Burke had to write circumspectly about his second go-round as a spy: in 1984, when Outrageous Good Fortune was published, the Cold War was still being waged, and restrictions on what could be revealed were in place. The CIA contracted with him to manage clandestine missions, and his first big assignment was to unsettle and perhaps topple a communist dictatorship by sending pro-democracy refugees back into their homeland, which he describes only as “a near-primitive European country” (since identified as Albania).
The operation was meticulously planned, starting with a parachute drop of the partisans, who were equipped with communication devices to confirm their successful landing. On two nights running, the plane returned to the dropoff area, hoping to pick up a signal. Nothing. “We did not then know,” Burke wrote, “that we had dropped these men into an alerted security net.” The Albanian government had been tipped off thanks to the notorious British double agent Kim Philby, who served in Washington as liaison between British and American intelligence agencies and whom Burke had considered not just a colleague but a friend. In the sobering conclusion to this chapter, Burke allows that he could understand someone’s turning communist, even betraying his country, but to send so many men to their deaths—that Burke could not fathom. (Philby went on double-dealing until 1963, when he disappeared in Beirut and resurfaced in Moscow. He remained in Russia, feted as a hero, until his death in 1988.)
Now operating out of West Berlin, Burke and his colleagues ran a more successful program in Russian air space: this time several waves of dropped agents radioed back that they had landed safely (though Burke rated their chances of re-emerging from the country alive at 50-50), and photographs taken by overflying planes provided “invaluable information on the Soviet radar defense system.”
As the Cold War settled into its long stalemate, Burke found that he’d lost his taste for espionage. He’d seen enough of war, he had a wife and daughter to support, with a son on the way, and it was time to see what he could make of himself in what a friend called “the real world.”
In the event, however, Burke transferred into another not-quite-real world. One of his old OSS buddies was John Ringling North, a scion of the family that owned the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. When North suggested that Burke try his hand at circus management, Burke overrode his misgivings (he knew zilch about lions or bearded ladies) in order to avoid becoming what he called a “rond-de-cuir, as the French say, a leather-ass, forever seated at a desk.”
Burke soon learned something that North had held back: this particular circus was in desperate straits, thanks largely to kickbacks pocketed by the “Sneeze Mob,” middle managers who took cuts from suppliers and patrons alike. “Receipts,” Burke recalled, “were a joke.” After Burke fired the Sneeze Mob members en masse, the circus got along without them until Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters union stepped in, insisting that it be recognized as the circus workers’ representative and following up with picketing and less benign forms of pressure. Burke now faced a dilemma: In his words, “To run against the Teamsters’ costly harassment would have been self-defeating; to agree to Hoffa’s demands was economically prohibitive.” The solution was to eliminate the labor-intensive big top-style operation and to stage the circus indoors, in such fixed venues as Madison Square Garden. In the meantime, few of Burke’s paychecks had been cut, and in 1956 he quit with a feeling of having been euchred by his old friend North.
The circus had made a few appearances on TV during Burke’s tenure, and he wondered if that still-young medium might have opportunities for him. With an introduction from a mutual friend, he scored an interview with CBS’s president, Frank Stanton, and then a job as head of European operations. Brought back to New York in 1962, he became director of diversification, which is to say he helped transform CBS from a radio and TV network into a global conglomerate.
Though the idea originally came from Stanton, Burke endorsed CBS’s acquisition of the New York Yankees, of which he was named president. Later, however, he admitted that the network had bought a “pig in a poke.” The era of Berra and Mantle and Maris was ending, no replacements of their caliber were in the pipeline, and not even the hiring of Johnny Keane as manager after his St. Louis Cardinals beat the Yanks in the 1964 World Series could revive the stagnating team.
Nonetheless, CBS thought that in Burke it had the right man for the baseball job. “Mostly, he had a manner that was thought to appeal to a younger generation,” writes Marty Appel in Pinstripe Empire, his history of the Yankees. “That same appeal almost made Burke commissioner,” Appel continues. “In 1969, when looking for a new commissioner to replace William Eckert, the American League backed Burke, the National League Charles Feeney. The compromise candidate was National League lawyer Bowie Kuhn, who could get a consensus.” Meanwhile, Burke had persuaded the city of New York to renovate Yankee Stadium in return for the Yankees’ commitment to stay in the Bronx (the football Giants had unnerved all five boroughs by decamping to New Jersey). And he’d struck a blow for culture by reaching out to the poet Marianne Moore. Though a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, Moore had worked various Yankees into her poem “Baseball Writing.” (She summed up the great lefty Whitey Ford’s incessant attempts to hold runners at first base as a “pick-off psychosis,” but her best line was “Pitching is a large subject.”) At Burke’s request, Moore, wearing her trademark tri-cornered hat, threw out the first ball of the 1968 season.
It took CBS only a few years to realize that the Yankees were not a good fit. Having done so, it sold the club to a group that included Burke himself and a Cleveland shipping magnate named George Steinbrenner. Burke and Steinbrenner quickly clashed over both substance and style. As the photo of Burke on the cover of his memoirs bears out, he reveled in the hirsute 1960s and ’70s, while Steinbrenner most assuredly did not. At the start of the 1973 season, Appel explains, Steinbrenner “furiously wrote down the numbers of all players he thought wore their hair too long. The Yankees, to his thinking, had grown apart from the traditions that made them stand out—a fault of the careless leadership of the long-haired Burke.” The partnership lasted only three months before Burke gave up and cashed in his share.
Burke was then recruited for his last job, head of Madison Square Garden, a possession of the conglomerate Gulf & Western. Putting in workdays that often stretched from 9:30 a.m. to midnight, he seems to have thrived on handling the logistics and public relations needed to accommodate hundreds of acts per year. In one three-day span, he recalled, the Garden “hosted three events, any one of which could have sent a spark of drama coursing through the city. The heavyweight fight rematched Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier; the basketball game featured the traditional rivalry between the Knicks and the Celtics; and the concert was Bob Dylan and The Band, Dylan’s first concert in eight years.” From time to time, Burke again found himself at loggerheads with Steinbrenner, whom he described as “hooked on power … He is not the first nor the last man to suffer that torment, a habit as insidious as the roughest narcotic. However perverse, it is also one kind of motivation that has moved the world along, like it or not.”
Burke retired in the early 1980s and moved to Ireland. In 1987, at the age of 70, he died of cancer.
In The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA, Burton Hersh sums up Burke as “a self-dramatizing one-time football star with a bona fide Hollywood presence and an OSS reputation for juggling unstable resistance groups.” That “self-dramatizing” quality is what makes Outrageous Good Fortune such an engaging and quotable book. Constantly on display in its pages is the dashing Michael Burke—on the playing fields of Penn, in the skies over wartime Europe, in Hollywood, inside the corporate boardrooms of New York City, at large in Yankee Stadium and the Garden—always making the right moves.