Steinbrenner’s Political All-Stars

Posted April 6, 2004 at 6:27pm

If there’s one life lesson that can be learned from baseball’s George Steinbrenner, it’s that money talks.

The bombastic owner of the New York Yankees has made himself one of the most revered and reviled men in the history of sports by freely spending his vast wealth in the constant pursuit of a winning ball club. This year alone he has pushed his Yankees payroll to nearly $200 million. [IMGCAP(1)]

“Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing,” Steinbrenner was once quoted as saying. “Breathing first, winning next.”

When it comes to politics, the other great American pastime, Steinbrenner’s philosophy seems to remain the same — he’s not afraid to shell out the money, and he likes a winner.

Steinbrenner is a man who is exceedingly familiar with the world of political campaign contributions.

On April 5, 1974, in the midst of the Watergate scandal, Steinbrenner was indicted on 14 criminal counts surrounding illegal contributions to President Richard Nixon’s campaign fund. Four months later, Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to two of those counts — making illegal contributions and obstruction. He was fined $20,000 and was handed a nine-month suspension from baseball by then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

Although Steinbrenner lived with the stain of the conviction until outgoing President Ronald Reagan pardoned him just days before he left office in 1989, the Nixon experience did not keep the Yankees owner from remaining an influential donor. He continued to contribute thousands of dollars to national campaigns well before Reagan was even elected to a first term.

“Today baseball is just a big business,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, “and making contributions is typical of anyone in a big business.”

But did Steinbrenner’s past convictions leave a stain on his subsequent contributions?

“That was a long time ago. His celebrity status overwhelms all that. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does,” Sabato said. “He’s got one of those names that’s instantly recognizable, and he’s fabulously wealthy. He can help a campaign.”

With the 2004 Major League Baseball season getting under way this week,

Roll Call decided to take a look at the recent campaign donations of one America’s most notorious donors.

A search of Federal Election Commission filings and reports on PoliticalMoney Line.com shows that Steinbrenner has contributed more than $150,000 to federal political campaigns and committees in the past 20 years.

While that doesn’t even pay a utility infielder’s salary for half a season these days — and is far less than the $2.5 million-plus that Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos has contributed in just the past three election cycles — it’s still a pretty hefty amount in the game of politics.

Steinbrenner’s office gave a “no comment” to questions regarding his donation strategies. But the numbers paint a picture of a man who likes to cover his bases.

“I don’t think the political contributions of George Steinbrenner have anything to do with a political philosophy or a particular party,” said former Yankee pitcher and “Ball Four” author Jim Bouton.

Wealthy baseball owners, he continued, “are just looking to buy influence for Major League Baseball. … They don’t want any restrictions on baseball’s ability to wheel and deal and extort taxpayer dollars for stadiums. The only solution to this national scandal would be a collective one on a federal level, and they want to have friends in Washington to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

So far this cycle Steinbrenner has given $11,000, with a $2,000 donation to both President Bush’s re-election campaign and Sen. Bob Graham’s (D-Fla.) ill-fated presidential campaign.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), who represents Upper Manhattan, has been a steady recipient of Steinbrenner’s contributions in recent cycles; however, absent are any donations to Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), who represents the Bronx district where Yankee Stadium is located.

With his operations now based mainly in Florida, many of Steinbrenner’s contributions were directed to his home state.

The largest check so far this cycle was cut to the Republican Party of Florida for $5,000 — which was the same amount the Republican Party of Florida received in 2002. But Steinbrenner balanced the scale in 2002 with $6,500 in contributions to various Democrats including $1,000 to Sunshine State Sen. Bill Nelson and $1,000 to then-Florida Rep. Karen Thurman, which brought his total 2002 contributions to $11,500.

Bush’s presidential campaign and the Republican Party of Florida picked up $6,000 in contributions from Steinbrenner in the 2000 cycle. He gave $9,000 total that year.

Steinbrenner’s biggest year of giving in the past two decades came in the 1990 cycle — the year after he received his presidential pardon. Among that cycle’s $34,000 in campaign contributions were $4,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, $3,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and $15,000 to the Democratic Congressional Dinner Committee. Steinbrenner, who made his money as principal owner of the American Ship Building Co., also gave $10,000 that cycle to the American Ship Building Company Political Action Committee, which in turn shelled out some $3,000 to Democratic campaigns. The sole Republican to receive funds from Steinbrenner in the 1990 cycle was Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), who received $1,000.

The second half of the 1980s was also a big time for Steinbrenner donations, with $22,900 in 1986 and $16,800 in 1988. In 1988, President George H.W. Bush’s campaign received $1,000 from Steinbrenner.

The 1998 election was Steinbrenner’s lowest giving cycle in the past two decades. He made $6,000 in contributions that year, $5,000 of which went to Democratic candidates and $1,000 going to now-Sen. Jim Bunning’s (R-Ky.) Senate campaign. Bunning is a former Hall of Fame pitcher.

But regardless of the money, Sabato contends that a contributor like Steinbrenner also brings some intangibles to a political campaign.

“He’s valued because he brings people who are not necessarily political along with him,” Sabato said. He said that Steinbrenner is seen as an asset because can get the attention of sports fans who may not have an interest in politics, “and they’ll at least listen to someone he endorses.”

While Steinbrenner’s campaign contributions seem to be on the up-and-up since his 1974 conviction, the Yankees owner is facing another trial later this week regarding some of his other financial practices.

On Thursday, ESPN television will air a mock trial that will look at the Yankees’ impact on baseball. According to a news release from the network, the mock trial “will examine whether a system that allows the New York Yankees to outspend every other team is good for Major League Baseball.”

The three-hour special, titled “Break up the Bombers: The Yankees on Trial,” will feature Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz as prosecuting attorney and Bruce Cutler, who represented the late mob boss John Gotti in three federal trials, as Steinbrenner’s defense lawyer.

The mock trial will be presided over by Court TV journalist Catherine Crier, who is a former judge, and hosted by ESPN’s Bob Ley in front of a live audience. Steinbrenner won’t be in attendance at the trial, but Bouton and Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane will appear as celebrity witnesses.