An Intern’s Memory of Boss Steinbrenner

Not too many kids growing up as fans of the New York Yankees can say they had the chance to work or play for the Bronx Bombers.  That honor was one I experienced in 1983 when I served as a media relations intern with the Yankees.  The passing today of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner made me think back to that season.

 It was the spring semester of my senior year at St. John’s University and I was registered for a 15-credit full-time internship with the Yankees.  I wound up working for Ken Nigro, a former sportswriter for the Baltimore Sun, who was in his first and only season as Media Relations Director for the team.  When asked at a post-season dinner if he would ever work again for Steinbrenner after quitting at the end of the season, Nigro was quoted as saying, “I’d rather have AIDS!”  That was strong rhetoric from a grown professional, but understandable, as this was the peak of George Steinbrenner’s feared reign as owner of the Yankees, when he had no qualms of firing his pr men, managers, front office executives and secretaries alike.

As a 21-year-old intern, I learned many things during that season. What stands out in my memory is how a front office loaded with middle age executives could be thrown into a tumultuous panic by the arrival of the Boss.  When Steinbrenner was away there was a different mood in the big ball orchard in the Bronx, as the late Art Rust Jr., used to call it.  But when he was expected in from Cleveland, everyone was on alert.

Keep in mind that 1983 marked the return of Billy Martin for his third tour of duty as Yankees manager.  By mid-summer, the UPI ticker in our office was ringing off the hook with alerts that Steinbrenner was about to fire Martin and replace him with Yogi Berra. This was because Martin had allegedly cursed at a NY Times researcher who had been granted permission to conduct a survey of the players in the clubhouse. Martin didn’t appreciate the way she was dressed and felt she didn’t belong.  Whether he cursed or not, the story made back page headlines and caused the Martin firing watch to begin.

I can remember leaving the front office at the Stadium on Saturday night after a game and seeing Yankees third base coach Don Zimmer in full uniform waiting to go into a meeting with Steinbrenner.  Apparently, Zimmer came to Martin’s defense that night and helped save Billy’s job.

The next morning, Steinbrenner announced that Martin was safe and I actually got to ride down in the elevator with the two as they went from the front office to the clubhouse to meet the media. 

One of my daily tasks as an intern was to deliver a statistics package to all the front office executives, as well as Mr. Steinbrenner.  On more than one occasion I walked in on him while he was in a meeting with his scouts and baseball people and he held out his hand and I just dropped the stat packet in them and turned and walked away.

Another one of my duties was answering the phone when Steinbrenner was looking for my boss.  He’d get on and his voice would bellow, “Where’s Nigro?”  “Find him.”  We’d then forward the call to the clubhouse and Nigro would always be one step ahead, ducking the call which naturally would come back to us.  The Boss would then say, “Get me the operator.”  Of course, the switchboard would be tied up and the call would come back to us and he’d roar on the phone, “I asked for the goddamn operator.”

Mike Lupica of the NY Daily News used to be Steinbrenner’s nemesis back then.  I think he even hung the moniker Boss on Steinbrenner.  We used to have to keep a file on everything Lupica wrote about Steinbrenner and Billy Martin.  The Yankee attorney used to run down and ask us for the file every time Steinbrenner would return from Cleveland.

When American League President Lee MacPhail overturned the ruling by home plate umpire Tim McClelland in the infamous Pine Tar game involving George Brett and the Royals, Steinbrenner really got mad.  With the Royals having to return to the Bronx to finish the half-inning of the game and the Yankees victory stripped from them by MacPhail, I was asked to come up with disparaging trades that the AL President had made while General Manager of the Yankees in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  It was easy to come up with some bad ones like Clete Boyer for Bill Robinson and Stan Bahnsen for Rich McKinney. I had to throw in a good one like acquiring Sparky Lyle for Danny Cater just to show editorial balance.

For the replay of the Pine Tar Game Steinbrenner wanted to treat the game as a festival, inviting campers to attend. But then he got incensed at MacPhail and did everything possible to prevent the game from being resumed.  It did get played and the Yanks lost in one of the most widely covered one inning games in history.

Most importantly for me, Steinbrenner actually agreed to have me placed on the payroll once my internship was complete. Ken Nigro had asked if this was possible and the Boss agreed.  So from late June until the end of October, I received a paycheck from the New York Yankees and became a paid media relations assistant. It wasn’t much but it helped pay for my tokens on the subway.

I learned a lot in 1983.  I learned first- hand how one individual’s presence impacted a professional sports franchise. As a fan of the team, I despised and praised him over the years. However, one thing is for sure. George Steinbrenner was a monumental figure not only in New York, but his presence forever changed the game of baseball.

Tom Cosentino

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