On May 14 1997, Major League Baseball suspended George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees, for alleged involvement in a scheme to discredit former player Dave Winfield. The suspension was a result of a lengthy investigation by MLB, which concluded that Steinbrenner had paid a known gambler named Howie Spira $40,000 to gather damaging information about Winfield.
The incident that led to the suspension occurred in 1990, when Steinbrenner and Winfield had a falling out over a charitable foundation that the player had established. Dave Winfield and George Steinbrenner had a contentious relationship that began in the early 1980s. Steinbrenner signed Winfield to a then-record 10-year, $23 million contract in 1981. Despite being one of the team’s most productive players, Winfield clashed with Steinbrenner over a number of issues, most of which made headlines in the back-pages of New York sports media. In 1985, Steinbrenner was famously quoted as saying, “Winfield is a loser. The Yankees are losers. We’ll finish third with him, we’ll finish third without him.” The comment drew criticism from both fans and media and led to a public feud between the two. Despite the tension, Winfield continued to perform well for the Yankees but was ultimately traded to the California Angels in 1990. Steinbrenner reportedly resented the amount of attention that Winfield was receiving during his time as a Yankee and was upset that Winfield’s foundation was not affiliated with the team. In an attempt to discredit Winfield, Steinbrenner allegedly paid Spira to dig up dirt on the player’s personal life. When the scheme was discovered, MLB launched an investigation and eventually brought charges against Steinbrenner. The commissioner of baseball at the time, Bud Selig, announced the suspension in July of 1997. The suspension was initially for two years, but was later reduced to 15 months. Steinbrenner’s suspension was a major blow to the Yankees, who at that time were the defending World Series champions and had won four World Series titles under his ownership. The team was forced to operate without their owner for over a year, and Steinbrenner was prohibited from having any involvement with the team during that time.
The suspension also had personal consequences for Steinbrenner. In addition to the embarrassment of being suspended, he was also fined $150,000 and forced to resign from the United States Olympic Committee. Steinbrenner’s involvement with the Olympics began in 1988 when he was appointed to the board of directors. During his tenure, Steinbrenner was instrumental in helping the United States secure the bid to host the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Despite his contributions to the Olympics, Steinbrenner’s suspension from baseball overshadowed his legacy with the committee. Many saw his involvement with the Olympics as a way of burnishing his reputation and gaining political clout. The suspension from MLB was not the first time that Steinbrenner had been in trouble with the league. In 1974, he was suspended for making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. At the time, Steinbrenner owned the Cleveland Indians and was looking to expand his business interests. He saw an opportunity to gain political favor by making a donation to the Nixon campaign. Steinbrenner’s donation was not illegal in and of itself, but the way in which he made it was. He funneled the money through his employees, who were then reimbursed with team funds. This violated campaign finance laws and drew the attention of the FBI. The investigation into Steinbrenner’s illegal contributions lasted several years and ultimately resulted in his suspension from baseball. The incident tarnished his reputation and served as a cautionary tale about the dangers of mixing politics and sports.
The suspension of Steinbrenner was a significant moment in the history of the Yankees and MLB. It raised questions about the relationship between sports and gambling. The fact that Steinbrenner had paid a gambler to gather information about one of his own players was seen as a serious breach of trust, and highlighted the potential dangers of sports betting. In the years following his suspension, Steinbrenner worked to repair his reputation and his relationship with MLB. He became more involved in charitable work and made several donations to the sport’s Hall of Fame. However, Steinbrenner remained a controversial figure in baseball until his death in 2010, who’s legacy was defined by his abrasive personality and his willingness to spend large sums of money to bring star players to the Yankees. Overall, the suspension of George Steinbrenner was a defining moment in the history of the Yankees and MLB. It highlighted commissioner Selig’s desire to give the appearance that the league cared about the importance of ethics and integrity in sports, even in the face of other growing controversies at the time with what would become known as the “Steroid Era” in baseball. Ultimately Steinbrenner’s suspension, if nothing else demonstrated that no one is above the law, even the owner of a storied franchise like the New York Yankees.