Mike Cleary was employee victim No. 1 of "the Boss."
"I was the first person he ever fired," said Cleary, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. "I was a 24-year-old general manager and George was a 29-year-old owner."
And already showing signs of being a demanding, dictatorial leader.
Steinbrenner died Tuesday after a heart attack in Tampa, Fla. He was 80.
In 1960, Cleary was GM of the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League, working for a young Steinbrenner, a Cleveland-area native whose family's shipping business gave him the revenue to enter sports ownership. The team was hoping to get some publicity for signing guard Dick Barnett, who would later play for the New York Knicks, and had worked out an agreement to break the story in the Cleveland Press.
But the story leaked and Steinbrenner was irate. He took it out on Cleary.
"He came in and said, 'You're fired'," Cleary recalled. "I said, 'I quit.' Later we became good friends."
Although he was dismissed - for the one and only time in his life - Cleary, who has been NACDA's executive director for 45 years, did get some revenge on Steinbrenner. Cleary didn't get a final paycheck from Steinbrenner so he took the money for two weeks' pay out of the gate receipts from one of the team's games.
He didn't stop there.
"I wrote him a note that said, 'Dear George,"' Cleary said.
"'You forgot to pay me when you fired me so I took two weeks' salary, and just because I know how magnanimous you are, I took two more weeks because I know you would have wanted to give me two weeks severance pay, too."' Cleary said Steinbrenner wasn't pleased but eventually forgave him.
Two years ago, Cleary approached Steinbrenner at a National Football Foundation dinner in New York. Sitting at the Yankees' table, the team's irascible owner had mellowed and was in declining health but recognized Cleary.
"He said, 'You know what?"' Cleary said. "'You were always loyal."' During his tenure in New York, Steinbrenner changed managers 21 times and got rid of more than a dozen GMs.
Steinbrenner bought the Yankees in 1973, after an earlier failed attempt to buy the Indians.
"He just didn't have enough money," said Cleary, a resident of Bay Village, Ohio. "Imagine if he had bought the Indians and not the Yankees, I can promise you we wouldn't be sitting hear bemoaning the fact that we haven't won a world championship since 1948."