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The House of Steinbrenner

Director: Barbara Kopple
Cast: Hal Steinbrenner, Maury Allen, Bill Gallo, Joe Girardi, Jennifer Steinbrenner

(ESPN Films; Stranger Than Fiction: 20 Sep 2010; 2010)

If the old stadium was the House That Ruth Built, the new park is the House that Steinbrenner and Bloomberg Fleeced.
—Dave Zirin, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (NY: Scribner 2010)

“One thing my dad instilled in us was the obvious: without the fans, we are not.” Hal Steinbrenner’s assessment of his family’s relationship to Yankees fans sounds about right, if a bit dramatic. And while George Steinbrenner’s history with the team was tumultuous, it was also legendary. As recounted in Barbara Kopple’s The House of Steinbrenner, this history continues to shape the team’s present and future—and especially, its relationship to its fans.


At least a few fans see this as a successful relationship. “The Steinbrenner family is the best owners in sports,” yells one man watching the most recent champions parade, in November 2009. “New York fans,” he adds, “are the luckiest because we got the Steinbrenners. They’ll spend the money so that we can have parades like this! Let’s do it again!”


But, the film reveals, not everyone feels so copacetic. Screening at New York’s IFC Center on 20 September, as a pre-season Monday Special for Stranger Than Fiction (including a Q&A with Kopple), then premiering on ESPN Tuesday, 21 September, as part of the 30 for 30 series, looks at the transition from the old Yankee Stadium, built in 1923, to the new one, which opened across the street in 2009. More impressionistic than chronological, the film pulls together nostalgic imagery and some bracingly pointed interviews with owners, construction workers, players, and fans, all voicing opinions as to the move’s various effects. 


Smart, subtle, and trenchant, House of Steinbrenner doesn’t detail the controversies that attended the move, including its location on public parkland in the Bronx, and its cost, some $2.3 billion, with $1.2 billion in taxpayer subsidies. But it does indicate that, for all the team owners’ talk about looking after fans’ interests, the stadium—like so many others, from the Washington Nationals and Florida Marlins to the new Meadowlands, which houses the New York Jets and the Giants—is saddling taxpayers with construction, parking, and security costs, on top of increased ticket and concession prices. “I just spent $100 on four sandwiches and four drinks,” says one Yankees fan at the new stadium. He’s smiling, a little painfully.


“The regime that’s taken over is more concerned about the dollar than they are about the fans,” says another fan. “It’s no longer about getting your kid in and getting your family in and making it reasonable. It’s not reasonable.” That regime, in place since 2008, is headed by Hal and Hank Steinbrenner, George’s sons. Hal explains to Kopple that he’s “a numbers guy,” a graduate of Culver Military Academy who’s more comfortable keeping track of accounts or piloting his airplane (“It’s peaceful, nobody can get me”). When Kopple asks how he’s taking to his new job, Hal admits, “The thing that’s hardest for me is what my dad was really good at, promotion, marketing, dealing with the media. I’m an introverted guy and he was certainly extroverted and knew how to promote.” Clips show Hall in front of cameras and taking questions from reporters, looking as nervous as he’s suggested he feels.


The House of Steinbrenner points out differences between the two Steinbrenners’ styles, with old footage of George—turtlenecked, blustery—making pronouncements (“My number one frailty is probably impatience… Sometimes I know I am impatient with people because I want them to be doing better”), a scrolling list of the many Yankees managers he hired and fired (20 changes over 23 seasons, the most famous being Billy Martin, hired and hired some five times), and a series of comments by sports writers (Maury Allen: “I don’t think he considered them human beings, I think he considered them an aspect to making the team more successful”) and players (Derek Jeter: “Mr. Steinbrenner, he’s the reason that we’re here today”), as well as headlines and cartoons depicting his long and frequently contentious reign.


“The purpose of owing a ball club is to win ball games,” says George Steinbrenner. And now, apparently, to turn a profit. If the film features a plinky piano score over images alluding to Steinbrenner’s long-failing health (“He’s not George anymore,” says the Daily News’ Bill Gallo, “he’s a quiet man in his twilight”) and death this year, it also offers a pointed, concise look at the transition from the first stadium to the second one. Even as Deborah Tymon, senior vice president of Yankees marketing, observes (with a slight choke in her voice), “The ghosts are going with us, the history’s going with us, the legends will never be forgotten,” the film shows how those ghosts are also bought and sold. Specifically, the new regime undertakes to sell literal chunks of the old park as collectibles: sections of the frieze, strips of sod, seats, freeze-dried grass, and assorted signage, are all available for sale on websites.


The sellers say their goal is to “save as much as we can because it is such a special place.” At a press conference, Kopple’s voice sounds from within a crowd of mostly- male beat reporters, asking, “What is the most expensive item?” The answer is hardly forthcoming, alluding vaguely to the value of all the items for fans, especially “something in the locker room.” A quick, handheld shot of lockers being disassembled is subtitled, “Derek Jeter has agreed to purchase his locker for an undisclosed price.” When Hal insists that his family is interested in keeping a trip to the ballpark “affordable” for all families, he notes, “There’s not a bad seat in the stadium.” The film cuts to ticketholders, turning to the camera in frustration, as they point out their sight lines are obstructed.


With such intricate allusions, The House of Steinbrenner consistently makes several points at once. While it acknowledges the Yankees and the Steinbrenners’ success, it also notes the fans’ range of feelings. The “house” of the title refers to many experiences, individual and collective. More than once, fans remember attending games with their fathers, associating the place with their own pasts, some imagining futures when their own children will recall being with them at a game.
It’s history to come, maybe.


 

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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