Baseball's Greatest Scandals, #10: Steinbrenner vs. Winfield

via i.cdn.turner.com

In this irregular series, we'll be taking a wander through the darker side of baseball history, visiting the 'Hall of Shame' for the sport. In the national psyche, it's perceived as somehow idyllic and above reproach, but the history of the game has been littered with incidents that do not reflect well on those who play, manage or run it - and sometimes more than one of these groups. These incidents take place at a range of levels, and as we'll see, are not just limited to North America.

Let's start with the Evil Empire at work...

"It was a pretty sordid and unattractive story of George trying to destroy Dave Winfield. It was not Steinbrenner at his best."
  -- Baseball Commissioner, Fay Vincent

It wasn't the first dubious incident in Steinbrenner's career, or even the first time he had been suspended from the game. In April 1974, he became part of the Watergate scandal which brought down President Nixon, when he was indicted on 14 counts of making illegal campaign contributions and obstruction of justice. He pleased guilty to two, was fined a five-figure sum, and then Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him from baseball for two years, reduced on appeal to 15 months.

The relationship between George Steinbrenner and Dave Winfield was soured almost from the beginning. Steinbrenner made Winfield the best-paid player in the game when he signed the outfielder to a ten-year term as a free-agent in 1980, when the 29-year old was already a four-time All-Star. But the Yankees owner never forgave the player or his agent for sliding a 'cost of living' increase into the terms of the contract, raising its cost from about $15 million to $23 million. Steinbrenner often disparaged Winfield, saying to the press in 1985, "I let Mr. October get away, and I got Mr. May, Dave Winfield. He gets his numbers when it doesn't count."

Things got really ugly at the end of the eighties. Steinbrenner made efforts to trade Winfield, but they were stymied, in part by his status as a 10-and-5 guy [10 years, in the majors, five with the same team], which gave him veto rights over any trade. In 1988, there were reports the Yankees were preparing to sue the Winfield Foundation, a charitable group set up by the player, for "misappropriation and misuse of funds." But on several occasions during his time in the Big Apple, Winfield also sued Steinbrenner for a failure to pay the Foundation amounts guaranteed in the outfielder's contract.

In January 1990, the Yankees' owner paid $40,000 to "former" gambler Howard Spira for dirt on Winfield and the foundation - Spira had been an unpaid publicist for the foundation the previous decade. However, he had now got himself into a large hole, owing a total of $100,000 to various bookies with mob connections. On hearing of the latest Winfield lawsuit, he approached Steinbrenner and said that he could priovide proof that Winfield had been "squandering his foundation's money on trysts with girlfriends."

While Spira got some money, Steinbrenner refused to pay more and got Spira charged with extortion, allegedly using his connections in the Tampa FBI office [it's claimed he "entertained personnel from the FBI's Tampa office in the Yankee owner's luxury box at Tampa Bay Bucs games and otherwise curried favor with them"]. While admitting the $40,000, his explanations for the payment proved volatile. Initially claiming he paid Spira "out of the goodness of his heart," he then went on to say Spira threatened his family, or hinted he would tell the press about Lou Piniella's gambling habit. Regardless of the cause, it was a pretty clear contravention of baseball's biggest no-no: don't associate with gamblers, and so Commissioner Vincent took an interest.

Not that Winfield exactly comes out  smelling of roses. He had lent Spira $15,000 in 1981 - though first denied this, and then denied knowing Spira was a gambler. Multiple sources suggest that innocence is unlikely to be true, and there's some evidence to support Steinbrenner's claims suggesting Winfield himself was no stranger to sports betting (albeit not on baseball). And in 1989, he settled a suit, admitting that some of the Foundation's income had been "inappropriately expended," agreeing to pay almost $230,000 in delinquent contributions. None of this, however, was the subject of Vincent's investigation.

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On July 30th, 1990, Vincent banned the man who had just been labeled "The Most Hated Man in Baseball" on the cover of Newsweek George from the game for life. The weird thing is, it was Steinbrenner who requested the ban, instead of the two-year suspension originally suggested by Vincent. At  the time, George thought a suspension would mean he would lose his position as vice president of the United States Olympic Committee. At the time, Steinbrenner was tired of the game, but - as so often - changed his mind, and Vincent relented and revoked the lifetime ban, shortly after two years had passed.

Shortly before Steinbrenner's ban was announced, Winfield was finally traded to the California Angels, and on returning to New York unleashed the following broadside:

"Finally, they uncovered the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole lot of ice underneath the water. Good, I finally didn’t have to say anything myself. Someone else said it for me. Someone else was looking for the truth. They only took what (Steinbrenner) did within baseball that broke the rules. Really, they didn’t get into all the other things. They said, ‘We’re going to take Spira, and that’s enough. You’re gone... But with all the stuff kicked up, only one person (Steinbrenner) was muddied. I’m not going to wallow in the mud... You fight it, but what are you going to do, spend every waking hour discussing the garbage?"

Steinbrenner and Winfield eventually made up - though not before Winfield chose to enter the Hall of Fame as a Padre, rather than a Yankee, even though he played longer in the Bronx, and hit 51 more homers there than in San Diego. Spira, not so much. He spent 22 months in jail and even after The Boss had died, said, "I do not forgive him for all the terrible things he did to me. I stand by what I've said: He ruined my life, my health and my reputation. I'm very relieved that man has to face the most powerful test there is for what he has done. He has to face God. I wouldn't want to be George right now."

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