During his reign as president of the American League, former Kansas University Chancellor Gene Budig used to joke that he spent one fourth of his time watching video tapes of allegedly questionable umpires’ calls sent to him from New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
Budig was exaggerating, but only slightly. Despite Steinbrenner being by far the most challenging owner for Budig to handle, the two men developed a close friendship through the years, and Budig chose him as the subject of one of the chapters of his book, “Grasping the Ring: Nine Unique Winners in Sports and in Life.”
On Tuesday, several hours after Steinbrenner’s death, Budig shared his candid thoughts on the controversial owner.
“He revolutionized the business of sports,” Budig said in a telephone interview from his New York office. “He taught owners the importance of spending money to make money. He always viewed player acquisitions as investments, investments for his fans.”
Steinbrenner’s initial investment in the Yankees was $8.7 million, and the ballclub now has an estimated value of $1.6 billion.
“Everything he touched turned to gold in the area of business,” Budig said.
Along the way, the dictatorial Steinbrenner hurt plenty of feelings with words and actions.
“There was never a more difficult person to deal with,” Budig said. “He was a man of many moods. He was harsh one day and gentle the next. He was always enjoyable during the offseason, but the minute the first pitch was thrown, he was in the game to do only one thing: win. Second place was not an option with George.”
Steinbrenner spared nobody from his critical tongue, Budig included. Budig didn’t take it personally because he felt that was just one side of Steinbrenner, not a defining characteristic.
“It’s unfortunate that many people never understood the other side of George Steinbrenner,” Budig said. “He was irascible, many times unfair, and always boisterous, but he also was the most generous personality that I have ever met. When he was fined, he paid on time, but always suggesting where the funds should be sent for charity purposes. He even viewed fines as investments in people. He invested millions of dollars in the charities of New York City and most of those anonymously.”
The anonymity wasn’t because Steinbrenner didn’t care about his image, rather because the image he craved wasn’t a conventional one, Budig indicated.
“He didn’t do it for recognition,” Budig said. “He didn’t like to be recognized. He didn’t want people to think he was human, especially in New York because New York is the ultimate tough town. He wanted to be respected as the tough-minded businessman who was driven to win for his fans.”
When the former KU Chancellor returned to Lawrence in October, 1997, for Budig Hall dedication ceremonies, Steinbrenner, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Kansas City Royals superstar George Brett were among those in attendance.
Asked what it meant to him that Steinbrenner showed up for the dedication, Budig said, “It was a sincere expression of friendship. That simple. We liked each other. I understood his positions. He understood mine. It was inevitable that we would clash, and we certainly did on a number of occasions. He liked me because he would tell people that Budig was always fair. That doesn’t mean he agreed. If you were fair, you know what, that’s good enough. If he thought you weren’t, you never recovered. Never.”
Budig said that Steinbrenner, because of his rich appreciation for historic sports venues, went by himself over to Allen Fieldhouse to tour the facility.
“George Steinbrenner would have been very, very happy being a college football or basketball coach,” Budig said. “He loved the competitive nature of sports he thrived on winning.”
So much so that he often smelled a rat when the Yankees lost a game. Hence, the perpetual stack of tapes in Budig’s office.
“He felt the rest of the teams were out to get him, and he also felt the umpires were in league with the other teams,” the former AL president said.
Budig neither agreed with that paranoid view nor allowed it to cloud their friendship.
“We became very close friends,” Budig said. “In the past 10 years, I would say we spoke once a month. If I didn’t call him, he would call me. We’d talk about everything, about college sports, about every aspect of it, and he knew the names of the players.”