FBI Docs: How George Steinbrenner Made An Ass Of The FBI Director

The year was 1989. A group of luminaries had gathered to schmooze aboard the USS Intrepid, the World War II-era aircraft carrier on the west side of Manhattan. Among them: Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and then-FBI director William Sessions. The two men couldn't have been more dissimilar. Steinbrenner was a swaggering, recently pardoned felon. Sessions was his Eagle Scout antonym. But there they were, meeting for the first time on a floating museum. For a brief while, they were thrown together by fate. This is their story. It's not long. But it is an entertaining anecdote about the behavior of baseball's most ignominious owner.

As described in a prior post, we obtained a cache of Steinbrenner-related FBI documents after I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request while reporting a story about Howie Spira, the gambler who sold dirt on Dave Winfield to Steinbrenner in the '80s. (You can read about the sordid affair here.) When the skullduggery became public, the FBI arrested Spira, who was convicted of extorting Steinbrenner, who, in turn, was banned from baseball. Media reports that Steinbrenner used his FBI contacts to impel an indictment of Spira triggered an internal FBI investigation into Steinbrenner's association with the bureau's Tampa office. The documents we have are from that investigation. They arrived after we published my story, but they still show how Steinbrenner could make his personal planet spin a little easier on its axis. (In case you're wondering, the FBI somehow found itself innocent of any wrongdoing.)

A few days after his initial meeting with Sessions, Streinbrenner followed up with a Yankees "care package" for the FBI director that included a ballcap, a nylon jacket, and a carrying bag, among other gimcrackery. It's unlikely that Steinbrenner had any grand designs on Sessions. He just liked to get chummy with people who could put him in cuffs. Down in Tampa, Steinbrenner showered FBI agents with free tickets to Buccaneers games, free booze at cocktail parties, and, in some instances, easy money after agents retired and Steinbrenner hired them.

But Sessions was a different case, and the next interaction he'd have with the Yankees owner—it would occur later that year in November 1989—caused Sessions some trouble after the FBI launched its internal investigation into the Spira affair. The meeting was a banquet in Sessions's honor at the University Club in Tampa. It came about because of the snug relationship Steinbrenner had fostered with the FBI office in Tampa, where his American Shipbuilding Company was based. Steinbrenner's FBI connections ran through Phil McNiff, the former FBI special agent in charge of the Tampa office. Steinbrenner had hired McNiff out of the FBI to be his troubleshooter. And McNiff certainly shot the trouble. He used his FBI ties to do background checks for Steinbrenner. He helped expedite Steinbrenner's application for a presidential pardon. He may even have gotten the FBI to go after Spira, who by all accounts (including my own) was more a nuisance than a threat.

McNiff's successor at the Tampa office, Bob Butler, appeared to be cut from the same kiss-ass cloth, at least with respect to Steinbrenner. In 1984, a year after Steinbrenner moved his shipbuilding business from Cleveland to Tampa, Butler arranged for The Boss to be a speaker at an FBI National Academy conference. Steinbrenner handled the entertainment for the conference. Butler also made sure that an FBI investigative report concerning Steinbrenner's application for a presidential pardon reflected Steinbrenner's assistance to the FBI in counterintelligence operations. (More on this in later posts.)

By the fall of 1989, Butler and Steinbrenner had pretty much slashed palms and swapped blood. It was around that time that Butler mentioned that Sessions would be in the Tampa area on Nov. 13 to attend an "organized crime drug enforcement task force conference." Steinbrenner grew excited at the prospect. He wanted to host a "small sit-down dinner (for approximately eight people)" to honor the FBI director. Butler got right on it.

On Nov. 2, Butler called Sessions to invite him to the dinner. Sessions didn't want to go, but Butler told him it was important to the Tampa FBI office and the Tampa community. Sessions relented. Four days later, Butler mailed a follow-up letter to tell the FBI director that Steinbrenner planned to invite a few people to the dinner—the mayor, a couple judges, some members of the law-enforcement community. Just a few people. Maybe 10 to 12, Butler told Sessions's assistant. In his letter, Butler also offered the following guidance for Sessions's "brief remarks" at the banquet:

I really believe that any subject you chose would be appropriate and interesting.

FBI Docs: How George Steinbrenner Made An Ass Of The FBI DirectorS

A kiss-ass, I said. Two days later, invitations went out for the party. Here we can really see how in thrall the Tampa FBI office was to Steinbrenner. Attached at left you'll find a copy of an invitation (to General Norman Schwarzkopf, no less; a year before Desert Storm, no less). Note that the invitation is drafted on letterhead from Steinbrenner's American Shipbuilding Company. Note also that both Steinbrenner and Butler have signed the invitation. (I believe the third redacted signature to belong to McNiff.) It's difficult to imagine the discriminating judgment that permits a man in charge of an FBI office to affix his signature to the corporate letterhead of a recently pardoned felon. At the very least, it doesn't inspire confidence in badges.

Regardless, the invitations went out. Many of them. Many more than anticipated, given Steinbrenner's exuberance. Just before Sessions left for Florida on Nov. 13, Butler called the director's office to mention that the guest list might have swelled. Sessions's assistant "interpreted this to mean that there would be several additional people at the party." But when Sessions arrived at the University Club at 6 p.m. that day, he found "approximately 125" guests waiting for him, swilling drinks at the bar. Otto Graham was there. So was a Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State in the employ of the Yankees. His name was redacted in the documents (attached below), but it could only have been Howard "Hopalong" Cassady.

Steinbrenner picked up the tab for the event: $6,152.43. Ever gracious, he also declined a seat at Sessions's table. He did this to avoid the limelight, according to Butler. But Steinbrenner was never one for the backdrop. After dinner, he got to his feet with an unexpected announcement. From Sessions's sworn testimony:

Mr. Steinbrenner, who was not seated at my table, rose from his seat, introduced me, and advised the group that I was the main speaker for the evening. This surprised me as I had previously expected to make only a few brief remarks. Although I did not have a prepared speech, I spoke at some length about the FBI, our programs and mission and focused on the national drug problem [...]. I don't recall that any other speeches were made that night.

Sessions spoke for about 20 minutes about the war on drugs. You can read the cold reproach in his statement above. This is not a man who enjoys surprises. He could not have enjoyed learning later that he'd been bundled into an internal FBI investigation into his own agency's relationship with Steinbrenner. But the real takeaway is that Steinbrenner played Sessions. The Yankees owner got what he wanted when he wanted it, even if what he wanted was the head of an intelligence agency, and even if that meant the head would have to speechify extemporaneously in front of Steinbrenner's cronies. The Boss's life was one long and mean power trip. And for a few months in 1989 and 1990, an FBI director was entangled in the wreckage Steinbrenner left in his wake.