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The Last Act Of The Notorious Howie Spira

He had the tapes of the phone calls, rattling old Maxell cassettes with the labels numbered in blue ballpoint. And he had stories. About Steinbrenner and escorts, Winfield and a faked death threat. About organized crime: How he was one of the few people in New York to burn the mob over gambling debts and walk away without a limp. He recounted pulpy tales of face offs with gangsters and near death encounters. Always more to tell. After two months of talking, Howie would reveal that just like George Steinbrenner he had been a valuable FBI asset. It was true. The FBI confirmed Spira had been an informant.

Howie’s cassettes captured his rift with Dave Winfield, his conniving with George Steinbrenner, and his turn against Steinbrenner. They captured threats from the mob. Here’s a sampling. A heart attack had carried him off in 2010, eight months after the Yankees had won yet another World Series. Steinbrenner’s suspension in the early ’90s had given Yankees management a break from his meddling, allowing the franchise to build the core of a new dynasty around its young center fielder, catcher, and shortstop. Howie puckishly took credit for the transformation. Steinbrenner got the championship rings for it, though. The Yankees owner went out of this world as a flawed but triumphant giant, an American success story.

In the ’80s and ’90s, French was an FBI supervisory special agent. He headed up investigations into all of New York’s five original mafia families and, at one point, ran the bureau’s Westchester County office. Associating with Howie was part of his job. He closed out Howie as an informant in 1986, but that didn’t stop the phone calls. French retired to do contract work for the bureau, but that still didn’t stop the calls. His phone rings, even now, and Howie’s squeaky Bronx twang is on the line, spraying information, pleading for help with the book and a movie. French was the only one who could stand him.

Howie hemorrhaged information about Winfield and Steinbrenner, the mafia, prison, baseball, women, clothes, the weather, his parents, his health. He jumped from one tangent to another, many of them fascinating and relevant, some bizarre, others difficult to fathom. Like the time he told me Winfield held a gun to him. Or the time he said Steinbrenner had sent him a prostitute. Even a hint of incredulity nettled him: “I know what’s been told to me in the past 22 years. That I’m the biggest scumbag in the world, that I’m worse than a pedophile, than a terrorist. I’ve made innumerable mistakes, but the only thing I don’t do is lie.”

From 1979 into the early ’80s, Howie’s energies were turned loose in the Yankees clubhouse. Players and staffers, interviewed by Sports Illustrated after Howie became notorious, remembered him as a “green fly,” buzzing around. Howie had gone to NYU to study broadcast journalism, scored credentials as a stringer for network radio and wire services, and whirred into locker rooms and press rows across New York: the Giants, the Rangers, the Knicks, the Islanders, the Mets, the Jets. The Yankees, though, were his favorite. He liked baseball more than any other sport and the Yankees more than any other team. But more than sports, he liked feeling important. Being around star athletes made him feel that way. Journalism was a means to an end. Howie figured he’d represent the players one day. Everyone could see that. Always dapper then, Howie Spira. He’d grown up scrawny and awkward a few blocks from Yankee Stadium and dressed well to cover his low self esteem. In the second grade, he wore ties and dress shirts. He played stickball on the corner and ate butterhorns with cottage cheese and sour cream at the kosher deli, chocolate milk to drink, yodels for dessert. 35. “I was Kid Dyn o WHITE!” he crowed.

His father, Sigmund, knocked the hell out of Howie when he was little. The old man was a survivor. Sigmund came from Berlin originally. The Nazis sent him to Auschwitz. He saw his entire immediate family killed. In the camp, he hauled bodies to the ovens. He was only 17 when he made it out, got on a truck and slipped away to Belgium, stayed there until the war was over. cheap nfl jerseys When he rolled up his sleeves, the blue numbers on his left forearm glowered. He possessed an uncontrollable rage toward Hitler. Sometimes, he took it out on Howie. He took it out on him with belts and fists and words.

Howie recognized opportunity when it arrived in 1981, from the San Diego Padres. Dave Winfield was a four time All Star, a two time Gold Glove winner, and one of the best athletes on the planet drafted out of college in 1973 by pro teams in three sports. Howie had introduced himself to Winfield a year earlier when the Padres were in town to play the Mets. A few months later, the Yankees inked the outfielder to the richest contract in baseball $23 million over 10 years and Howie started in with the blandishments.

The idea at least in Howie’s mind was that he’d help with publicity for Winfield and his eponymous charity, which aids underprivileged children. The other idea also in Howie’s mind was that he’d hitch a ride to Easy Street. To hobnob with Winfield, Howie felt he had to live like Winfield. He used borrowed money to add 15 suits and a tuxedo to his wardrobe. One day, he surprised his former math teacher at the Bronx High School of Science by picking her up in a limo. That’s how Howie got around back then.

He should have realized flacking for Winfield was a rotten deal when Frohman refused to pay him for his work. (The Daily News reported Howie’s hiring as a publicist, but Winfield and his lawyer said later that Howie was never an actual employee.) Or when he heard Frohman talk about fudging the charity’s finances. Or on the flight back from Los Angeles during the 1981 World Series. The Yankees were losing cheap jerseys free shipping to the Dodgers, and Winfield was in an awful slump. His only hit came in Game 5 a bloop single after which he’d called time to ask for the ball.

Howie tasted his cherry Coke and frowned. Not enough cherry syrup. He’d ordered 70 percent syrup and 30 percent Coke, which made the young waitress giggle. She was flirting with him. When he asked her name, she directed his gaze to the nametag affixed to her generous bosom, smiled, and invited him to karaoke night at the restaurant that Friday. Howie asked the waitress for an extra side of cherry syrup. She brought it out, along with a saucer of maraschino cherries, which she placed on the table instead of in his glass. “I didn’t know if I should touch them,” she said.

Howie refused to listen. He still traversed the Manhattan streets in search of beautiful young things. He could talk to girls, no doubt. He carried strips of paper on which he’d printed his phone number in advance, the better to lubricate his seductions. During my reporting, he claimed to have gotten the number for Courtney Roskop, a porn star who’d partied with Charlie Sheen. He showed me her name on his caller ID and shrugged. Roskop had already disconnected her number. I didn’t know how Howie could have faked the call without a computer or phone phreaking skills (neither of which was in evidence). But that wasn’t the point. The point was that Howie knew that even a drug addled porn star might Google him and peg him as a scumbag.

In 1990, two anonymous sources “familiar with Colombo family operations” had described the same limousine incident to Sports Illustrated. Howie told me how things unfolded after that. He and Caridi worked it out, sure enough. Howie would pay back his debt, with $700 a week in interest on top. Pay it or die. Caridi yanked Howie back into the limo, tearing his favorite tie, a red and blue silk number. That ticked off Howie. Nobody, not even racketeers, banged up his duds. “That’s my best tie!” he screamed. “I’m not giving you nothing!”

He was still gambling, obsessively and erratically. He could bet both sides of a game and lose twice. Howie had money on the Royals in the Pine Tar Game. George Brett homered in the top of the ninth to give them the lead, but Yankees manager Billy Martin got the umpires to disallow the home run because of excess pine tar on Brett’s bat. Howie lost that bet. A month later, after a successful protest by the Royals, MLB ordered the home run reinstated and the game restarted at that point. This time, Howie bet the Yankees. He lost again. Caridi couldn’t believe it. “This motherfucking Jew could fuck up a wet dream,” he said. Caridi ordered Howie to stick to mind bets: “You got no mind, so you got nothing to lose.”

He also started stealing from Caridi. Howie knew the combination to the restaurant safe. Each week, he opened it and pinched his $700 interest payment. He also started altering gambling tickets, sneaking into a wire room owned by a former professional wrestler called the “Hebrew Hercules,” a man famed for his two footed dropkick. Caridi’s runners would collect from losing bettors, and then Howie would change the tickets so they looked like winners. Caridi would pay the runners what he thought the gamblers had won, and Howie and the runners would split the dough.

“That’s a real pretty swimming pool, right, that you have. Maybe someone’ll take a swim. Funny things happen. Now are you paying this money back? Me, nobody shorts a dime. See, you don’t know who I am. You really don’t know. You don’t wanna know. I mean, I’ve never talked so nice in my life. Now, do you wanna pay the money or what? Cause if I get hot, you’ll wish for the rest of what’s left of your life, the hour that’s left of it, that I wouldn’t. Now do you wanna pay the money, my man, or what? Talk. I’m trying to be cool with you, baby. I’m trying to be nice. I’m rapping your language. I’d rather put a bullet through your fucking head. I just hit my hand on the table. I hope I didn’t break it ’cause if I broke it, I’ll take thirteen fingers out of your family to make even.”

Steinbrenner buzzed an angular man into the room. This was Phil McNiff, the former head of the FBI’s Tampa office and now Steinbrenner’s troubleshooter and all purpose security honcho. Steinbrenner had been convicted of making illegal contributions to Nixon Ronald Reagan would pardon him in 1989, thanks in part to McNiff’s influence but still he had an affinity for G men. His affinity with the Tampa office, in particular, was so close it would eventually prompt an FBI internal investigation. Steinbrenner gave cheap nfl jerseys from china FBI agents special rates at the Bay Harbor Inn, feted them at cocktail parties and football games, and aided them with anti Soviet intelligence operations.

Howie’s reward, however, would have to wait. Steinbrenner was building a case against Winfield at his own pace. His offensive wouldn’t begin until 1989, when Winfield sued Steinbrenner for ducking his financial obligations to the foundation. Steinbrenner countersued, using Howie’s info as ammunition. Eighty percent of the foundation’s funds, it turned out, were going toward administrative costs, limos and untraceable personal expenses. Even as he sued Steinbrenner for not paying the foundation, Winfield hadn’t honored his own obligatory annual $100,000 donations.

So for three years, Howie stewed in his parents’ apartment, waiting for Steinbrenner to make his problems disappear. He was convinced there was a contract hit out on him. He called McNiff 10 times a day and referred to him as “my second father.” He wrote him angry letters about Steinbrenner: “What Dave and organized crime couldn’t do, George did. He killed me. Is he an animal or just a monster?” In some letters, he talked about deteriorating and needing help, and about the apocalypse that might ensue if he didn’t get it: “The extraordinary explosion is coming and very, very soon.”

Back in New York, he only cranked up the pressure. He showed up in a raincoat at the Regency Hotel where Steinbrenner was staying and scrawled ominous messages on hotel stationery. In other letters, he talked about meeting Winfield “one on one” and about buying a pistol, and he warned Steinbrenner to beef up security. “I want to come out of this wealthy or I want to come out of it dead,” he wrote. He threatened to tell the press about Lou Piniella’s gambling and about high level Yankees employees selling extra giveaway items for personal gain.

Howie had sucked me into his book and a movie. I half expected him to show up in the office with Charlie Kaufman. In the film, Howie could be a shrieking puppet, exploding out of the phone handset. He had already told me a lunatic story about meeting a hooker who knew a gay porn actor who did security for Christina Aguilera and had knowledge of a transvestite that a Yankees star kept in an apartment on Central Park South. The gay porn actor also happened to be diddling a Hollywood director. Via this most exotic of connections, Howie claimed to have had a few conversations with the director, who had put him in touch with his agent at Creative Artists Agency. The agent stopped taking Howie’s calls within the week.

He’d seemingly acquired a new appreciation for frugality. He survived on $697 a month Social Security payments and Medicaid. Most of it went toward paying for his myriad health problems: gastroparesis and gastritis, soaring cholesterol, hypogonadism, kidney stones, osteoporosis, adrenal insufficiency, psoriasis, a weakened immune system, terrible arthritis where his spine had fused. Once a week, he gave himself an Enbrel injection in the upper thigh for the arthritis. His leg, he said, was permanently black and blue. He took 20 other prescription medications: Prilosec for acid reflux (20 mg; twice daily), Topamax for migraine headaches (25 mg; seven per day), Celebrex (200 mg) two per day for arthritis. He showed me the whole collection.

Howie talked like that a lot fatalistic, one liner bromides: “Every time I see a hearse, I think, ‘You lucky son of a bitch. At least you got a ride.'” I heard him try them on other people, often when first meeting them. Howie on pessimism: “Not only is the glass half empty, it’s broken. I cut my hand. I bleed. I get an infection. I die.” Howie on optimism: “Maybe for once the light at the end of the tunnel won’t be attached to the oncoming train.” Howie on sightseeing: “If I jumped off the Empire State Building, with my luck, I’d land on someone and end up killing them and not myself. Then I’d end up still alive but facing a murder charge.”

After he told me about squealing on the mob and stealing from Caridi, Howie worried that the killers might come for him again, even three decades later. French assured me that the risk was minuscule. But Howie had his own demise on his mind. One afternoon, he stopped in a Sleepy’s store to test out the mattress he’d buy after his book and a movie deal. Immediately afterward, he went into a funeral parlor to investigate other options. “Do you take reservations?” he asked the parlor attendant. They did. How close was Howie to the deceased? “Very close,” he said, and got into a casket to try it on for size. Or so he claimed.

Howie had taken a manila envelope with copies of Steinbrenner’s checks and other wholesale nfl jerseys documentary backup and flicked it behind his parents’ sofa. After Pienciak showed up, Howie feigned a dizzy spell and stretched out on the sofa. When the agents weren’t watching, he hid the manila envelope inside a pillowcase, then staggered to his parents’ room. He knocked out a screen on the window and tossed the envelope four stories down to the street, where Pienciak and other Daily News employees were waiting.

“He is the most disgusting human being who ever lived,” Howie said. “He shits everywhere. This is a man who every time I walk into the bathroom, there’s shit on the floors, the walls, the ceiling. How it gets on the ceiling I never know. This is an animal. This is a living animal. He has a look like a Doberman pinscher. That German nasty, animalistic, vicious look. He’s insane. A couple weeks ago he came at me with a knife and a vacuum cleaner and said, ‘I vill kill you.’ He’s taken the concentration camp out on me.”Articles Connexes: