George Steinbrenner: Beloved and Reviled
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
George M. Steinbrenner III, the bombastic Yankees owner who became known as "The Boss" for his iron-fisted management style, died Tuesday morning in Tampa, Fla. after suffering a massive heart attack. He was 80.
"This is a sad day not only for Yankee fans, but for our entire city," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, "as few people have had a bigger impact on New York over the past four decades than George Steinbrenner."
Steinbrenner was beloved by many Yankees fans for his relentless drive to win and his willingness to spend freely in pursuit of that goal. He was reviled by many others for the same reason.
Steinbrenner said that winning was the second most important thing to him. "Breathing's first, winning's second," he would say. He combined that tempestuous drive with a hands-on ownership style to transform the Yankees — and the nature of sports ownership overall.
Born July 4, 1930, Steinbrenner grew up in the Cleveland area the son of a shipping magnate. He found success of his own in the shipbuilding business before, in 1973, he and 13 partners bought the Yankees from CBS for about $10 million, a value that would grow more than 150-fold over the next 37 years.
Upon taking over a team that hadn’t won a championship in 11 years, Steinbrenner promised that the Yankees would be back in the World Series within three years. They were, and then in 1977 and 1978 won back-to-back titles. Overall, during Steinbrenner’s years as owner, the Yankees posted a Major League-best .566 winning percentage, winning seven World Series and 11 American League pennants.
When he bought the team, Steinbrenner also said he would not be very involved as principal owner—a promise he failed to keep. He quickly became known for being overbearing and tough on his employees. He famously labeled a star player, Dave Winfield, “Mr. May” and called Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu a “fat pussy toad.” He changed managers 20 times in his first 23 years as owner, including hiring Billy Martin five separate times. Even as it was winning in the 1970s, the franchise became known as the Bronx Zoo.
In 1985, Steinbrenner promised manager Yogi Berra that he would manage the team for the whole season. He then fired Berra when the team started the season by losing 10 of 16 games. Berra, a Hall of Famer and Bronx legend, did not return to Yankee Stadium until after the owner apologized in person, some 14 years later.
His blustery persona carried him into the realm of popular culture. He relished the publicity he garnered as part of New York's tabloid wars and made the back pages of the Daily News and the Post countless times. He was the rare owner to make the cover of Sports Illustrated, even appearing dressed as Napoleon on a white horse. He appeared in television commercials, hosted "Saturday Night Live" and had his hard-charging style lampooned as a character on "Seinfeld."
Feuds, infighting, and the win at all costs mentality made Steinbrenner “The Boss,” but those same qualities often got him into trouble. In 1974, he was suspended from baseball for 15 months after pleading guilty to conspiring to make illegal contributions to President Richard Nixon's re-election fund. And he was banned from the game for life in 1990 for paying a known gambler, Howard Spira, $40,000 to find damaging information on Winfield. Fans at Yankee Stadium reacted to the news of his banishment with cheers.
Steinbrenner was reinstated in 1993, and he came back with the same passion for winning -- but some said they noticed a milder management style.
"We saw a different owner. We saw a different Mr. Steinbrenner in the '90s than some of the guys in the '70s saw," former pitcher David Cone told the YES Network on Tuesday. "We saw a guy who had really learned a lot from his mistakes."
The Yankees hired Joe Torre as manager in November 1995, and Torre stayed on through a previously unimaginable 12 seasons, winning four World Series. "I will always remember George Steinbrenner as a passionate man, a tough boss, a true visionary, a great humanitarian, and a dear friend," Torre said in a statement Tuesday.
By the end of that run, Steinbrenner's health was failing, though he remained a presence around the Yankees, wearing his trademark white turtleneck and blue blazer on big occassions. He increasingly ceded control of the team to his sons, Hal and Hank, before officially turning over day-to-day operations in 2008.
Steinbrenner’s most lasting legacy may be in the changes he brought to the business side of the sports business. When Major League Baseball ushered in an era of free agency for players, Steinbrenner’s Yankees immediately stepped up as the most active spenders. With the Bronx Bombers leading the way, player salaries soared. The team’s player payroll last year topped $200 million. But attendance at Yankee Stadium also surged, from just over 1.2 million in 1973 to 4.3 million in 2008.
In 2002, Steinbrenner launched the YES Network, now a regional sports giant. That year, he was named the "Most Powerful Man in Sports" by The Sporting News. After pursuing a new stadium on Manhattan’s West Side, Steinbrenner’s Yankees, with considerable financing from New York City, built a new ballpark that opened last year across the street from the old stadium. The Yankees are now valued at $1.6 billion, according to Forbes.
Steinbrenner is survived by his wife, Joan; his sisters, Susan Norpell and Judy Kamm; his children, Hank, Jennifer, Jessica and Hal; and 13 grandchildren.
UPDATE SINCE THIS STORY WAS FIRST POSTED: This story has been updated to include links to additional coverage.