New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner III has died. The cause of his death was a massive heart attack he suffered at his home in Tampa, Florida this morning.
“The Boss” — who despite his controversial career as the helmsman of the most successful franchise in sports history will one day be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York — celebrated his 80th birthday on July 4th.
The Steinbrenner family released a statement hailing him “an incredible and charitable man.” “First and foremost he was devoted to his entire family ‘” his beloved wife, Joan; his sisters, Susan Norpell and Judy Kamm, his children, Hank, Jennifer Jessica and Hal; and all of his grandchildren,” the statement read.
“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.”
On a more practical note, because Steinbrenner died in 2010, a year in which the federal inheritance tax (the “Death Tax” so hated by Republicans) is suspended, the Steinbrenner family will save hundreds of millions of dollars on the transfer of his ownership in the franchise. The Yankees are worth between $1.5 billion and $2.0 billion. The lack of inheritance taxes will allow the family continue to control the team.
“The Boss” is famous not only for his seven World Series titles but for hiring and firing manager Billy Martin five times. The scion of an Ohio shipping family, The Boss parlayed an initial investment of less than $200,000 in capital into a stake well worth north of an estimated $1.6 billion by the New York Times when one factors in the Steinbrenner family’s share of the New York Yankees baseball club and the YES sports network.
George Michael Steinbrenner III was born into a German Presbyterian family in Rocky River, Ohio on the Fourth of July, 1930, which is fitting for the owner of the Yankees, the premier franchise in major league baseball, the erstwhile “America’s Pastime.” He attended Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana, where he played football and participated in track and field. After graduating from the Academy, Steinbrenner attended Williams College (Class of 1952) in western Massachusetts, where he ran track. He then served a hitch in the Air Force, where he oversaw the athletic program at Ohio’s Loc Air Force Base.
A Cleveland Indians fan until he bought New York’s American League club, Steinbrenner’s interest in sports led to a job as athletic director at Columbus, Ohio’s Aquinas High School after he got out of the Air Force in 1954. At Aquinas, in addition to teaching phys-ed, he coached both the basketball and football teams. A year later, he became an assistant football coach at Northwestern in 1955, followed by a similar gig at Purdue. (One of Steinbrenner’s other philanthropic interests is teaching.)
He met his future wife Joan (pronounced Jo-Ann) Zeig, the daughter of an Ohio real estate baron, at Ohio State. They married in 1956, and the following year, Steinbrenner went to work for the family business, Kinsman Marine Transit, an ore shipping company owned by his father, Henry George Steinbrenner. His father installed his son as treasurer, and the young man turned out to be an astute businessman. By shifting the focus of the company from transporting ore to grain, Kinsman Marine began to thrive.
With the fruits of his labors, Steinbrenner indulged his jones for sports, putting together a group of investors who bought the Cleveland Pipers of the National Industrial Basketball League for $25,000 in 1960. The team joined the fledgling American Basketball League, which was inaugurated in 1961, and Steinbrenner made sports history by hiring John McLendon, the first African-American head coach in professional sports. The team went on to win the 1962 ABL championship, and Steinbrenner subsequently pulled off a major coup by signing Ohio State All-American Jerry Lucas, the #1 basketball prospect in the country. This was the first blockbuster player acquisition of Steinbrenner’s pro sports career.
The Pipers’ signing of Lucas meant that the top prospect in basketball would be kept out of the National Basketball Association, the premier circuit in the sport, unless they allowed the Pipers into the NBA. This likely was Steinbrenner’s calculus, and it worked, as the NBA immediately made a deal with him to absorb the Pipers as its 10th team. However, Steinbrenner ‘s attempt to move the franchise to the NBA brought a threatenedlawsuit from the ABL. When he was unable to raise the $250,000 franchise fee required by the NBA, the deal collapsed.
The Pipers soon went bankrupt, and the ABL went belly-up in ’63. Steinbrenner went back to the shipping industry, taking over Kinsman outright, which under his direction, eventually acquired the far larger American Shipbuilding Co. in 1967. He acquired a small ownership stake in the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, but by 1971, Steinbrenner was wealthy enough to make a $9 million bid (approximately $50 million in 2010 dollars) to acquire the Cleveland Indians.
As a boy and young man growing up in the tony Cleveland suburb of Bay Village, Ohio, George had been an ardent fan of The Tribe. Steinbrenner never dreamed of being the owner of a baseball team, but when the opportunity arose, he went for it. However, the deal, which was being negotiated by Indians General Manager Gabe Paul, fell apart. A year later, when Columbia Broadcasting System Chairman William Paley decided to rid the television broadcast network of its New York Yankees subsidiary, Paul helped broker the $8.7 million deal by which Steinbrenner acquired the team along with Mike Burke, the president of the team under CBS. Steinbrenner then appointed Gabe Paul director of baseball operations for the club. At the time Steinbrenner bought the team, the Yankees had won 29 pennants and 20 World Series, but hadn’t been in the October Classic since 1964.
“I won’t be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all,” Steinbrenner told the press on January 3, 1973, the day he assumed the position of principal owner of the franchise. “I can’t spread myself so thin. I’ve got enough headaches with my shipping company.”
Football, basketball and track and field had been his métier while an athlete and athletic director, and while Steinbrenner had grown up as an Indians fan, he really knew very little about the intricacies of pro baseball. He had coveted a baseball franchise, the Indians, and after being thwarted, now owned the most famous team in North American sports history After taking over the Yankees on January 3, 1973, Steinbrenner pledged that he would not be a hands-on owner. He soon won himself the sobriquet “The Boss” for his autocratic management style, characterized by his criticizing players and managers through the media. In the first 23 years he owned the franchise, his team ran through 20 managers. (Steinbrenner made 17 managerial changes in his first 17 seasons!).
Controversy has been part of Steinbrenner’s tenure as principal owner of the ball club, and it started from the beginning of spring training 1973. Steinbrenner angered the venerable Yankees manager Ralph Houk by demanding that Lou Piniella get a haircut. It wasn’t the order that the hirsute Lou trim his locks, but the fact that Steinbrenner, styling himself “The Boss” before winning his spurs in combat, referred to Piniella, the 1969 Rookie of the Year, by his uniform number, not his name. Houk had been the winner of three straight pennants from 1961-63, and of the ’61 & ’62 World’s Championships. After being named Manager of the Year in the American League in 1961, “The Major” — a former Army Ranger in WWII and veteran of the Battles of Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge — won the award again in 1970, from bringing the Yankees in at second place after half-a-decade of futility.
Known as a “Player’s Manager” whose yacht was named “Thanks Yanks”, Houk managed for the 1973 season and then quit. He was replaced by Bill Virdon for the 1974 season, who was canned in the midst of the 1975 season and replaced by Steinbrenner’s doppelgänger Billy Martin. Martin had played for the Yankees’ perpetual pennant winners in the 1950s, playing second base for five World’s Champions before being traded away to the lowly Kansas City Athletics (which served as the Yanks’ major league farm team) deep into the 1957 season, when the Yanks racked up another American League pennant.
A drunk and a hell-raiser who was free with his fists, Martin was considered a dolorous influence on Yankee superstar Mickey Mantle, who liked to carouse with Billy. The two got into many legendary scrapes with the bottle and broads, and the Yanks hierarchy worried that Mantle would waste away his great talent, which ranked with players of the caliber of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and his contemporary across the East River at Coogan’s Bluff, Willie Mays. The trade devastated Billy, who thought of himself ’til the day he died as a “true” Yankee, a member of the band of brothers who had given New York — and the World — its greatest baseball dynasty under manager Casey Stengel. To Martin, George Steinbrenner, with his lack of a baseball pedigree, was not a true Yankee. Both men were extremely strong personalities and bound to clash.
In 1974, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him for two years following his conviction for making illegal political campaign contributions to President Richard Nixon’s reelection committee, although he bitterly protested that, as a Democrat, he had been shaken down by the corrupt Nixon administration as part of the cost of doing business with the federal government, which his shipbuilding firm depended on.(He eventually was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan and is no longer a convicted felon.) When he returned to full-time ownership of the Yanks, the team won five division titles, four pennants, and two World Series from 1976 through 1981. The 1976 appearance was the first since 1964, and Yankees fans began calling the first decade of the Steinbrenner Yankees a “Dynasty”. It was a premature attribution.
Steinbrenner was has been criticized by other owners for driving up the cost of ballplayers after the advent offree agency in 1976. Steinbrenner paid Catfish Hunter, who had been freed from his contract with Charlie Finely, owner of the Oakland A’s, by an arbitrator, an unprecedented $2.85 million for four years. Hunter was being paid over $700,000 a year when top stars like Carl Yastrzemski, considered pampered by Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey. made $100,000 a year, the traditional salary for a generation for the top stars.
After the American League pennant-winning 1976 Yankees were swept in the World Series by the defending World’s Champion Cincinnati Reds, Steinbrenner went back to his wallet in the off-season and signed the cream of the free agent crop, 1973 American League M.V.P. Reggie Jackson, to a $3 million, 5-year contract. Salary inflation was to become an occupational hazard of baseball franchise owners, and would eventually drive such venerable owners such as Bill Veeck out of the sport.
Reggie, the self-described “straw that stirs the drink”, and the core of the ’76 A.L. champs won back-to-backWorld Series in 1977 and ’78 and the Eastern Division title in 1980. Though the ’80 Yanks tallied 103 games in the “W” column under new manager Dick Howser (Billy Martin had already been hired and fired twice by then), Howser was promptly fired for losing in the playoffs. (The tragic Howser who would die young from brain cancer, would go on to win the 1985 World Series with the Kansas City Royals).
The Yanks did manage to win the A.L. pennant in the strike-shortened 1981 season under manager Bob Lemon, on his second go-round with the club. Hall of Famer Lemon had replaced interim manager Howser in ’78 (Howser had managed one game after Billy Martin had been fired for saying terming Jackson and Steinbrenner liars, one “born” and the other “convicted”), piloted the team to a fabulous comeback against the Boston Red Sox, who had been 14.5 games ahead at the end of July, then was canned half-way through the ’79 season and replaced by Martin. Gene “The Stick” Michael, in the first of his two stints as Yankees manager, had begun the 1981 season, to be replaced by Lemon, who lost the ’81 World Series. Lemon was then fired 14 games into the 1982 season, was replaced by The Stick, who was then replaced before the end of the season by Clyde King.
It was madness, and insulted good men like Lemon, Howser and Michael, while it turned the mentally and emotionally unstable Billy Martin into baseball’s boffo buffoon, it also drove good sound baseball people out of the Yankees organization.
In the 1970s, Steinbrenner relied on solid baseball people such as Gabe Paul and Al Rosen, but in the 1980s, he became erratic, promoting yes-men into high position who rubber-stamped his preference for name-players. Steinbrenner went to the extreme of embracing the free agent market as a fix-all solution to build a winning team. Via free agency, the Yankees acquired stars who turned out to be either unable to handle the pressure of playing in New York (with its all-invasive media), unsuited for the uniqueness of Yankee Stadium (a right-handed hitter like Steve Kemp floundered in a stadium built to favor lefties), or who — like two time Cy Young Award-winner Gaylord Perry — were on the downside if not the end of their careers.
After the 1980 season, Steinbrenner offered San Diego Padres outfielder Dave Winfield, a four-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner who had led the National League with 118 runs batted-in in 1979, his biggest budget-busting contract yet: a 10-year contract worth up to $25 million. It was the biggest sports contract in history at the time, and it vastly inflated superstars’ future salaries. Winfield’s salary was at least twice as high as any in baseball.
Expected to take the place of Reggie Jackson, who left the team after the 1981 season, Winfield — a future first ballot Hall of Famer who was a consistent run producer and Gold Glove-caliber outfielder — never lived up to Steinbrenner’s expectations. In the 1981 World Series, the Yankees with Winfield, Jackson and other holdovers from the 1977 and ’78 teams, once again faced the Los Angeles Dodgers whom they had bested in two prior Series appearances in ’77 and ’78. The highly touted Winfield, however, had one hit in 22 at bats for an anemic .045 batting average. He was no “Mr. October”, Reggie Jackson, and Steinbrenner would later admit that one of his greatest mistakes as an owner was to let Reggie slip away to the Angels as a free agent after the ’81 season. In fact, Steinbrenner came to regret signing Winfield because, after his freshman year with the club, the Yankees never again made the playoffs during Winfield’s tenure with the team (1981-1990).
Because of Steinbrenner’s profligacy, the Yankees would consistently have the highest payroll in baseball, making it hard for teams from small market clubs to compete, as they were unable to hold onto their players after they became free agents, who would be wooed away by Steinbrenner’s gold or the loot offered by other well-heeled owners willing to match The Boss’ prices. In the period of 1982-1995, the Yankees would have nothing to show for the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on players’ salaries.
After the 1981 World Series, which the Yankees lost two games to four to the Dodgers, the franchise hit a 14-season dry-spell without a championship season, its sole post-season appearance the Wild Card in the expanded playoffs inaugurated in the strike-shortened 1995 season. (The team lost in the first round.) It was the first time they experienced such a long drought since the franchise’s initial establishment in Manhattan in 1902, when the year-old Baltimore Orioles franchise in the new American League was transferred to New York, to 1921, when the Babe was mighty but failed to prevail in the Fall Classic. (The C.B.S. drought lasted only 11 seasons.)
The first 23 years of Steinbrenner’s regime was characterized by a managerial merry-go-round, a constant kaleidoscope of firing, rehiring, and firing of managers, including Bob Lemon twice and Billy Martin a ridiculous five times. Only Billy Martin, who skippered 471 games from 1975 through 1978, and Buck Showalter, who managed four seasons from 1992 through 1995, had a tenure that lasted more than parts of two straight seasons with the Yanks until Torre.
“Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing,” The Boss said explaining his philosophy of life. “Breathing first, winning next.”
When the Yankees consistently failed to win, by the late 1980s, The Boss became unstable. He began to blame Dave Winfield, calling him “Mr. May” and claiming that Winfield’s inability to produce in the clutch was at least partly responsible for the Yankees refusal to win. In a development paralleling that of Charlie Finley, whose refusal to pay Catfish Hunter an annuity led to the Hall of Fame pitcher being granted free agency (and anchoring Steinbrenner’s 1976 American League Championship team), Steinbrenner refused to honor Winfield’s contract, withholding payments to the player’s Dave Winfield Foundation. Winfield retaliated by suing The Boss, claiming he had failed to pay the Foundation $300,000 owed to it under the terms of his 1981 contract.
Steinbrenner’s instability reached its high point at this time, when he paid gambler Howie Spira $40,00 to dig up dirt on Winfield so he could void the contract. When Steinbrenner’s behavior was revealed, major league baseball commissioner Fay Vincent banned him for life from managing the Yankees’ day-to-day operations levied. Steinbrenner, who was permitted to continue to own the club accepted the ban, and the Yankees were run by his oldest son Hank (who reportedly was uninterested in the job) and some of the other directors/co-owners.
The break from baseball seemed to sober up The Boss. A contrite Steinbrenner eventually was reinstated in 1993 as his son didn’t like running the business and major league baseball had no desire to see its premier franchise flounder. After his return, he seemed to have matured: he allowed Buck Showalter, who had been named to the post in 1992, to continue to manage the Yankees through the 1995 season, bringing the team in 2nd in 1993, 1st in 1994, and 2nd in 1995. Showalter was forced to quit when he was tendered a one-year contract with incentives after the 1995 season, the same ploy the Steinbrenner family would use to oust Joe Torre 12 years later.
Comeback & Last Hurrah
The hiring of Joe Torre after the 1995 season laid the groundwork for The Boss’ second dynasty. Under Torre, who could deflect the storm of bull descending from the owner’s box while simultaneously handling the vicious New York press, the team made the playoffs each year, winning ten division titles, six pennants, and four World Series (1996; 1998-2000). Yet, it was not enough.
Reverting back to the pre-baseball savvy boss, Steinbrenner’s son Hal said that the Yankees were determined to win the American League pennant every year, naming National Football League coaches Vince Lombardi and Bill Belichick as examples Torre should emulate. The press was incredulous, as — aside from Casey Stengel, “the Old Perfessor”, who won the AL pennant every year from 1949 to 1960 but for two years (and was still unceremoniously shitcanned after a dozen years of superior service), Torre was the manger who had come closest in almost 50 years to making that ukase a reality.
After the 2007 season (in which the Yankees’ nemesis, the Boston Red Sox, won the World Series),
Joe Torre was offered an insulting contract that he rejected, signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers instead. He was replaced by Joe Giradi, a catcher on some of the World Series-winning teams skippered by Torr in the 1990s. At first, the press was murderous in their treatment of Giradi, who has won a Manger of the Year award in the National League, as the Yankees failed to make the playoffs for the first time in ages in 2008. They were forced to eat crow when he won it all in 2009, in a new billion-dollar stadium.
It was to be George Steinbrenner’s last hurrah, and a fitting way to go out — as a sports legend. He reportedly had been suffering from health problems, possibly the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or a stroke, that left him isolated him from the day-to-day running of his club.
George Steinbrenner is the first owner to personally become a billionaire from ownership of a sports franchise, which along with his boorish behavior and two spurts of winning (1976-81; 1996-2003) made him a part of the history of the game. He will long be remembered as the man who gave the world “Moneyball”, which was created as a reaction to plutocratic moneybags such as George III, as small market franchises — getting no relief from the corrupt cabal headed by Bud Selig, who forced baseball into a disruptive strike in the name of helping the very franchises they actually set out to destroy — turned to statistical savvy to combat owners like The Boss, who are willing to pour hundreds of millions of dollars, annually, into a sport that was once a game (and legally, remains so, despite all logic, enjoying a federal anti-trust exemption), and not the epitome of Darwinistic capitalism that it has become.
In the last full year of his reign, the way of “The Boss” won out. The Yankees were once again World’s Champions.
Yet, despite the corruption plaguing the game, King George in the last part of his long reign had reached a maturity that made him one of the most admirable, if still least-liked outside of the Empire State & environs, of baseball owners, that is, ’til he or his sons finally succumbed to the push-button mentality that had bedeviled the franchise in the ’80s. There was a purity about George Steinbrenner from the beginning of his reign in 1973 to this, his twilight: It was never about the money. The money was merely a tool to be used towards an end: Giving the metropolis of New York the best baseball team in the world. For three moments — three distinct eras in the history of baseball– from 1976 through 1981, 1996 through 2003, and again in 2010, King George was the epicenter of a sports empire that did just that.
You can look it up.