in life is so limited as being the limited partner of George Steinbrenner."):
"George Steinbrenner's determination to control everything about the New York Yankees didn't end with the team itself. He not only wanted to control the Yankees, he wanted to control what was said about the Yankees -- not just by sports reporters, who routinely found themselves frozen out when they displeased Steinbrenner, but also by broadcasters in the Yankees booth. Steinbrenner had a red phone installed in the broadcast booth so he could always be sure to get through when he heard something he didn't like. When that red phone rang, everybody knew it was Steinbrenner -- and that he was pissed off. ...
"Steinbrenner made no secret of the fact that he wanted 'homers' [people with unquestioning enthusiasm for the home team] broadcasting his Yankees' games -- and [my broadcast partner] Phil Rizzuto was a true homer, unable to hide his love of the Yankees and his joy when they won. I'm not criticizing Phil for that. That was simply the way he was, and it worked for him.
"But I was another story.
"Unlike Phil, I didn't have an emotional attachment to the Yankees, as a player or as a broadcaster. My job was to call the games as I saw them. If the Yankees played well I said so, and if they didn't, I said that, too. But Steinbrenner wanted something else.
" 'Why can't White be more like Rizzuto?' he would ask the broadcast producers. As diplomatically as possible -- most of them were afraid of Steinbrenner's rages -- they would explain that the broadcast needed straight play-by-play to balance Phil's homer-ish style. And in any event, they would say, 'Nobody's going to change Bill White.'
"Still, the calls from Steinbrenner to the broadcast booth came in during almost every game. A production assistant whose job it was to monitor the red phone would take the calls and write down Steinbrenner's demands and then pass the notes to whoever was calling the game.
"If an umpire blew a call to the Yankees' disadvantage, Steinbrenner would want us to rip the ump, If a Yankees player who was in Steinbrenner's doghouse bobbled a play, Steinbrenner would want us to question his playing abilities and value to the team. With managers especially, if the Yankees were doing badly Steinbrenner would want us to knock the manager's decisions on-air. Sometimes he seemed to think that such on-air critiques would actually be a motivational exercise, driving the player or manager to do better. At other times Steinbrenner, who was notorious for using the news media to communicate his displeasure with a player or manager, apparently wanted to use us to validate his intentions to get rid of a guy.
"But whatever his motives, I wouldn't go along. The first few times I got the notes, I ignored them. Finally I told the young production assistant, 'Tell the Skipper I'm not even going to read this note.' Given Steinbrenner's temper, that probably wasn't fair to the production assistant. (Most people who worked for Steinbrenner called him either 'Mr. Steinbrenner' or 'Boss'; he would get furious if an underling had the temerity to call him 'George.' I didn't call him any of those. Since he owned a shipping company, and sometimes wore a captain's hat, I always called him 'Skipper.')
"The notes from Steinbrenner kept coming, and I continued to ignore them. Then suddenly one day they stopped. When I asked the production assistant why, he said, "Mr. Steinbrenner is still calling in the notes. He just told me not to give them to you anymore."
"That was fine with me."
|Bill White with Gordon Dillow|
|Uppity: An Untold Story About The Games People Play|
|Grand Central Publishing|
|Copyright 2011 by William D. White|