NEW YORK--George Steinbrenner was forced to resign as principal partner of the New York Yankees yesterday by baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, all but ending his turbulent reign as the team's owner.
The agreement came following a day-long meeting in Vincent's office and was the result of a four-month investigation by the commissioner into Steinbrenner's dealing with self-described gambler Howard Spira.
"Mr. Steinbrenner will have no further involvement in the management of the New York Yankees or in the day-to-day operations of that club," Vincent said in announcing the decision.
Steinbrenner must resign as general partner by Aug. 20, when someone will be appointed to take his place, subject to the approval of Vincent and the other major league teams.
Steinbrenner will, however, be allowed to consult on major business decisions involving the Yankees, but he must ask Vincent's permission to attend games.
"For all purposes, Mr. Steinbrenner agrees that he is to be treated as if he had been placed on the permanent ineligible list," Vincent said.
Steinbrenner also agreed to contest the decision in court.
The news spread quickly through Yankee Stadium, where New York played Detroit. Fans greeted the announcement with a 90-second standing ovation.
"I will not comment on the decision," Steinbrenner said. "I'm very happy it was resolved. I'm very satisfied with the resolution, and that's all I'm going to say."
Steinbrenner, one of the most controversial figures in baseball history, is the only owner to be severely penalized twice for major offenses. He was suspended in 1974 by Bowie Kuhn for making illegal campaign contribution to Richard Nixon.
This time, Vincent disciplined Steinbrenner for violating Rule 21, otherwise knows as the "best interests of baseball" clause.
The investigation centered on Steinbrenner's $40,000 payment to Spira, a 31-year-old New Yorker who describes himself as a former gambler and a former employee of the David M. Winfield Foundation. The commissioner wanted to know why Steinbrenner gave the money to Spira.
Steinbrenner testified before Vincent on July 5 and July 6 and gave various reasons for the payment. Among them were that he was afraid Spira would attack his family, that he gave Spira the money "out of the goodness of my heart" and that he wanted to protect two former Yankees employees from embarassing revelations.
"I hope this sad episode is now over," Vincent said.
This was the second straight summer baseball penalized one of its more famous characters. Last August, Pete Rose was banned for life for gambling.
Steinbrenner's 18-year tenure as principal owner of the Yankees has been peppered with disciplinary action by the commissioner's office.
He has been fined several times, most recently on July 5 when Vincent docked him $25,000 for tampering with Winfield in the days after his May 11 trade to California. The Yankees were also ordered to pay the Angels $200,000.
On Nov. 27, 1974, Kuhn suspended Steinbrenner for two years following his guilty plea to felony violations of the federal election law. Steinbrenner was reinstated on March 1, 1976, for good behavior, but former Yankees employees have said recently that Steinbrenner violated terms of that suspension.
Steinbrenner and his lawyer, Stephen E. Kaufman, arrived at the commissioner's office around 9 a.m. and were still there at 8 p.m. EDT, just moments before the decision was announced. Also in the room were Harold Tyler Jr., baseball's counsel in the case, and John Dowd, the lawyer who headed Vincent's investigation.
Spira is under federal indictment on charges that he tried to extort money from Steinbrenner and threatened the owner and Winfield. Spira has pleaded not guilty, and a trial is expected later this year.