While most of the Beltway papers are filled with stories today about Alfonso Soriano and Miguel Tejada remaining with their respective clubs past the trade deadline, the Moonie masterstrokers at the Washington Times have an intriguing little history lesson for any youngsters…that just happen to scour the sports section of the nation’s no. 1 Moonie paper. From the Times’ Dick Heller.
Though the George Steinbrenner-Howard Spira association has been overshadowed in public memory by Pete Rose’s ongoing ban for gambling, it remains one of the less savory episodes in recent sports history.
Dave Winfield (above, left) and Steinbrenner (right) became mortal enemies after the Yankees signed him to a 10-year, $15 million contract as a free agent in 1981. When Winfield failed to spark the Yankees to pennants, as Reggie Jackson had as the legendary “Mr. October” in the late 1970s, Steinbrenner derisively tagged him “Mr. May.”
That didn’t bother Winfield as much as Steinbrenner’s refusal to honor a contractual agreement to pay $300,000 to Winfield’s charitable foundation. This set off a series of lawsuits between owner and player, but Steinbrenner clearly overstepped his bounds when he hired Spira to do his dirty work.
As a 21-year-old go-fer for Winfield, Spira once had unlimited access to the slugger. But after Winfield refused to loan Spira $15,000 to pay off sizable gambling debts, his former aide approached Steinbrenner.
The Yankees’ owner, meanwhile, had tried various tactics to discredit Winfield, a quiet man who was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2001 after a superb 22-year career. Once he forced an audit that purportedly showed the foundation spent $6 for every $1 it gave away. The two men continued to haggle in court and the media. Steinbrenner apparently figured Spira would give him more ammunition.
Steinbrenner later claimed in a Playboy magazine interview that he paid Spira $40,000 because “he was harassing my family; my daughters were scared; he was harassing people who were close to me.”
The interviewer asked Steinbrenner whether he had been afraid.
“You’re [darn] right I was! And after that, there was a death threat at my hotel. … Now, everybody says, ‘Yeah, but look at Howard Spira. He’s a little guy.’ But Sirhan Sirhan was a little guy. Lee Harvey Oswald was a little guy…I was scared stiff… I told him to take the $40,000 [and go away].”