— George Michael Steinbrenner III never set out to own the most famous franchise in American sports. All he wanted was the Cleveland Indians, and it was only when the deal he had in place to buy his hometown team fell apart that he looked around for another team to buy and found the New York Yankees.
"We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned," the unknown shipping magnate from the suburbs of Cleveland said when the sale was announced. "We're not going to pretend we're something we aren't. I'll stick to building ships."
In the annals of statements that didn’t turn out to exactly true, that ranks up there with “Peace in our day,” and “I did not have sex with that woman.”
It was both fortunate and unfortunate for the Yankees and for baseball that he broke that promise almost as soon as it was made. Fortunate because Steinbrenner would return the Yankees to glory, to the financial betterment of every team in baseball. Unfortunate because he would drive salaries up to astronomical levels, making it all but impossible for the teams at the bottom of the income scale either to hold onto top players or to dream about winning the World Series.
But no matter how you view the massive footprint he left on a city and a game, one truth can’t be denied: George Steinbrenner was one of the most important and transformational figures in the history of the game.
Steinbrenner was characterized in many ways during his epic career as the owner of the Yankees. He was lauded, loathed and lampooned, respected and reviled, feared and fawned over. He was bombastic, cruel, demanding, outrageous, outspoken, and charitable, a man who could fire a secretary for messing up a sandwich order but who also gave extra World Series tickets to bus drivers and servicemen, a man who fired managers in a blizzard of public invective, then hired them back as team executives at more than their original salaries.
He was called The Boss, the Mad Shipbuilder, George III, Mount St. Steinbrenner and, by New York Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo, General von Steingrabber. In the Yankee clubhouse he was Mr. Steinbrenner.
He was compared to many historical figures, most of them blood brothers of Attila the Hun. But the one person he should have been compared to, he never was. That would be Branch Rickey, the general manager with a social conscience who integrated baseball in 1947 when he brought Jackie Robinson up to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Rickey’s decision to integrate America’s pastime changed the game as profoundly as Babe Ruth had when he took baseball out of its dead-ball era and introduced it to the home run. Steinbrenner’s decision to break the salary line had no less an effect. Rickey’s decision brought a flood of new talent into the game; Steinbrenner’s brought a flood of money.
“Portfolio” magazine has estimated that Steinbrenner’s Yankees generate $700 million in revenue each year for the 29 teams he doesn’t own. Part of that is in the form of the luxury tax he pays on his enormous payroll, far and away the highest in the game. Most of it is in the form of the revenue his team provides by filling nearly every ballpark it visits. And when his Yankees are in the playoffs, television ratings — and revenue — increase substantially.
Steinbrenner always said that the Yankees owe it to their fans to contend for the World Series every year. The other 29 owners should add that the Bronx Bombers also owe the same to the game itself. When the Yankees are successful, everybody makes money.
And it’s all because of Steinbrenner, a fact that he knew — and broadcast.
He was also fiercely interested in sports and by winning. He got that — along with his business sense and his penchant for flogging his players and employees in public — from his father, who ran a shipping company on the Great Lakes.
Hank Steinbrenner was by all accounts an uncompromising and demanding sire. When little George, who took up the hurdles at the age of 12, finished first in a race, his father said little. When he finished second, the pater familias demanded to know how his son could let his opponent win.
It is little wonder that Steinbrenner once told an interviewer, “"Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing. Breathing first, winning next."
He went to Culver Military Academy, the same prep school his father had attended and the same one his own children would be shipped off to. He got his bachelor degree at Williams College and attended graduate school at Ohio State. For several years after, he tried to make his way as an assistant football coach, first at Northwestern and then at Purdue.
But in 1957, at the age of 27, he returned to Cleveland to work for his father’s shipping company, Kinsman Marine Transit. Six years later, he bought out his father, and four years after that merged with American Ship Building.
Steinbrenner had gotten his start in business as a boy, raising chickens in the yard of the family home and selling their eggs to neighbors. One imagines the gratification he harvested when underperforming hens were served up for Sunday dinner.
He often acted as if he’d like to do the same with his underperforming ballplayers.
The urge to own a sports team was deeply rooted in his psyche. In 1961, when he was just 31 years old, he purchased the Cleveland entry in the American Basketball League, which formed as a rival to the NBA. He hired the first African-American head coach – John McLendon — in American professional sports and won the league’s first championship.
The team was financed on a shoestring. When he needed money to make the payroll, he would call his partners into a conference room, tell them how much money was needed, then write out his own check first and put it in the hat. When the others had followed and left the room, Steinbrenner extracted his own check and tore it up.
Rules didn’t always mean a lot to him. In 1971, even as he was trying to buy a baseball team, he made illegal donations to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign and subsequently pled guilty to felony charges. Thanks to that conviction, he spent most of his first year as Yankee owner under suspension.
The Yankees were a pathetic team by the time Steinbrenner got them, their previous great run that began in 1949 ending in 1964, the year that CBS bought the team for just over $11 million. When the network sold the franchise to a partnership headed by Steinbrenner nine years later, the price had dropped to $10 million.
Steinbrenner never owned 100 percent of the team. Initially his share was 51 percent, which made him the controlling partner with his fellow owners answering to the name of “limited partners.” One of them was John J. McMullen, a New Jersey shipbuilder, who once famously remarked, “There’s nothing more limited than being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner."
McMullen eventually sold his share and bought the Houston Astros and then the NHL New Jersey Devils.
Steinbrenner came into baseball just as the players were getting baseball’s reserve clause, which bound a player to his team either for life or until the team traded him, thrown out. And he pioneered purchasing the new-fangled free-agents minted by the new system to resurrect the Yankees from their own ashes.
His first signing was reliever Sparky Lyle, followed by Catfish Hunter. That was good enough to win the AL pennant in 1976, but not good enough to avoid getting swept by Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in the World Series. The following year, he added Reggie Jackson — signing him to a then unimaginable total of $3 million for five years — and won the first of two straight World Series. Jackson wasn’t the most popular guy in the Yankee clubhouse, and Billy Martin despised him, but it was in the Bronx that he cemented his place in the Hall of Fame along with his nickname, Mr. October.
In retrospect, most of Steinbrenner’s reputation was built in those first gloriously manic years. Lyle wrote a book about them with author Peter Golenbock and named it “The Bronx Zoo,” a name that stuck with the team long after the team stopped being a zoo.
But maybe Graig Nettles, the third baseman for that team, said it best when he quipped, “"When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a baseball player and join the circus. With the Yankees, I've accomplished both."
Those were the days when Steinbrenner re-hired Billy Martin four times and fired him five, when he consumed three managers in one year, when he fired Yogi Berra barely two weeks into a season, thereby chasing Berra away from the Yankees for two decades.
His heavy hands were all over the team in those days, and when he’d had his fill of bullying the hired help to their faces, he’d call selected beat writers and feed them inside stories about who was in trouble. The stories were plants, spun to Steinbrenner’s specifications, and he always insisted on not being identified by name. So countless stories appeared in the tabloids quoting “inside Yankee sources.”
One writer, the highly talented Mike McAlary, finally had his fill of serving as Steinbrenner’s P.R. department, so one day he wrote a story in The New York Post and attributed the information to “an unnamed Yankee owner.” He never got another scoop from Steinbrenner again.
When he was particularly upset after watching a loss, he’s wander from his private box down a narrow corridor that passed behind the press box. He’d stop there, leaning on a railing and wait for the horde to gather around him to fill their notebooks with his musings on his overpaid and underperforming team.
No matter where he was, when his manager was debriefing the media after the games, a red phone on the manager’s desk would ring — the Bat Phone, some called it — and Billy Martin or Bob Lemon or Lou Piniella or Gene Michael or whoever was the future ex-manager of the moment would stop his comments, pick up the phone and start getting an earful, sometimes rolling his eyes dramatically for the benefit of the writers.
And they were all future ex-managers, and nothing they could do would keep them employed. That became obvious in 1980, when Dick Howser won 103 games — one of the best seasons in team history, and got fired for the crime of losing in the playoffs to Kansas City. (Steinbrenner said Howser had resigned to pursue a career in real estate, or some such nonsense, but everybody knew Howser had been canned.)
Steinbrenner never owned a home in New York, living in Tampa, where he’d moved his shipbuilding business and got involved with thoroughbred racing — he loved to say of ballplayers who didn’t measure up: “He spit the bit” — and other enterprises. In New York, he stayed in a hotel suite, but in those days it seemed that he was a constant presence in the ballpark, which the city had rebuilt at enormous cost in time for the string of titles in 1976.
Steinbrenner found ways to pay very little rent on the stadium, which the city owned, and made a piles of money by selling sponsorship rights to adidas. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the team endured an 18-year stretch without a World Series, he flirted with New Jersey politicians in an effort to get New York to build him a new stadium. After spending years claiming the Bronx was a poor location for a stadium, he changed his tune when the team returned to glory in the mid-1990s and began drawing four million fans a year, finally agreeing to build a new stadium himself next to the original stadium. The Bronx, it turned out, wasn’t such a bad site after all.
If Steinbrenner got the credit for building the first championship teams in 1977 and 78, he also deserved the discredit for what followed. The team made the World Series only once in the 1980s, losing in six games to the Dodgers in 1981. That was the time Steinbrenner showed up before a game with his hand bandaged and a story about how he fought two Yankee haters in an elevator. No one ever quite believed it. It was also the year he called his newest free-agent millionaire, Dave Winfield, Mr. May, and issued a public apology to the fans for not winning the Series.
The truth is Steinbrenner never had a clear idea of how to build a winning team. When a few selected free agents won twice, he decided that a whole team of them would be even better. That led to 13 years without a playoff appearance as Steinbrenner kept writing absurd checks for a string of Ed Whitsons and Steve Kemps. He also gutted the farm system, trading away top prospects and getting little in return.
The only victory he scored during those years was in 1989, when President Ronald Reagan wiped his criminal record clean with a presidential pardon.
The Yankees bottomed out in 1991, when they finished last. But a renaissance was on the way, thanks to baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who banned Steinbrenner from baseball for life. His sin this time was paying $40,000 to a small-time gambler and professional low-life named Howie Spira to dig up dirt on Winfield, with whom Steinbrenner had become disenchanted. As is frequently the case with lifetime bans handed out to people not named Pete Rose, this one was over in just two years. But without that suspension, the Yankees may never had embarked on their great era of success beginning in 1995, when they made the playoffs for the first time since 1981.
While Steinbrenner was out of commission, Gene Michael rebuilt the farm system and started building a winning team built of carefully selected free agents, talent acquired in trades, and, beginning in the mid-90s, some home-grown talent.
Bernie Williams was the first one to come up, in 1991. Steinbrenner had tried to trade him before his suspension, but the front office held firm and he became a fixture in center field for the next 15 years. Mariano Rivera, initially a starting pitcher, was brought up and installed in the bullpen. Jorge Posada graduated from the farm system to take over as catcher. And in 1996, Derek Jeter, another home-grown talent, became the Yankee shortstop.
When Steinbrenner came back, his sole dramatic act was to fire manager Buck Showalter after he got to the playoffs in 1995 and hire Joe Torre, who was greeted by tabloid headlines calling him “Clueless Joe.”
The rest is history — four titles in five years from 1996-2000, and a new era of dominance. No longer front and center, Steinbrenner was active enough in the background to destroy the championship chemistry of his team beginning in 2002 with another string of expensive acquisitions, the most spectacularly unsuccessful of which were pitchers Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson.
But The Boss was slowly fading away. In 2003, he passed out at the funeral of his friend and former Cleveland Brown quarterback Otto Graham. His public appearances dwindled to almost none, and when he spoke in public, it was in clichéd generalities. Most of his statements were issued by his press agent, Howard Rubenstein.
By 2007, stories began to appear that the man who had been so much bigger than life probably had dementia.
His new stadium was still a year away from its 2009 opening, and it was by no means certain that Steinbrenner would be there to see the day. Even his enemies could be sad at that. He venerated the Yankee brand, expanding monument park and making his franchise the best and most famous in sports, a team that may not have won every year, but always contended, the team that was again what it had been before he bought it — the Damned Yankees.
There are people he crushed along the way who won’t mourn his passing, but they’ll miss him. We’ll all miss him.