Cleveland native George Steinbrenner died from a massive heart attack at 80 years old today. His ties to Cleveland are fairly well known, particularly his failed bid to buy the Cleveland Indians. Prior to buying the Yankees, he was a high profile Clevelander and Ohioan with strong roots in the area, even serving as a grad assistant to Woody Hayes. He was the son of a shipping mogul and later came to expand and revitalize his father’s Kinsman Marine Transit Company. He made his fortune in the Cleveland based American Shipbuilding Company, which provided the wealth for him to enter professional sports ownership.
Steinbrenner bought his first professional franchise in 1960, the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League. Steinbrenner, in an indication of future things to come, immediately clashed with coach John McClendon, who was immortalized in last summer’s ESPN documentary “Black Magic.” McClendon resigned in protest over Steinbrenner’s constant interference. While the owner’s locker room visits, substitution orders from the stands, and roster demands were unorthodox and over-the-line, the Pipers did win the ABL championship in 1962 before the league folded the following season. This drama would unfold on the larger stage in New York over the next half century after he bought the Yankees in 1973, his second option for MLB ownership.
As is well known, Steinbrenner desperately wanted to own the Cleveland Indians, the team he had obsessively cheered and followed since boyhood. In 1970, Steinbrenner put together a group of investors to buy the Indians from Vernon Stouffer, cofounder of Stouffer’s foods and Stouffer hotels. Stouffer had rescued the team from “Trader” Lane and near financial ruin in 1967 but was naive when it came to the game and running a franchise. The team fell into ruin on the field and Indians GM Gabe Paul put together a plan to have Steinbrenner buy the team.
George had grown up with Stouffer’s son, Jim, fellow scions of Cleveland. The deal to buy the team was between $8.6 and $9 million in cash. George was a rabid Tribe fan and the purchase appeared fait accompli. But Vernon had been turned off by George. The process is described in excellent detail in a book by Peter Golenbock released last year, George: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built the Yankee Empire. Gabe Paul describes the process:
“We were all in George’s office. He called Vernon in Scottsdale, where he had a home. There had been a leak in the press, which I think upset Vernon. When George called, Vernon was very noncommittal. He said, ‘Ah, I’m not going to take a deal like that.’ Vernon just didn’t want it. It was a shock, because of the way it had been structured. Jim [Vernon's son] had set the price. After George hung up, there was no discussion. The deal was off. Vernon was so definite. George was surprised. You must remember there was a family relationship there, different from most deals. It would have been a great deal for Vernon, a decent amount of cash. I don’t know. I think he was irked by the leak in the press. I just think they talked to Vernon at the wrong time of day.”
Golenbock describes events over the years that may have led to Stouffer’s refusal to sell to Steinbrenner. Apparently, George, who had Jim Stouffer as a partner with the Pipers, had engaged in several underhanded activities with the Pipers, exposing the Stouffers to legal actions and obviously offending them. Golenbock goes into other circumstances of the rift:
“When George went to buy the Indians, I was told Vernon Stouffer refused to sell it to him because of what George had done to him. There were difficult times between the Stouffers and the Steinbrenners, because George took advantage. A Stouffer check was signed by Steinbrenner using Stouffer’s name. A five-digit figure. And there was another story that went around. A party was given at the Westwood Country Club on the West Side of Cleveland, and Jimmy was to pay for the band and George was to pay for the liquor, and George never paid…The whole family was mad. Only because of the closeness of the families was this forgiven. But obviously, it wasn’t forgiven. You asked the question, ‘Why wouldn’t Vernon sell the Indians to George?’…George’s parents were terribly embarrassed by this…There are people who step on people on the way to the top, and George is one of those people.”
And the rest is history. George went onto New York and built the Yankee empire after purchasing them for only $8.7 million in 1973. His franchise went on to win 7 titles and was also a driving force behind the MLB salary inequity largely responsible for the sad state the Indians, under the Dolan family, are in today. In an interview years after the failed Cleveland purchase, Plain Dealer reporter Bob Sudyk asked George “Would you have built a winning team in Cleveland the way you did in New York?” George replied:
No doubt about it. The same strong group of owners that Vernon Stouffer turned down followed me to the Yankees. We had the money and Cleveland then had the biggest ballpark in the country. We could have filled it.”
You can read more excerpts, beginning on p. 71, on the failed purchase from Golenbock’s biography online here.
(Photos: NY Daily News; Lane Stewart/SI)