I am not a big sports fan. George Steinbrenner meant little or nothing to me before I was elected mayor New York City in 1977.
Then, suddenly, he meant a lot.
When the Yankees won the World Series in 1978, the city went crazy with joy. At the time, New York was in a state of depression because of the city’s economic decline. We were on the edge of bankruptcy.
Indeed, Mayor Abe Beame had actually prepared bankruptcy papers for New York City before the Democratic primary, which I won. But he had not yet filed those papers by the time I took over.
I knew that bankruptcy was not an option if we were to avoid becoming another Detroit. So when the Yankees won the Series in '78, it was a huge boost to our morale.
I announced that I would authorize a tickertape parade to celebrate. The New York Times, I recall, published an editorial urging me not to, saying it would be a needless expenditure. I knew, however, that New Yorkers needed a lift.
I responded to the Times with the comment, “New York Times, you have your head screwed on wrong!” The parade was held, with a ceremony at city hall.
It had a wonderful, energizing effect on the people of this great city. In other words, George Steinbrenner's success in bringing a winning tradition back to Yankee Stadium had an important impact on New York City's return to full economic health.
The Yankees’ World Series trophy was placed on display in the city hall rotunda for 30 days. Thousands of people streamed in to see it.
Years later, I was asked by Sen. Chuck Robb of Virginia to take a delegation down to Nicaragua to monitor the Esquipulas II Accords, settling the civil wars taking place in Central America.
I knew that Nicaragua’s dictator, Daniel Ortega, was a Yankee fan, so I asked George Steinbrenner if he would give me six Yankee uniforms to give to Ortega. He did.
I attended a big rally in Nicaragua where the plaza was packed with tens of thousands of Ortega’s bully boys, who looked like the storm troopers of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
Ortega was giving a speech denouncing the United States. As I passed in front of him, he was yelling, “Yankees will die either here or there.”
Then, seeing me, he said, “Except this Yankee, Ed Koch; he is as safe here as he would be on 42nd Street.” The crowd roared approvingly.
The next night when I met Ortega and gave him the six Yankee uniforms, he smiled and said, “I love the Yankees.” I said, “You didn’t last night,” and he laughed.
George Steinbrenner was a winner who knew how to negotiate. He was constantly threatening to take the Yanks out of the Bronx and away from New York City. In the late '80s, we wanted to extend his lease on Yankee Stadium, and we ultimately got him to the point where he agreed.
We agreed to all the terms, which included our getting 10 percent of the $50 million that the Yankees were then receiving for cable television rights.
However, just before I left for Nicaragua, George called and said he wanted a two-week delay to select an option which had been offered to him by the city and which did not affect the overall contract.
I, of course, said yes. Several weeks later, he called again and told me he was declining to sign the extension. The reason, we learned, was that he had gotten a deal increasing his cable television rights to $500 million, and he didn’t want the city to get the 10 percent.
We had shaken hands on the deal, but he was a tough — and sometimes ruthless — negotiator. For George, business was business.
George Steinbrenner will always be remembered and associated with the great New York Yankees.
Even in the early days of his extraordinary ownership of the Yanks, everyone knew he was destined to be an important figure in the history of the city. And so he is.
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