The Steinbrenner Door

55th Street Entrance To P.J. Clarke's, "The Steinbrenner Door"

So I’m a kid reporter, see? It’s 1981, I’m almost exactly two years into my professional career and I’m covering the almost annual Baseball Strike for a national radio network, RKO. It’s a first class operation but the sports department is a little small. The new man is a producer named John Martin, I’m the middle staffer handling weekend anchoring and weekday reporting, and our boss…is Sports Director Charley Steiner.

In the middle of that awful summer, in which stories about unemployed baseball peanut vendors alternated with partial scores of the Atlanta Chiefs-Edmonton Drillers NASL games as lead stories on the weekend ‘casts, Charley caught wind of a rumor of a secret meeting in which a group of dissident baseball owners were to meet with Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. George Steinbrenner was foremost among them, and he was not happy with the fact that the owners of the Cincinnati Reds could shut down his money-printing factory in the Bronx, and he and the unidentified insurrectionaries had an ally in Kuhn, who wanted the strike over, pronto.

This was about all we knew about the rumored meeting. Ultimately it meant little to the outcome of the strike, but at that time it seemed like the first major breakthrough towards settlement, and Charley wanted to know when the meeting was, and who would be there, and he wanted to be standing outside when it all happened. And with the major wire services and top baseball writers absolutely whiffing on ferreting out the details, Charley decided to have his “kids” get the scoop for him.

Which is where The Steinbrenner Door comes into play.

I happened past it the other day. It is the 55th Street side entrance to one of New York’s most famous bars, P.J. Clarke’s, which has stood in one form or the other at the corner of Third Avenue since 1884. It was already a landmark when I lived at the exact opposite end of the same block – at 55th and Second – from 1980 to 1984, and when the aforementioned John Martin worked in the high-rise “Carpet Center” that went up around Clarke’s when the owners refused to let them demolish the joint in 1971. That a friend of John’s father worked the bar at Clarke’s, and that John worked next door and I lived 45 seconds away meant we never paid at Clarke’s, and that necessarily meant we always went to Clarke’s. Ironically, not long after this story took place, Steinbrenner bought a stake in Clarke’s, and the family may own it still, and I like to think he bought me all those beers.

So back to the story of the Steinbrenner-Kuhn meeting. Somehow somebody deduced the 48-hour window in which the meeting would occur, and Charley had John and I come in to work the phones all day, to try to get the specifics. Chaz gave me a huge break hiring me for my second job, and he and I got along fine at ESPN and have become very good friends in the years since he moved on to announce first the Yankees and then the Dodgers, but he was a strident employer. I mean, my regular weekday shift started around 2 PM and John’s around 9 PM and I think he had us both in there at 10 AM. And we called. And we called, and we called, and we called. We called everybody in baseball we knew, and soon we were calling everybody in baseball we did not know.

Eventually, sometime around 9:30 PM, I said to John: “At this point, we might as well just dial numbers randomly. I’m going home. If Charley wants to fire me, tell him that’s great, but it still won’t help him find out when this meeting is that apparently nobody in the world knows of.” John snorted a laugh and off I went.

RKO’s offices were in the famous WOR Radio Building at Broadway and 40th – exactly the perfect walking commute to a home on the East Side. There were a thousand routes back to my apartment, but nearly all of them ended with me on the Southeast corner of 55th and Third. But because I had spent the whole day banging my head against Charley’s wall, I needed to pick up some pizza on the Northwest corner of the intersection. And the way the traffic lights worked out, the “Walk” sign then sent me to the Northeast corner – and Clarke’s.

The various “no ideas” and “who the hell are yous” from my day of fruitless phone calls pursuing the Kuhn-Steinbrenner meeting were still echoing in my head when, from the middle of the walk lane, I spied the not unfamiliar sight of a limo parked near the side entrance to the legendary bar. Nor was it a surprise to see that side door open up and a bright light spill on to the pavement.

It was, however, a shock to see George Steinbrenner, replete with a natty ’80s tux, step out onto the street. My mind made a thousand calculations: Could I actually boldly go up to the Yankee Boss and ask him where the meeting was? Would bodyguards materialize and squash me? All these thoughts vanished when I heard Steinbrenner stop at the limo and speak – shout, in fact – back towards the still-open door.

“Eddie! Hey, Eddie?”

A balding head peaked out of Clarke’s. It was Edward Bennett Williams, the notorious Washington lawyer and then the owner of the Orioles.

“Eddie!,” Steinbrenner squawked. “What time is our meeting with Bowie tomorrow?”

I couldn’t believe it. Steinbrenner had just confirmed the meeting, and Williams’ attendance. I froze and tried to meld into the brick wall of Clarke’s, or, at minimum, disguise my RKO Radio Network Jacket with the big logo on the front and the even bigger one on the back. I tried not to drop the box of pizza.

Edward Bennett Williams sighed, took a step on to the street, and shouted “9:30, George. We meet there at 9:30. You, me, and Eddie Chiles.”

Now Williams had just told me that Chiles, the owner of the Texas Rangers, was joining the cabal with Kuhn to try to force the owners to end the strike, and that the starting bell would ring at 9:30. But I still didn’t have the answer Steiner wanted: Where were they meeting?

Steinbrenner again started to climb into the limo only to freeze again. “But where are we meeting?”

As I held my breath, Williams sighed again. “Jesus, George, do I need to pin it to your coat? Bowie’s condo! On Park Avenue!”

By this point I thought I was dreaming. Or that I had gained the ability to force others to conduct conversations by telepathy.

Now Steinbrenner was getting frustrated at Williams. “Where on Park, Eddie? I don’t have it memorized!”

Williams promptly barked out a number and a cross-street, and time returned to full-speed. I ran down the block, balancing the pizza box against my hip, and burst into my apartment and called Steiner at home. “Found it, Charley,” I said as calmly as possible. “9:30 tomorrow morning: Steinbrenner, Edward Bennett Williams, Eddie Chiles of the Rangers, at Bowie Kuhn’s condo at (whatever) Park.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then Charley (who was nearly as cantankerous a boss as I was an employee), quietly said: “I’m impressed. How did you find that out?”

I summoned all the nonchalance I could muster: “Oh. I just ran into Steinbrenner at Clarke’s.”


    • DJ

      Steiner broadcasts for the Dodgers. IIRC, he does the final six innings on radio, and I think he might do the TV games east of the Rockies (Vin Scully does a simulcast for the first three innings of all games west of the Rockies, then switches to TV only for the last six innings).

    • Elf

      Actually, no, Steiner and Rick Monday are both radio only now and have been for about two years. For home games and divisional games (i.e. the games Vin Scully works) they take over from the fourth inning. For all other games they do the entire game on the radio and Eric Collins and Steve Lyons do the telecast.

  1. Phil Harman

    Great story. The baseball strike of 1981 was one of two that impacted my life forever. The other was the PATCO strike in August.

  2. SG

    What a story, Keith! How many things had to go exactly right for you to arrive just in time!

    To Amy and DJ, Steiner and Rick Monday do only radio games. Scully gets a simulcast for the first 3 innings at games west of the Rockies – for all the other games, Charlie and Rick go all 9 on the radio.

    My kids and I have run into Charlie after games in LA and San Diego and he seems like a nice guy. He goes out of his way to sign autographs, take pix, and talk with fans after games.

  3. ShoeBeDoBeDo

    Keith, I absolutely love this story! I already tweeted you this, but I hope that if PJ Clarke’s is ever demolished, you get your hands on that door and install it somewhere in your apartment. What a great conversation piece it would make! 🙂

  4. dyhrdmet

    I love this story. I’m laughing at how well it all came together (and I think you’ve told it here before). You should have a syndicated or cable sports-related show on the weekends (similar to Tim Russert’s show on CNBC).

  5. Wayne Perkins

    As a country bumpkin it always amazes me how such a vast city as NY can be so small.. Crazy but wonderful story.

  6. Patricia Ellyn Powell

    God! You are a dang genius here! I love this one! Not so much the mastery of storytelling that you have proven a bazillion times, but how everything lined up perfectly in time…or that stuff made of all these now present moments! WOW! Pure Taoism! Effortless effort at play here. The beauty of doing less than nothing to insure success! LOL. You have always been in the right place at the right time. The new bubble bath I got for Christmas is called Charmed Life, and though I wonder at times…I think I have led one as well! Whee! You relaxed and it all came to you. Damn good! Here is a little poem called Taoism that I wrote about such from my first collection. It went something like this: Silent raindrops nurtured, gentle soils fed, no one told her azaleas that Mrs. Lawhorne was dead. Under the smiling sun, all bloomed in the spring, proving the perpetual wisdom of doing less than nothing. YOU are food for the soul, Mr. Olbermann!

  7. John Verruso

    Great story, K.O. And the first line is a wonderful homage to the Master Storyteller of the Airwaves–the incomparable Jean Shepherd!

  8. Geof

    Truly funny and well-told story. Great appearance on my favorite show (besides Mad Men), Clubhouse Confidential, last night. It brought me to your blog, which is a treasure. Thanks!

    • Patricia Ellyn Powell

      Geof, get ready for some foot…I mean baseball! I have learned so much here! It is candy land for me! I missed the CC show last night. Me slow. But will try to find it today on the replay!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s