Steinbrenner had soft side beneath tough exterior

George Steinbrenner, who died Tuesday at 80 because of a heart attack, was best known as owner of the New York Yankees. After purchasing the team in 1973 when it was down and had not been to a World Series in nine years, Steinbrenner’s Yankees won seven world championships, 11 American League pennants and had the best winning percentage (.566) in the majors during his tenure.

But Steinbrenner also was a prominent horse owner and breeder, beginning in the 1970s and continuing into his later years. Some of his most prominent horses included Steve’s Friend, who won the 1977 Hollywood Derby at Hollywood Park; Bellamy Road, who won the Wood Memorial by a record 17 1/2 lengths in 2005 only to finish a disappointing seventh in the Kentucky Derby as the 5-2 favorite; and Majestic Warrior, winner of the 2007 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga as a 2-year-old who injured his hoof in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park later that fall and was never the same horse.

In listening to radio personalities talk about his legacy this week, a couple of interesting stories surfaced that belied the man’s crusty demeanor, which often shined through when the Yankees were struggling through a rough patch.

According to reports:

* While sitting in the owner’s suite one night during a Yankees game, Steinbrenner watched a young child get hit in the arm by a foul ball. He told one of his employees to go get the child and his parents, brought them into his suite and proceeded to write out a $30,000 check to cover the child’s college tuition.

* Seems George had a fondness for sandwiches while watching Yankees games, but he didn’t like mayonnaise. However, the more he would request his sandwiches with no mayo, the woman who prepared the sandwiches in the media dining room would continue to lather it with mayonnaise. Well, one night he’d finally had it and fired her. Told the next day by the woman’s co-worker that she only worked there to pay her child’s college tuition, Steinbrenner proceeded to pay for the remainder of that tuition.

* In a story that received prominent play on Yahoo!, Steinbrenner paid for a young girl’s brain surgery that possibily saved her life after she was injured in an accident on the day the Yankees played the Dodgers in game 2 of the 1977 World Series. The woman has three children today and the whole family roots for the Yankees.

In all three instances, Steinbrenner requested that the financial aid be kept confidential. He did not want the publicity surrounding his generosity. He would have preferred that his acts of kindness never got out.

I’ve never been a Yankees fan. Never will be. But it’s obvious that beneath his sometimes childish behavior caused by an incessant desire to win was a man who deeply cared about people and wanted to help others because he could.

In the grand scheme of things, isn’t that what really counts?

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