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From “Seinfeld” to “The Bronx is Burning,” George Steinbrenner transcended New York and baseball to become a pop culture icon.
Unlike the stiff, manufactured James infomercial announcement, the Ohio shipbuilder's final act – dying just hours before the All Star Game's first pitch – wasn’t scripted. It couldn’t have been, not even in Hollywood, far from The Boss’s glory days in New York.
Steinbrenner's death Tuesday at 80 drew a close to life of drama, triumph and missteps that transcended New York and baseball to make him a flawed, but endlessly entertaining pop cultural icon.
The Yankees owner rivaled Bruce Springsteen for the title of “The Boss” – and became, if only in absentia, a "Seinfeld" character. He provided the smoldering center of an ESPN mini-series, though perhaps his most sordid episode – consorting with a small-time hustler named Howie Spira – was the stuff of pulp fiction.
Steinbrenner’s first big 70s show, co-starring similarly larger-than-life characters named Billy and Reggie, brimmed with enough hirings and firings, quarrels and makeup, gambles and wild spending to rival primetime TV soaps of the era, like "Dallas" and "Dynasty."
As with those programs, Steinbrenner's impulsiveness and frequent explosions steered him into the realm of inadvertent comedy. (“I was supportive of my managers, even though they all may not think so,” he once said.)
With time, Steinbrenner learned to embrace – and exploit – his hot-tempered image, appearing in a memorable Miller Lite beer commercial with Billy Martin (“You’re fired!” Steinbrenner tells Martin, who sighs, “Not again.”). In 1990, Steinbrenner hosted "Saturday Night Live,” parodying his control-freak persona in a sketch where he dreams he’s the Yankees’ manager – and every player.
He didn't appear, of course, on “Seinfeld” – show co-creator Larry David portrayed him, back view only, as a calzone-loving, mercurial shouter who turned George Costanza's dream job in the Bombers’ front office into a comic nightmare (“Big Stein wants an eggplant calzone! Must have one!”).
Steinbrenner actually filmed some scenes for an episode – but even he apparently wasn’t outrageous enough in person to live up to his legend, and got edited out.
He showed equal good humor as legendary New York Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo caricatured him over the years as General Von Steingrabber, a Prussian autocratic – a rendering that didn't make the Steuben Society happy, but always made The Boss chuckle.
A depiction that no doubt hit closer to home was actor Oliver Platt’s brilliant portrayal of Steinbrenner in the 2007 ESPN mini-series "The Bronx is Burning," about New York and the Bronx Zoo-edition of the Yankees during the epic Son-of-Sam, blackout summer of 1977.
We saw Steinbrenner as a man in the middle of the bonfire – and one who, perhaps, helped ignite it with a combustible combination of ego, bluster and the tantrums of an insecure little boy for whom winning was everything.
James, as he goes heads to Miami in search of his first NBA title, might want to look to his fellow Ohioan, who restored a battered franchise to its former glory, leading the Yankees to seven world championships without ever taking the field.
The hoops star embraces the title “King James,” which he hasn’t yet earned. King George, love him or hate him, carved out a legacy far beyond sports by making himself, through sheer force of will, an unforgettable character – an all-star of accomplishment, personality and drama up to his final breath.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.