NEW YORK (AP) – On the verge of 75, George Steinbrenner admits he has mellowed.

He’s known for hiring and firing, screaming and scheming, a cartoon-like figure who dominates the back and front pages of New York’s tabloids. But he says the public image of The Boss is nothing like reality.

“I’m really 95 percent Mr. Rogers,” he said, “and only 5 percent Oscar the Grouch.”

George Michael Steinbrenner III, who turns 75 Monday, acknowledges he was impatient when he was younger – and made mistakes. He defends his intense management style, says he has no idea when he will stop running the Yankees and says he has designated son-in-law Steve Swindal as his successor.

“I haven’t always done a good job, and I haven’t always been successful – but I know that I have tried,” Steinbrenner said, answering a series of questions from The Associated Press submitted through spokesman Howard Rubenstein.

A Yankee Doodle Dandy born on the Fourth of July, 1930, in Rocky River, Ohio, Steinbrenner now is the senior owner in the major leagues, presiding over a 321/2-year reign of bedlam, venom, excess and success. Since he took over, the New York Yankees have produced six World Series titles, 10 American League pennants and 13 first-place finishes in the AL East, their value increasing more than 100-fold from the $8.7 million net price his group paid.

Presidents, financiers and members of high society fill his owner’s box. At the June 15 news conference announcing plans for a new $800 million Yankee Stadium he hopes to open in 2009, politicians fawned over him, repeatedly calling him “King George.”

New York newspapers plant reporters outside the ballpark on days he attends games, just in case he stops to speak. New York Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo draws him as Gen. Von Steingrabber, a Prussian warrior. The television show “Seinfeld” in the 1990s portrayed him as the eccentric employer of George Costanza, a fictional assistant to the Yankees’ traveling secretary.

When Steinbrenner’s group bought the team from CBS Inc. on Jan. 3, 1973, he proclaimed: “We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned. We’re not going to pretend we’re something we aren’t. I’ll stick to building ships.”

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Steinbrenner’s team has had 20 manager changes and 29 shifts in pitching coach, but none since Joe Torre and Mel Stottlemyre were hired following the 1995 season. When Brian Cashman replaced Bob Watson in 1998, it was the 15th or 16th switch of general managers, depending whether you count people who didn’t formally have the title.

Since then, there’s been stability, a word that had disappeared from what became known throughout baseball as the Bronx Zoo.

Yet signs of Steinbrenner and his obsessiveness remain everywhere, from the workers with blowers who clear stray leaves every day from the sidewalks outside Yankee Stadium and the Legends Field spring training complex, to the signs that have adorned the ballpark walls, such as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s declaration: “There is no substitute for victory.”

Many players must trim their hair the instant they report to the Yankees in order to keep it in compliance with his code.

No detail is too small for his involvement, from ordering an artificial turf carpet outside the clubhouse in Tampa to prevent players in spikes from slipping, to personally going through the seating for World Series games, to directing traffic outside Yankee Stadium in 1997, to pulling 50,000 copies of the 1981 team yearbook because he didn’t like his picture in it. He wants his employees to be just as fixated.

“What have I learned from him? Don’t be surprised by anything, because if you are, it’s your fault,” Torre said.

His employees, including players, rarely mention his first name, referring to him as either “Mr. Steinbrenner” or “The Boss.” Cashman grinds his teeth in his sleep, a sign of stress.

Even as a senior citizen, Steinbrenner instills fear.

“I think he has been sort of stepping to the sidelines a little more because the team has been winning for the last 10 years or so,” said Bernie Williams, who has been around since 1991 and is the longest tenured of the current Yankees. “But now that we’re not playing as well, I think he’s back on track to where he was before.”

He’s just as involved, Yankees employees say, but a lot less public, and they insist that he hasn’t lost any mental sharpness. He sometimes rambles off point on occasions when he does talk to reporters these days, and he mostly speaks now through statements issued by Rubenstein. He collapsed in December 2003 during a memorial service for football great Otto Graham in Sarasota, Fla., but says he’s slowed down “only to a certain extent” and that his health is fine.

“I work out regularly and religiously, one hour every day,” Steinbrenner said. “I lift weights, run and watch my diet. I still go to the office every day. I can’t say that I have actually slowed down very much. I’m actually in the best shape that I have been in for a very long time.”

The early part of his tenure was defined by his battles: Boss vs. Reggie, Boss vs. Billy, Boss vs. players, Boss vs. umpires, Boss vs. commissioners and league presidents, Boss vs. other owners.

He hired Billy Martin as manager five times. He feuded with Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield, whom he dubbed “Mr. May” – a caustic reference to his lack of production in key late-season games.

He was suspended by commissioners Bowie Kuhn (following a guilty plea in federal court for conspiring to make illegal campaign contributions) and Fay Vincent (for dealings with self-described gambler Howard Spira). He sued baseball to make a landmark marketing deal with Adidas, and spent money like no other franchise in the history of North American sports.

He broke his hand in 1981, saying he was attacked by two fans in a hotel elevator. Then, when the Yankees lost the World Series, Steinbrenner apologized to the people of New York.

He called Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu a “fat … toad,” said Jim Beattie was “scared stiff” and labeled Ken Clay “a morning glory,” saying he “spits the bit.” In 1982 he ordered Doyle Alexander to have a physical, reasoning: “I’m afraid some of our players might get hurt playing behind him.”

Steinbrenner fired Rob Butcher, the 12th of his 13 team spokesmen, after Butcher decided to go home to Ohio for the Christmas weekend holiday in 1995 rather than stay in New York for a potential news conference to announce David Cone’s re-signing. When Butcher returned for the announcement, he was told he had been terminated.

“He can be very demeaning to people, particularly punishing to little people,” former commissioner Peter Ueberroth said during Steinbrenner’s 25th season as owner. “He tends to be abusive to employees at times.”

And his control-freak methods angered even one of his partners.

“There is nothing quite so limited as being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner’s,” said John McMullen, who purchased a share of the Yankees in 1974.

After Steinbrenner fired Yogi Berra as manager 16 games into the 1985 season, the Hall of Famer wouldn’t go to back to Yankee Stadium for a game until Steinbrenner apologized 14 years later.

Steinbrenner has gotten his share of criticism.

On one pressure-filled night in 1982, reliever Rich Gossage let loose and called Steinbrenner “the fat man.” And in 1978, Martin said of Jackson and Steinbrenner: “The two of them deserve each other – one’s a born liar, the other’s convicted.”

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Yankees were a struggling franchise, and they didn’t regain their championship form until after Steinbrenner’s 21/2-year suspension following the Spira probe, when general manager Gene Michael triggered a series of key trades and signings.

“I haven’t always made the right decision,” Steinbrenner said this week. “When I was younger, I was a bit impatient and I made a few moves and decisions that in retrospect I shouldn’t have made. But I have tried to go back and rectify those moves and mistakes.”

He personally recruited free agents, frequently made decisions on player deals, even joked about his antics in television commercials. As evidenced by this past Tuesday’s summit meeting at Legends Field, he still has the final say.

Using the team’s enormous cash flow, he lured premier free agents such as Jackson, Winfield, Catfish Hunter, Gossage, Mike Mussina and Jason Giambi, and he traded to acquire Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson. He negotiated a landmark $486 million, 12-year cable television contract with the Madison Square Garden Network in December 1988 and launched the Yankees’ own YES Network for the 2002 season.

All that money – the Yankees this year became the first team with a $200 million payroll – provoked anger and envy among other owners. After the 1982 season, Baltimore owner Edward Bennett Williams said Steinbrenner hoarded outfielders “like nuclear weapons.”

Steinbrenner later called Chicago White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn the “Abbott and Costello of baseball,” earning a fine from Kuhn, and Reinsdorf said someone knows Steinbrenner is lying “when he moves his lips.” Red Sox president Larry Lucchino dubbed the Yankees “the Evil Empire” in December 2002 after New York signed Jose Contreras, a pitcher Boston also sought.

Mets owner Fred Wilpon, whose team has lived under Steinbrenner’s shadow for decades, wouldn’t even discuss his crosstown rival’s milestone birthday.

Steinbrenner’s style and checkbook shook up a sport often accused of being staid.

“I think that a hands-on approach is very important,” he said. “You have to know your ballplayers, and who has the ability and the intense hunger and drive to win.”

His sporting interests have extended beyond baseball. He was an assistant football coach at Northwestern and Purdue in the 1950s, and was part of the group that bought the Cleveland Pipers, an American Basketball League team, in the 1960s.

He was a vice president of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1989-96 and entered six horses in the Kentucky Derby, failing to win with Steve’s Friend (1977), Eternal Prince (1985), Diligence (1996), Concerto (1997), Blue Burner (2002) and this year’s favorite, Bellamy Road.

Steinbrenner also makes many charitable contributions, many of them with no public discussion. He paid for the medical school expenses of Ron Karnaugh after the swimmer’s father died during the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and arranged to pay for a four-year scholarship at the University of South Florida for Tony Fossas, who went on to become a big league pitcher.

When he pledged $1 million to a Florida orchestra in 1995, he mandated that $265,000 go to a pops series.

“I like Tchaikovsky as much as the next guy,” he said, “but in this area I think people would rather hear pops concerts, and good ones.”

He spends most of his time in Tampa these days, attending relatively few games at Yankee Stadium. When he is at the ballpark, he watches from his owner’s box or office, like an emperor reviewing his subjects from a lofty throne.

He rarely goes to major league meetings but is omnipresent throughout the big leagues because he owns the No. 1 team in the No. 1 city with the No. 1 revenue and the No. 1 payroll. Everything the Yankees do trickles down to the 29 other clubs.

“We’ve disagreed on more things than we agreed upon, but it never affected our personal relationship,” commissioner Bud Selig said Thursday. “George has been a very charismatic, controversial owner. But look, he did what he set out to do – he restored the New York Yankees franchise.”

His father, shipbuilder Henry Steinbrenner, was demanding, pushing for his son to excel at all he did. Obviously, that character trait was passed down.

How does George Steinbrenner think his father would evaluate his tenure as owner of the Yankees?

“I hope that he would have been proud of me, but you never know,” Steinbrenner said. “I don’t look back and think about how he would judge me. He was very happy when I bought the Yankees, and he very much enjoyed being a part of it. As I have said many times – my father was a great fan of Bill Dickey’s and he certainly loved the Yankees. I hope that he would be pleased.”

AP-ES-07-01-05 1436EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.