Mike Cleary: Fired by Steinbrenner

My new book “Pass the Nuts” is coming out in early November. Here’s a preview of the book– taken from Chapter 1.

Mike Cleary was the first person ever fired by George Steinbrenner and it was the best thing that ever happened to him. It was good for two reasons. First, he never had to work for Steinbrenner again. Second, everything else that ever happened to him was an upgrade.

Cleary was the general manager of the Cleveland Pipers, Steinbrenner’s pro basketball team in the American Basketball League, a short-lived renegade league a notch below the NBA.

The ABL lasted only a year and a half. It folded in the middle of its second season because it was nothing more than a “spite” league. Abe Saperstein, who owned the Harlem Globetrotters, felt he was double crossed by the NBA. He claimed that he was promised the NBA expansion team in Los Angeles, but when the Lakers moved there from Minneapolis in 1960 that promise went unfulfilled. Angry and vengeful, Saperstein cobbled together enough investors to launch an eight-team league to compete against the NBA. Saperstein was a crafty promoter, but his emotions blinded his business sense. This was a war he would not win.

Teams were thrown together quickly. Steinbrenner bought Ed Sweeny’s Cleveland Pipers of the semi-pro National Industrial Basketball League, which included such amateur basketball legends as the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots, the Peoria Cats (sponsored by the Caterpillar Co.), Bartlesville, Oklahoma, Oilers and Denver Truckers. They were called the Pipers because Sweeny owned a plumbing company.

He had the foundation for a decent pro team and his coach, John McLendon, was no neophyte. He was a renowned college coach. Despite its minor status, the ABL sometimes stood up and went toe-to-toe with the older, established league. That was the case when Steinbrenner signed Dick Barnett away from the Syracuse Nationals of the NBA. Barnett was an established NBA player, the type who enhanced the image of the Pipers and the entire ABL.

Barnett was attracted to Cleveland because he was reunited with McLendon, who had coached him in college. They had won three straight NAIA national championships together at Tennessee A&I (later known as Tennessee State).

“It was an afternoon news release,” said Cleary. “In those days we rotated releases between morning and afternoon papers. That was the way things were done. All the teams did it and the papers respected the arrangement. Nobody jumped the gun. The Barnett story was the afternoon papers’ turn. Bob August wrote the story for The Press, which was going to start it outside on page one.

They were going to treat it as a major story, which it was.

“That night Gib Shanley saw it on the wire. It might have been his first night in town. He came from Toledo. He didn’t notice the release date on the story so he used it on his 11 o’clock show.

“Right after Shanley’s show, Chuck Heaton from The Plain Dealer called. He said that since the story had been on television, he had to run it in his morning paper. He wrote two paragraphs.

“Because the story was in the morning Plain Dealer, The Press cut it to one paragraph in the afternoon. We went from a page one story to two paragraphs in the morning and one paragraph in the afternoon,” said Cleary.

Steinbrenner was livid. He called Cleary into his office and fired him on the spot. He gave him five minutes to exit his office.

Cleary should have called Shanley and thanked him.

This is what it was like working for Steinbrenner and, by extension, Steinbrenner’s father.

The Pipers’ office was in the Rockefeller Building on Superior Ave. at West Sixth St. Also in the building were Steinbrenner’s American Shipbuilding headquarters and the headquarters of Kinsman Transit, the massive steamship company owned by Steinbrenner’s father, Henry. You would think it was a neat little family arrangement and you would be wrong.

“George asked me to stop by his office,” said Cleary. “George’s father poked his head in the door and asked me, ‘What are you doing here? Wait outside. He’s mine until five o’clock.’ Another time George was on the phone. His father said, ‘Is that a personal call?’ And he reached down and disconnected the call.

“There was an old lady who worked for George’s father. I asked her how long she worked there. She said half a century or something. I said George’s father was quite demanding. She said I should have known George’s grandfather.”

So there was Cleary, out of work. Not long before that he had declined an offer from Ken Krueger to become general manager of his Kansas City Steers franchise in the ABL.

“I called him back to tell him things in Cleveland had changed and did he still need a general manager,” Cleary said. “I called information in Kansas City. ‘Missouri or Kansas?’ the operator asked. I didn’t know there were two of them. ‘The big one,’ I said.”

The job was still available so Cleary packed up his wife and children and moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Soon afterward, the Cleveland Pipers arrived for a two-game series.

“We always played a two-game series,” Cleary said. “There would always be a fight in the first game to build up the crowd for the second game. The visiting team got 25 percent of the gate. After the second game, I handed Pipers’ coach John McLendon an envelope with his share of the gate. I told him not to be in the room when George opened it.”

The envelope contained a check for 27 dollars and change, several hundred dollars less than Steinbrenner expected. Cleary also enclosed this note to Steinbrenner.

“Dear George,

“Inadvertently when I left, you forgot to give me my last two weeks’ pay. Knowing how magnanimous you are by nature, I was sure you would want to give me two weeks’ severance pay, also.”

Because Cleary knew the flight the Pipers took from Kansas City to Cleveland, he knew that McLendon would hand the envelope to Steinbrenner at about 5:15 p.m.

“Right on schedule, at 4:15 Kansas City time, George called. ‘You got me this time, you son of a bitch. Now we’re even,’ he said. We’ve been friends ever since,” said Cleary.

They also did business with each other. Shortly after arriving in Kansas City, Cleary realized he needed a center. Cleveland had two of them—Bevo Francis, the small college sensation from Rio Grande College, and Gene Tormohlen, a one-time college all-star from Tennessee. Tormohlen actually was six foot, eight inches tall, not a true center, but close enough.

“George wanted Bevo Francis. He was the big draw. George wanted to get rid of Tormohlen. I offered him $500 for Tormohlen and he said we had a deal,” Cleary recalled.

Tormohlen was invaluable to the Steers. After the ABL folded he went on to play four full seasons and parts of two others in the NBA. Bevo Francis, who stood six feet, nine inches, made national headlines when he scored 116 points in a small college game, but that was in 1954. Bevo never played in the NBA. For several years in the late 1950s he barnstormed across the country, playing one-night exhibitions in every city, town and village. After his one season in Cleveland he was burned out and drifted away. He went to work in the potteries and brick factories of southeastern Ohio near his home, where he spent the rest of his life in contentment.

Halfway through that season, McLendon quit as coach because of Steinbrenner’s constant meddling. Should anyone be surprised? Bill Sharman replaced him and the Pipers won the ABL championship. Barnett averaged 26 points a game and made the league all-star team. Johnny Cox of Cleveland made the second team.

The NBA team owners agreed to take Cleveland into the league as an expansion team, but there was an entry fee involved and Steinbrenner could not raise the money.

“George’s father would not give it to him,” said Cleary. “He gave him money for shipbuilding, but not for basketball.”

Unable to get into the NBA, Steinbrenner folded the Cleveland Pipers. He was out of the basketball business.

Barnett went back to the NBA, where he played for 14 seasons. One can only speculate how the sports world would have changed if Steinbrenner’s Pipers had gotten into the NBA. It is possible that Steinbrenner, while occupied with pro basketball, never would have bought the New York Yankees.

* * *

Nick Mileti’s life would have changed. He never would have founded the Cavaliers because Cleveland already would have had an NBA team. The ABL entered its second season with six teams, including Kansas City, but Saperstein pulled the plug on Dec. 31, 1962. The ABL lost one million dollars during the 1961-62 season and was on schedule to lose another million in its second year. With the ABL out of business, so was Cleary.

He went to work for the NAIA—the National Association of Inter-Collegiate Athletics. After a short time he moved to the NCAA, which was headquartered in the Kansas City suburb of Shawnee Mission, Kansas.

“That was 1964. The NCAA had 11 employees—six men, five women. Today they have 160 employees in the enforcement division alone,” said Cleary.

During the 1964 NCAA convention at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., Cleary happened to be talking to LSU athletic director Jim Corbett.

“We have no influence, no power,” Corbett said. “Athletic directors need our own organization.”

Cleary was sympathetic. The NCAA conventions were run by college presidents and faculty representatives. College athletic directors sat around and watched.

“It wasn’t long before Jim Corbett called me and said they were looking for a young, bright person to put out a magazine, sell some ads and run an athletic directors association. He said, ‘Do you know anybody?’ I said, ‘Yes. Me.’ And I became the executive director of the athletic directors association,” said Cleary.

That was in 1965. At their first convention at the Pick Congress Hotel in Chicago, 300 athletic directors attended. At their most recent convention at the Marriott World Center in Orlando in June 2011, attendance was 3,000 athletic directors. It was Cleary’s last convention as executive director. He retired at the age of 78. He had been in his position for 46 years. When Cleary founded the organization, the headquarters were in Minneapolis because the Wheaties Sports Federation provided him a free office and a secretary and paid half his salary.

In 1969, he moved the office to Center Ridge Road in Rocky River and eventually took it to Detroit Road in Westlake.

He always had a simple explanation for working until he was almost 80.

“If you don’t go to work, you can’t go to lunch,” he always said.

Cleary’s old friend Dino Lucarelli put his life in perspective.

“When Mike Cleary dies and goes to heaven, it will only be a lateral move,” said Lucarelli.

* * *

Steinbrenner was a complex individual. He really was one of the most generous people in Cleveland history. When John Nagy was recreation commissioner in Cleveland, he would occasionally ask Steinbrenner to help young Olympic hopefuls finance their training and their travels to Olympic trials and later to the Olympics themselves. Most of them were track athletes. George never hesitated to whip out his checkbook. The list is long and Steinbrenner never sought publicity. He paid the private high school and college tuition for a friend’s son. He provided a wheelchair lift and a handicapped ramp for another family. There are countless examples of his charity.

For many years he quietly subsidized the Cleveland National Air Show, as well.

Steinbrenner was like a finely cut diamond. These silent acts of kindness were one facet. At other times he was the master of the grandstand play.

For example, I was in New York to cover Muhammad Ali’s fight with Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 28, 1976. My old friend George Lamb met me in New York. Lamb was a degenerate sports fan with a special weakness for world famous events, which Ali vs. Norton certainly was. It was the last heavyweight championship fight held outdoors in an American ballpark. There was a time many years ago when it was commonplace to stage major fights under the lights outdoors in ballparks. That was long before pay per view and Las Vegas.

The night before the fight George Lamb and I were drinking in P. J. Clarke’s bar on Third Avenue. Several other reporters and columnists in town for the fight wandered in. P. J. Clarke’s was a popular spot for visiting sportswriters. It was overpriced, of course, but not like some other joints and it was pure New York. The place was well lit and everybody was clean and dressed decently. I introduced George Lamb around. He bought a round of drinks and actually got change for a fifty. It was crowded, all the stools were taken, but there was plenty of standing room.

About that time George Steinbrenner strolled triumphantly into P. J. Clarke’s. Heads turned and eyes followed him as he walked confidently the entire length of the bar until he reached us. Steinbrenner was feeling good. This was his fourth year as owner of the Yankees and they had just clinched the American League’s Eastern Division championship, the first of his regime. The Yankees went on to beat Kansas City in the playoffs but lost the World Series in four straight to Cincinnati. We didn’t know that yet, however. At the moment, Steinbrenner was the toast of New York. He had restored the Yankees to glory.

I made the introductions again. George asked if anyone needed tickets to the fight. He had nothing to do with the fight, which was promoted by Bob Arum, but he had access to all the tickets he wanted. After all, Arum needed Steinbrenner’s cooperation to use Yankee Stadium during the baseball season. They had a nice hand-in-glove accommodation.

“No thanks, George. We’ve got our press credentials,” everybody said.

Steinbrenner bought a round of drinks and he left.

The next morning George Lamb and I took a stroll around Manhattan. It was unusually warm for late September, perfect for an outdoor fight in Yankee Stadium. When I got back to my room, there was a telephone message. I called the hotel operator and she relayed the message: “Call Mr. George Steinbrenner at this number.” It was his office number at Yankee Stadium. I dialed it and his secretary answered. I told her who I was.

“Mr. Steinbrenner wants to know if you need a ticket to the fight tonight,” she said.

I told her I was all set. Tell him thanks for me.

He knew darn well I did not need a ticket to the fight. He knew I was there to cover it and I had a ringside ticket. What he did not know was my hotel. Nobody knew my hotel, including The Plain Dealer sports department. I happened to be staying in the New York Sheraton because the Indians stayed there when they were in New York and I got the club rate, but nobody knew that. He made a secretary call every Manhattan hotel until she found me, all that to reinforce an impression that he was a swell guy. It worked. I remember it 35 years later and I’m still telling people he was a swell guy.

“That’s how he operated,” Mike Cleary told me not long ago. “All those years he owned the Yankees, he also had season tickets here in Cleveland for the Indians games. At eleven o’clock in the morning of home games, he had his secretary call a list of people offering them tickets to the game that night. Never before eleven o’clock. By then it was usually too late for people to make plans for the game, but they remembered he made the offer. Later, when the Yankees came to town everybody called him asking for tickets. He could always say, ‘I’m sorry, they’re gone. By the way, I offered you the tickets on this date and that date and you didn’t want them.’ ”

His generosity knew no boundaries.

Two of his favorite Cleveland bartenders were Nino Rinicella and Eddie Hallal from the Theatrical Restaurant. When the Yankees got in the World Series the first time, he invited them to New York for the opening game. He flew them to New York and paid all their expenses. Before the game he had them on the field and introduced them to the players. The introductions were not necessary, however. When Yankee manager Billy Martin spotted them, he trotted over.

“Hi, Nino,” Martin said.

“Hi, Billy,” said Nino.

When the Yankees were in Cleveland they spent more time in the Theatrical than Steinbrenner did.

Steinbrenner was on the receiving end of such kindness once. Wellington Mara, who owned the New York football Giants, gave George tickets to a private loge for a game at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, but when George and several friends arrived, he realized he forgot the tickets.

He went to the “Will Call” window and explained his predicament.

“No problem, Mr. Steinbrenner,” said the man behind the window.

He called a superior who appeared quickly. The man knew exactly where they were supposed to go. He stopped what he was doing and personally escorted George and his group to their loge.

“What a great employee,” marveled one of Steinbrenner’s guests. “Don’t you wish every employee was that nice?”

“If he worked for me,” said George, “I’d fire him.”

Excerpted from the book Pass the Nuts, copyright © Dan Coughlin. All rights reserved.

This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.

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One Response to Mike Cleary: Fired by Steinbrenner

  1. Pingback: “Pass the Nuts” has arrived | Coughlin Forever

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