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.”
The most surprising part of my interview with Joe Torre tonight was his revelation – which he had first mentioned at his late afternoon news conference at Dodger Stadium – that he spoke to George Steinbrenner on July 4th to wish him a happy birthday. They had, evidently, a fairly long conversation, and that fact underscores a quality about Steinbrenner’s penultimate illness which lent it the makings of something akin to a Greek Tragedy.