George Steinbrenner, the New York Yankees owner who died Tuesday at 80, had a reputation as a crusty, no-nonsense boss, but Larry Schmittou remembers a softer side of his old friend.
“Mr. Steinbrenner was a good person who did a lot for the city of Nashville, for local charities and for many individuals,” Schmittou said. “He never made a big show of it, and therefore he didn’t always get the credit that he deserved.”
Schmittou founded the Nashville Sounds in 1978, and from 1980-84 the team was a Yankees Class AA farm club. Even before the baseball affiliation brought Steinbrenner to town on a fairly regular basis, he had a business association with the Nashville Bridge Company.
Schmittou, a master promoter, used Steinbrenner’s celebrity to help promote the team.
“When we signed with the Yankees I called Mr. Steinbrenner and asked if he could come down for a little press conference,” Schmittou recalled. “Next day he showed up with Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. It was that way during our entire relationship – any favor I asked, he’d grant.”
A Steinbrenner roast was held to raise money for a Nashville cornea transplant center and even at $100 a plate it was short of what was needed for start-up costs. Steinbrenner pitched in $55,000 toward what became the Joan Steinbrenner Cornea Transplant Center at Vanderbilt.
On another visit he donated $6,000 to the Old Timers organization. Then $5,000 to a youth baseball league after one of the players impressed him with his politeness. Another time he wrote a $10,000 check to the Vanderbilt athletic department.
Meanwhile, the Sounds were a formidable team on the field.
“Mr. Steinbrenner believed in winning on all levels and he always made sure we had good players, both in Nashville and Greensboro,” said Schmittou, who at one time owned both minor league franchises. “He was competitive and he expected his teams to be competitive.”
One of Schmittou’s favorite Steinbrenner stories involved Joe “Black Cat” Riley, perhaps the city’s most famous fan. He was hanging around Greer Stadium one day as usual, wearing an old Yankees cap and jacket, when Steinbrenner paid a visit. Having caught Steinbrenner’s attention, the aging Black Cat declared that his lifelong dream was to be a Yankees bat boy.
“A few days later a package arrived on my desk from the Yankees addressed to ‘Mr. Black Cat Riley,’” Schmittou said. “It was a brand-new Yankees jacket and cap. For years afterwards, Mr. Steinbrenner would bring Black Cat to spring training in Florida as his special guest – and the team’s bat boy.”