erik lundegaard

The House of Steinbrenner

The House of Steinbrenner (2010)


Anyone who knows me knows I’m no fan of the New York Yankees; but even they, the team named after a masturbatory gesture, that added “Suck” to the baseball lexicon, those overpaying, playing-field-tilting, star-grabbing 1% bastards of Major League Baseball, even they deserve a better documentary than this.

It’s a muddled movie. It was filmed in 2008, when the Yankees played their last game at Yankee Stadium, and in 2009, when they moved to New Yankee Stadium and won their 27th World Series title, and in 2010, when George Steinbrenner, the owner of the club since 1973, the Mouth that Roared, finally died after a long illness; and during these years the team is at a kind of crossroads. Is New Yankee Stadium for fans or corporations? Will the winning tradition continue? The old is dying and the new cannot yet be born, and in this interregnum Barbara Kopple filmed “The House of Steinbrenner.”

It doesn’t help that Kopple, a two-time Academy Award winner for “Harlan County U.S.A.” (1976) and “American Dream” (1990), is a Yankees fan. ESPN’s 30-for-30 docs begin with the filmmaker talking about why they were interested in the subject. Here’s Kopple:

When I was a kid I went to Yankee games with my brother and my parents and how could I not want to make a film about the Yankees? I mean, the Yankees are the biggest sports entity in the world. And I think what really made me want to do it is I was home and watching the All-Star Game. And I saw George Steinbrenner going around in a golf cart. He starts to cry. And I just thought, “This could be an amazing film.”

It isn’t. It’s tough to tell the story of something you love. Love is about not seeing clearly. That’s its point.

The stupid shit Yankee fans say

“The House of Steinbrenner” begins in triumph with the Yankees’ 27th World Series title and a ticker-tape parade through Manhattan. We get shots of the Yankees on their floats: Nick Swisher rocking out like a rock star, Alex Rodriguez, as always, too self-aware, Derek Jeter looking up at buildings as if he’d never seen them. We get sound-bite interviews with fans whooping it up and saying the stupid shit Yankee fans say:

  • “The world is back to normal. Because the Yankees are champions of the World Series!”
  • “The Steinbrenner family is the greatest owners in sports! New York fans are the luckiest cause they’ve got the Steinbrenners, who spend money so we can have parades like this! Let’s do it again!

Then we get the sadness and nostalgia of the last game at Yankee Stadium, the House that Ruth Built, and the excitement and disappointment (expensive seats; obstructed views) of the first day at New Yankee Stadium. We get a lot about George but little from George, since, by this time, the illness that would take his life in 2010 had rendered him mute. We get a really nice line from one of the New York scribes:

He’s not George anymore. He’s a quiet man in his twilight and looks at the scene from afar now.

Meanwhile, Hal Steinbrenner, heir apparent, comes off as a tight-lipped, bristly CEO. He comes off as a numbers man. He’s someone desperate to make sure the mask doesn’t slip.

Fudging Yankee history

It doesn’t help that the doc fudges Yankees history. Early on, Kopple asks various folks, “What’s your favorite memory at Yankee Stadium?” and we hear three answers:

  • Louis Requena, official photographer at Yankee Stadium, says, “Maris hitting that big homerun. You know?”
  • Yogi Berra, catcher and philosopher, says, “I gotta say the no-hitter. That Don Larsen pitched.”
  • George Steinbrenner, circa 1998, says: “’77/’78, great teams. I can remember plays. I remember Piniella’s play in right field, one of the greatest defensive plays I’ve ever seen. Couldn’t see the ball. Stuck his glove out—boom. It hit. Against the Red Sox. The playoff.”

What’s wrong with these answers?

Perspective on the Maris homerun would’ve been nice: the fact that Yankee fans spent 1961 booing Maris because he wasn’t Mickey Mantle; the fact that hardly anyone showed up for the last game of the season when he was sitting on 60.

The Yogi thing is simply semantics. I can guarantee you that almost every baseball fan watching muttered underneath his breath, “Perfect game,” every time Berra said “No-hitter.”

Then there’s Piniella’s catch. As soon as Steinbrenner mentioned it I saw it in my mind. Bottom of the ninth inning, Sox down 5-4. With one out, Rick Burleson draws a walk. Then Jerry Remy hits a line-drive to right field. What we don’t know is that Piniella has lost the ball in the late-afternoon sun. We don’t know it because he pretends he doesn’t. He pretends he’s about to catch it, and this keeps Burleson close to first. And then Lou’s lucky. The ball drops five feet away from him and he stabs at it with his glove and keeps Burleson from going to third. So it’s first and second, rather than second and third, when Jim Rice flies out to deep right. Burleson can only tag up to third rather than home. He doesn’t tie the game. Then the great Carl Yastrzemski pops up for the final out and the Yankees win and go on to win the ALCS and the World Series—their 22nd.

Except that’s not the highlight they show. The highlight they show is the catch in the bottom of the 6th when, with two on and two out, Piniella went into the corner to rob Fred Lynn of extra bases. It’s a nice catch. But I’ve never heard anyone say Piniella lost that one in the sun. So … did they show the wrong clip? In a documentary called “The House of Steinbrenner,” while relaying George Steinbrenner’s favorite moment at Yankee Stadium, did they show us the wrong moment?

Fudging Steinbrenner

But the history that’s mostly fudged isn’t from Steinbrenner; it’s about Steinbrenner.

Memories are short, the man is dying and then dead, so the encomiums come fast and furious. We get eulogies. Fans remember ’77 and ’78, and the late ‘90s dynasty, and forget the years in the wilderness. They forget that Steinbrenner’s desire to win got in the way of winning. He was too impatient, and, as a result, under his watch, the Yankees went pennant-less (15 years), and without a World Series title (18 years), for longer than at any time since the team bought Babe Ruth in 1919. And, it could be argued, and has been argued, that they only won then, in 1996, because Steinbrenner had been banned from Major League Baseball in 1990 for hiring a private detective to tail his superstar outfielder Dave Winfield. As a result, for two or three years, he wasn’t around to muck up the works. He wasn’t there to trade prospects like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettite for an aging star or utility player. Thus Jeter, Rivera, and Pettite stayed. And they became the core of that 1990s dynasty.

The fans blame Hal for the problems of New Yankee Stadium, but that was George’s baby. We get a clip of him in 2002, talking. “You hate to think about moving away from that great stadium,” he says. “But we do have problems: all the new stadiums coming. We have new generations of people coming. That maybe that stadium doesn’t mean as much to them.”

Right. Steinbrenner was more interested in the profits a new stadium and its corporate boxes could bring than in the grand tradition of Yankee Stadium. The Yankee organization put profits before tradition, then went out and bought a bunch of players and won in their first year at the new ballpark. Since? Bupkis.

Is this the new curse? Old Yankee Stadium cursing New Yankee Stadium? Let it be so.

There are people and there are assholes

The scribes get George right:

  • Bill Gallo of The New York Daily News: “He was vain. He was at times rude. He reminded me of a Prussian general: General von Steinbrenner.”
  • Maury Allen of The New York Post: “He thought the loss of a game in June was the end of a season. … He loved the ego gratification of what the Yankees is all about.”

George, too, gets George right. “There are major league ballplayers,” he says, “and there are Yankees.”

Man, that’s an asshole thing to say. “The House of Steinbrenner” is a documentary about such assholes, directed by a woman who loves them so.

—October 27, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard