The most famous (and infamous) owner in the history of sports, George Steinbrenner had a soft space in his hardened heart for Buffalo — a city that has been like a second home for generations of Steinbrenners.
The Steinbrenners time in Buffalo usually revolved around the shipping industry and the family’s Kinsman Transportation Company. The Yankees owner’s grandfather, also George M. Steinbrenner, traveled to Buffalo from Cleveland quite often as the chairman of the Welfare Plan of the Lake Carriers’ Association in the 1920s. He was popular with the sailors of the Great Lakes for the care with which he provided for those who were injured or killed on the job.
It was maritime disaster that first brought the younger George Steinbrenner to Buffalo for an extended period of time. He’d already been visiting Buffalo looking for business every other Tuesday when a 1959 storm caused a Kinsman ship, the SS Michael K. Tewksbury, to break loose from her moorings and destroy the Michigan Avenue Bridge. Henry Steinbrenner sent his young son to Buffalo to handle the company’s affairs in the matter.
The last lawsuit in the case wasn’t settled until 1968, which left Steinbrenner plenty of time to explore Buffalo’s grain hauling industry and nightlife. He first got to know Buffalo’s sports scene by hanging out at the Billboard on Washington Street, the bar where sports writers for the Courier-Express would occasionally tipple after slaving over a hot typewriter — folks like Ray Ryan, Jim Peters and a young Larry Felser.
Steinbrenner’s time on Buffalo’s bar stools was spent debating more than drinking. When the Billboard gave way to progress, "The Boss" moved his routine over to the Royal Arms on West Utica Street, where he nurtured an appreciation for live music and what would become a lifelong friendship with Max Margulis, who ran the place.
Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin and Mel Torme all played the Royal Arms. They played in the background as Steinbrenner and Margulis, along with Jimmy Naples, put their skills and wallets together to open one of Buffalo’s all-time swank joints — the Roundtable.
Steinbrenner’s Delaware Avenue restaurant was called “The Toots Shor’s of Buffalo,” talking about the famous New York City nightspot where Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason were regulars. The Roundtable played host to Buffalo’s elite athletes like Jack Kemp and O.J. Simpson, figures from the political and judicial spheres, and even captains and underbosses from Buffalo’s then-powerful Mafia family.
In a story that will be familiar to Yankees fans, Steinbrenner was the money man, and Margulis and Naples knew the restaurant industry. When they bought the restaurant then known as “The Chateau,” they made some changes to set it apart as “The Roundtable.”
The first new rule was no dinner at the bar to allow for a better flow of booze to the Buffalo elite looking to unwind after a long day. The first person to try to break the rule was Steinbrenner.
As Margulis told Bill Madden with a sigh in his book on Steinbrenner, “George was George.” He said Steinbrenner would call constantly trying to make small changes to the menu and décor, despite not understanding the business. Steinbrenner sold out his share of the restaurant as he bought the Yankees, but never forgot his pal in Buffalo.
The Blizzard of ’77 crippled many Buffalo businesses, especially downtown. The Roundtable was no exception. To help Margulis and Naples raise some fast cash, Steinbrenner organized a “Sports Night” at the Roundtable — basically rounded up as many people from the Yankees organization as he could and sent them on a plane to Buffalo for one glorious night.
The event raised some cash, but not the overall prospects for the Roundtable. When it closed the following year, both Margulis and Naples’ son went to work for Steinbrenner.
Other Buffalo connections run deep as well. Dallas Green, who was the manager of the Yankees in the late ’80s, first met Steinbrenner in Buffalo when Green was pitching for the Bisons. Steinbrenner was an assistant coach under Lou Saban when the onetime Bills head coach was working at Northwestern in the ’50s. The two renewed acquaintances in Buffalo, and eventually Saban spent several years as president of the Yankees.
Before he bought the Yankees, Steinbrenner had pledged $1 million to the group trying to bring a National League expansion franchise to Buffalo in 1968. Though the years, he often referred to the time “when, not if” Buffalo would get a major league team.
He liked to use to the Bisons to stir the pot as well, often mentioning on his speaking tours of Boy Scout dinners and sports nights that he wouldn’t mind having the Bisons as the Yankees farm team.
“I’ve always thought Buffalo was a great sports town,” Steinbrenner told News Sports Editor Larry Felser in 1984, talking of the days in the 1960s when the International League Bisons outdrew many big league teams.
The Bisons never joined the Yankees organization, but were undoubtedly used as a bargaining chip in the negotiation of countless minor league affiliation agreements.
Buffalo was Steinbrenner’s home base when he explored trying to buy the NHL’s Colorado Rockies, meeting with Rockies owner Peter Gilbert in Buffalo in 1982. Steinbrenner also mentioned often in his speeches here that he’d always lamented not taking up an early offer to invest in the group working to bring NHL hockey to Buffalo.
The day George Steinbrenner announced his purchase of the Yankees in 1973, The News wrote that Steinbrenner’s shipping empire “operates most of the vessels that enter Buffalo Harbor with grain cargoes from the head of the Great Lakes, the tugboats that escort them to the big waterfront elevators, and the company that hires the crews to unload them — Great Lakes Associates, with offices in the Crosby Building.”
Three years later, when speaking at a sports night at the Buffalo Athletic Club, Steinbrenner told the crowd that they shouldn’t get down on the city he cared so much about, and even lived in for a short time.
“It hurts me to see Buffalonians down on their city,” Steinbrenner said. “I’ve had good times here, and have always loved the people of Buffalo. I’ve always had an up feeling about this city.”