George M. Steinbrenner was never one to shy away from the cameras, whether it was standing front and center to announce his purchase of the Yankees in 1973, or playfully sparring with manager Billy Martin for a series of television commercials hawking light beer: Tastes great! Less filling! You’re fired!
Thanks to "Seinfeld," Steinbrenner -- or at least a version of him -- remains prominent on the airwaves via the wonders of syndication. Seasons 5-8 of Jerry Seinfeld’s long-running NBC sitcom frequently lampooned Steinbrenner, with co-creator Larry David providing the over-the-top voice impression of the owner’s clipped staccato and actor Lee Bear delivering the wild gesticulations.
Viewers only saw "Steinbrenner" from behind, rambling about cupcakes, Cuban cigars or aromatic calzones, but that nearly changed with a cameo for the ages. As Seinfeld prepared for its 1995-96 season finale, shooting a script for an episode titled, “The Invitations,” David suggested that they have the real Steinbrenner appear in scenes with stars Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
The story arc had Steinbrenner accompanying Elaine Benes (Louis-Dreyfus) to the wedding of Yankees assistant to the traveling secretary George Costanza (Alexander). Steinbrenner was game for the challenge. He flew on a private jet to Los Angeles, delivering lines in a Studio City set that had been painstakingly designed to look like the interior of Yankee Stadium.
Upon rewatch, Steinbrenner seemed at ease, offering a rant about his distaste for attending weddings solo: “Singles tables are for losers! The Yankees have won 33 pennants and 22 world championships. We’re winners! We don’t sit with losers!” He also delivered a quip that alluded to his hard-driving management style: “I don’t like to put undue pressure on people.”
Except ... when shooting concluded, the showrunners decided that Steinbrenner’s performance had been a whiff. David recalled being in the editing room, viewing footage that he deemed unusable. The future "Curb Your Enthusiasm" star accepted the task of informing Steinbrenner that he would be cut from the episode.
“It was much funnier just to see him from the back with my voice than to see him act, but I had to be the one to tell him that,” David told Peter Botte in his book, "The Big 50: New York Yankees." “He said in that famous voice of his, ‘You can tell me. I can take it like a man.’ So I said, ‘Look, I’m sorry, Mr. Steinbrenner. We have to cut you from the show. I just wanted to let you know.’ He didn’t seem that disappointed about it. It just didn’t work.”
Steinbrenner told Entertainment Weekly in 1997 that he didn’t mind the snub, expressing dismay about the “sick” storyline in which Costanza’s fiancée dies after licking cheap wedding envelopes.
In hindsight, perhaps David and Seinfeld’s staff were too hasty. The clip survives on YouTube, and it is remarkable to see Steinbrenner walk through the doorway of Costanza’s familiar faux Stadium office, then to interact with the characters.
A later scene with Louis-Dreyfus at a restaurant attempts to play off David’s caricature of Steinbrenner, and though it fizzles, "The Boss" deserves credit for gamely playing along. During a January 2020 appearance on "The Michael Kay Show," David’s eyes grew wide as the audio of Steinbrenner’s lines were played.
“He wasn’t bad,” David said. “I don’t know what we were thinking!”
Despite the deleted scenes, Steinbrenner is said to have had a favorable view of "Seinfeld" and its depiction of the chaotic Yankees office atmosphere. He was not overly enthusiastic about David’s voice impression, but Steinbrenner chuckled at some of the goofy scenarios that the writers conjured. As for the ill-fated Jay Buhner trade, yes -- his baseball people did say, “Ken Phelps.”
“I was prepared not to like it, but I came away laughing my head off,” Steinbrenner once told The New York Times. “Hey, if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re in bad shape. We need more laughs today. I go to too many funerals and not enough birthday parties.”