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My friendship with 'The Boss' before he was anyone's boss

I met George Steinbrenner when I was a Yankee fan and he went to Cleveland Indians games and he was not The Boss.

He was a Williams College kid from Cleveland, but bubbling with high-pitched enthusiasm even then more than a half century ago. He ran track and helped edit a college newspaper in my hometown in Massachusetts. I was the sports editor of our high school paper, The Spirit, with my own cliché-stuffed column called "Toeing the Rubber."

This all came back when I learned that Mr. Steinbrenner, the man who made the New York Yankees great once again — and then again — died at 80 of a heart attack last week at his home in Tampa.

George's female date so many years ago stayed at our house during college fraternity weekends. To make extra money, our family became an informal rooming house for students' girlfriends. I told George about my interest in becoming a newspaperman since 7.

He would explode with words like "Great!" and "Terrific!" and "Outstanding!" — delivered, it seemed, with capital letters.

That year, 1951, Sheldon Jones, a New York Giants pitcher, moved to our small town soon after playing a role, however tiny, in that year's World Series. What excitement this was for a kid sports columnist.

I overcame a natural shyness among strangers, walked up to Mr. Jones' front door on East Main Street, rapped on the door, announced myself and asked for an interview. He said sure. I forget what I wrote but pounded eagerly on the Underwood manual typewriter. Whatever Mr. Jones said was news to me.

When I showed the Spirit story to George, he was excited. He ran it in his paper, The Record, and brought me 15 copies. This was the big time. It was better than seeing a Linotype operator fashion melted lead into your own name.

George encouraged me to keep writing and to work for real newspapers afterwards. I said I planned to do that. He also said to write other things too.

People move on. I later wrote for the same college paper. Over the years, we occasionally exchanged cheerful letters. He answered my letters promptly. He continued his optimism about my newspaper career, which lasted for 40 years. It would be inaccurate to say George and I were good friends, but we were now and again amiable pen pals.

I read about his wild Yankee ownership days, never visited him in his Yankee Stadium lair, never worked for him and knew nothing firsthand about the controversial stuff, like hiring and firing the same guy five times — an unconventional management style. Even newspapers don't do that.

I had been a youthful Yankee fan in western Massachusetts — not unusual — but have followed the Orioles since we moved to Baltimore years ago. Still, I wished Mr. Steinbrenner well and good health.

Two years ago, I wrote George and said I'd written two oral history books about a historic old ship on which I was an ordinary seaman among other volunteers. This ship still makes waves, I wrote.

I thought the vessel's curious life might interest the old man as they did this old man: troop ship, school ship, forgotten ship, steaming history museum. George and his family had owned shipbuilding and steamship companies in Cleveland and Florida.

I mailed him my two newly published books "Good Shipmates: The Restoration of the Liberty Ship John W. Brown, 1942-2006, Volume One and Two."

The histories are about World War II mariners who in 1988 rescued the wartime cargo/troop ship from sure death and made her steam again on daylong living history cruises out of Baltimore. Aboard their 68-year-old steamer, they still do that today down the Chesapeake Bay and from other ports on the Atlantic coast.

Mr. Steinbrenner found Liberty ships a fascinating relic. He thanked me and congratulated me on graduating from newspapers to books. He said he would take the two volumes on his plane for flights between home in Tampa and Yankee Stadium; they would make the flights more pleasant.

I don't know whether he got far into the books, but I hope time flew for the old shipbuilder aboard the old Liberty.

Ernest F. Imhoff is a retired editor and reporter at The Sun. His e-mail is ernimhoff@aol.com.

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