A real American success story takes a mom
First let’s get past the title of Brandon Steiner’s new book, “You Gotta Have Balls.”
I didn’t even have to ask him about it. He pre-empted the question.
“Some women were not happy with the title,” he admitted. “My feedback to them was, hey, this was my mother’s favorite expression.
“The expression was never geared towards male or female, but it was an expression of nerve and fearlessness and doing things the right way and going as far as you can with your ideas and dreams — and it takes balls to do that.”
Steiner’s mother was one tough cookie. “She was a force of nature,” is the way her son puts it.
Indeed, he credits the late Evelyn Steiner for whipping him into shape, for equipping him with the essential backbone and basic street smarts that pushed, prodded and turbo-powered him from the crushing poverty of his Brooklyn childhood and into the competitive world of sports entrepreneurship.
Today, Steiner, 53, has become one of the leading sports memorabilia marketers in the nation. Based in New Rochelle, Steiner Sports employs between 85 to 120 people at any given time and generates gross sales of up to $45 million.
This is a company that creates, packages and moves products, hundreds of thousands of products — a lot of which are balls.
Autographed balls, that is. Start with Derek Jeter, turn left at Eli Manning and work your way through an impressive galaxy of stars from the past and present and from every professional athletic endeavor.
Steiner is an American success story, which is why I called him. After two weeks of listening to bits and pieces of convention speeches which invariably evoked rags-to-riches themes of hope, aspiration and achievement, I wanted to talk to someone who had really walked the walk. Steiner is the real deal.
And that’s a lot of what his book is about — it’s a memoir mainly, but it also has elements of a how-to manual.
What constitutes success has been at the heart of the political debate — you know, who “built it,” the government or the individual. Listening to Steiner, you come away with the notion that you can’t go anywhere in life without one essential God-given quality, and that’s self-confidence.
“I’m a great promoter,” he told me. “You start out at seven in the morning with me, you’d be like, ‘You are an unbelievable marketer.’ I can sell with the best of them.
“I don’t want to sound egotistical when I say this, but I like to think of myself as one of the better marketers. I think I can jump into any business and put a mark on it and create something that it hasn’t done for itself, and take it to another level.”
There are countless examples of Steiner’s marketing prowess, but a classic case study was the deal he made with the New York Yankees when the old Yankee Stadium was torn down. Investing $16 million in demolition costs, Steiner literally broke The House That Ruth Built into bits and sold them off as collectibles.
That included some 14,000 bricks, sections of the left and right field poles and the grass. The grass is my favorite. Steiner had sections of turf freeze-dried and packaged under glass to create the ultimate gift for Father’s Day.
Steiner’s goal was to provide a price point for every fan, and the gambit worked.
Steiner started his company with $4,000 and a strong commitment to succeed, but he said people don’t have to create their own businesses in order to be productive. They can, and should, seize the entrepreneurial spirit in existing businesses.
“That’s what companies are striving for in this country right now,” he said. “There’s a lot of companies that are in desperate need of their own staff to figure out ways to do business differently.”
Everybody’s got a life story. With Steiner, the story began in Brooklyn with his mother and three brothers, who lived in a cramped apartment over a butcher’s shop. The landlord had a habit of turning off the heat in the winter.
When Steiner was 5 years old, his father left the family. Often, they lived on food stamps.
Evelyn Steiner, who ran a beauty salon, was a pretty woman, but she struggled with her weight. At one point, she ballooned to nearly 500 pounds. She almost died while undergoing a gastric bypass.
“When my mom was healthy enough, she was always moving a mile a minute, hustling to make an extra buck for my brothers and me,” Steiner writes in the opening chapter of his book. “She was incredibly resourceful.”
She was also careful with money.
Steiner grew up as a Yankee fan and for most of his childhood had to endure the fallow period between World Series championships. This was the Horace Clarke era, named after a bandy-legged second baseman with an unusual batting stance, who, rather unfairly, was used as a symbol of the team’s mediocrity.
One time, Steiner borrowed $5 from his mother to go to a game. Forking it over, she told him to bring back the change.
Instead, he splurged on a $4 ticket for a seat behind the on-deck circle and spent the rest of the money on the subway ride to and from the Bronx.
Crossing Evelyn really took, well, you-know-what. She went bananas.
She yelled and screamed, telling her son he had lost his mind.
“She had no comprehension that a ticket could be $4 and that anybody would spend that much money. A buck-fifty was too much.”
One thing Steiner’s mom did not do was throw out his baseball card collection. Unbelievably, he did that himself.
“It was my bad,” he recalled. “I had an insane amount of cards.”
Living in a 750-square-foot apartment, there just wasn’t enough room to store them.
“It was tight,” he said.
Now, he’s got enough memorabilia to fill a stadium.