It’s been known for some time that George Steinbrenner was in bad health, but the news today of his death in Florida is nonetheless sad and shocking:
George Steinbrenner, who bought a declining Yankees team in 1973, promised to stay out of its daily affairs and then, in an often tumultuous reign, placed his formidable stamp on 7 World Series championship teams, 11 pennant winners and a sporting world powerhouse valued at perhaps $1.6 billion, died Tuesday morning. He was 80 and lived in Tampa, Fla.
“He was an incredible and charitable man,” the family said in a statement.
“He was a visionary and a giant in the world of sports. He took a great but struggling franchise and turned it into a champion again.”
Steinbrenner’s death came nine months after the Yankees won their first World Series title since 2000, clinching their six-game victory over the Philadelphia Phillies at his new Yankee Stadium.
Steinbrenner had been in failing health for the past several years and had rarely appeared in public. He attended the opening game at the new stadium in April 2009, sitting in his suite with his wife, Joan. When he was introduced and received an ovation, his shoulders shook and he cried.
He next appeared at the Yankees’ new home for the first two games of the World Series, then made his final appearance at the 2010 home opener, when Manager Joe Girardi and shortstop Derek Jeter, the team captain, came to his suite to present him with his 2009 World Series championship ring.
Steinbrenner was the central figure in a syndicate that bought the Yankees from CBS for $10 million. When he arrived in New York on Jan. 3, 1973, he said he would not “be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all.” Having made his money as head of the Cleveland-based American Shipbuilding Company, he declared, “I’ll stick to building ships.”
But four months later, Michael Burke, who had been running the Yankees for CBS and had stayed on to help manage the franchise, departed after clashing with Steinbrenner. John McMullen, a minority owner in the syndicate, soon remarked that “nothing is as limited as being a limited partner of George’s.”
Steinbrenner emerged as one of the most powerful, influential and, in the eyes of many, notorious executives in sports. He was the senior club owner in baseball at his death, the man known as the Boss.
A pioneer of modern sports ownership, Steinbrenner started the wave of high spending for playing talent when free agency arrived in the mid-1970s, and he continued to spend freely through the Yankees’ revival in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the long stretch without a pennant and then renewed triumphs under Torre and General Manager Brian Cashman.
The Yankees’ approximately $210 million payroll in 2009 dwarfed all others in baseball, and the team paid out millions in baseball’s luxury tax and revenue-sharing with small-market teams.
In the frenetic ’70s and ’80s, when general managers, field managers and pitching coaches were sent spinning through Steinbrenner’s revolving personnel door (Billy Martin had five stints as manager), the franchise became known as the Bronx Zoo. In December 2002, Steinbrenner’s enterprise had grown so rich that the president of the Boston Red Sox, Larry Lucchino, frustrated over losing the pitcher Jose Contreras to the Yankees, called them the “evil empire.”
But Steinbrenner and the Yankees thrived through all the arguments, all the turmoil, all the bombast. Having been without a pennant since 1964 when Steinbrenner bought them, enduring sagging attendance while the upstart Mets thrived, the Yankees once again became America’s marquee sporting franchise.
And brought seven World Series titles to the Bronx in the process.
There’s a lot to say about a guy like Steinbrenner. As a young baseball fan in the 70s and 80s, I remember being alternatively thrilled with him and pissed at him depending on the impact of his sometimes micro-managing of the team. Back to back World Series wins in 1977 and 1978, followed by a disappointing loss to the Dodgers in 1981, were the good days. But there was also a part of Steinbrenner’s tenure that was less than successful, and the drought from 1982 to 1995 is one that every Yankee fan remembers well.
And then there were the feuds. Billy Martin. Reggie Jackson. Dave Winfield. Joe Torre.
At one point or another, they all feuded with The Boss and, usually, Steinbrenner was the bad guy in the public narrative. But, flaws and all, he was a guy who loved the Yankees and wanted to win, and that much we could appreciate.
As was once said under very different circumstances, he may have been a son of a bitch sometimes, but he was our son of a bitch.
Rest in peace, George.