So long, sultan of swagger
Big George Steinbrenner could be hard on his employees, especially little George Costanza. In the hilarious fictional Yankees world depicted on “Seinfeld,” Steinbrenner once had Costanza hauled off to a mental institution.
The Yankees owner testified in court that Costanza was a communist — “as pink as they come, like a big juicy steak.”
The mercurial billionaire made poor Costanza fetch eggplant calzones and listen to paranoid rants, including one about Babe Ruth: “Nothing more than a fat old man with little girl legs. And here’s something I just found out recently: He wasn’t really a sultan!”
The Steinbrenner doppelganger, shown only from behind and voiced by the brilliant “Seinfeld” co-creator and Yankees fan, Larry David, even scalped his own tickets.
“Who else could be a memorable character on a television show without actually appearing on the show?” Jerry Seinfeld told the OnTheRed Carpet blog after hearing that the larger-than-life Steinbrenner had died of a heart attack on the day of the All-Star Game.
But how did the Yankees owner feel about Big Stein, his oddball yet finally lovable caricature in “Seinfeld”?
My friend David Sussman called “The Boss” his boss for eight years, working as the Yankees’ general counsel and for the last five of those, as the team’s chief operating officer. He shared the inside baseball on Steinbrenner’s relationship with “Seinfeld,” which was, naturally, oddball yet finally loveable.
In the mid-’90s, NBC contacted Sussman to ask Steinbrenner to do a cameo on an episode and to get his permission to use a Yankees pennant on the wall of Jerry’s apartment. The Boss considered the part demeaning and refused either to appear — “Why would I do that?” he snapped — or to allow the pennant to be used.
When the show aired a few days later with the pennant on Jerry’s wall, Steinbrenner didn’t say anything.
A year later, Seinfeld came back with a minor request, Sussman recalled. The star wanted permission to use a Yankees uniform in an episode where George Costanza decides to switch the uniform from polyester to cotton — a disaster once the cotton shrinks.
Seinfeld had already arranged for Yankees right-fielder Danny Tartabull and manager Buck Showalter to appear on the show.
Sussman told him that, given the earlier script and the unauthorized use of the pennant, Steinbrenner would never agree.
Seinfeld apologized profusely to Sussman and asked for another chance. Couldn’t the lawyer just show The Boss the script?
Seinfeld faxed it over to Sussman with the usual Hollywood cover note ending “Your friend, Jerry.”
At the end of a long day of business meetings in Tampa, Fla., Sussman told Steinbrenner about Seinfeld’s request.
“Didn’t they screw us last time?” barked The Boss, whose role model was George Patton.
Sussman conveyed Seinfeld’s apology and told Steinbrenner that “this is an innocuous script that doesn’t involve you. Some of the players and Buck are appearing on the show.”
The owner retorted, “I’ll be the judge of that. Let me see the script.”
Noticing the sign-off on the cover letter, Steinbrenner, sensitive even to imagined breaches of loyalty, needled his lawyer: “Oh, I can see you and JERRY are becoming close friends.”
After reading less than a page, Steinbrenner angrily threw down the script. “I thought you said this doesn’t involve me?” he bellowed.
Sussman tried over and over to reassure him that this script involved no cameo for the owner.
“Then,” Steinbrenner demanded, “what are all of these references to ‘George’ in the script?”
Sussman was stunned but tried to explain: “‘George’ is George Costanza. He is a character on the show. He is a friend of Seinfeld’s and he plays the role of one of your employees.”
Steinbrenner acted incredulous, intoning: “I thought you were smarter than that. Don’t you see? This is how they are trying to get at me. They have named their character after me.”
All attempts to tell him that the “George” character had been on the show since it started were brushed aside.
“Here’s what we do,” Steinbrenner declared. “Call your FRIEND Jerry back and tell him he has Mr. Steinbrenner’s permission to use the Yankees uniform but on one condition: He changes the name of the Costanza character. In fact, have him name this character after you, David.”
Sussman conveyed the good news/bad news message to Seinfeld, who was understandably befuddled. The Boss declined to return Jerry’s phone calls to Tampa.
The following Friday, Steinbrenner called Sussman to discuss business, and then seemingly casually noted: “Oh yes, that request from your friend Jerry Seinfeld. I watched that ‘Seinfeld’ show last night. It is a really funny show. And the George character is great. So you tell your friend Jerry he has my permission.”
And that’s how George and George coexisted happily ever after.