July 13, 2010
Bluster and Luster: George Steinbrenner (1930-2010)
A titan has fallen, and an era has ended. Just two days after venerated Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard's death, and nine days after celebrating his own 80th birthday, principal Yankees owner George Steinbrenner passed away Tuesday morning due to a heart attack. He had been in failing health for several years, rumored to be suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, and had ceded control of the team to sons Hank and Hal as his handlers increasingly protected him from the glare of the spotlight.
Often a bully and sometimes a buffoon, George Michael Steinbrenner III was unequivocally "The Boss," and occasionally as unhinged as the British monarch with whom he shared both a name and a numeral. A football player at Williams College and an assistant coach at Northwestern and Purdue, he fully subscribed to Vince Lombardi's "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" ethos, often failing to understand that running a baseball team on a daily basis required a subtler touch and a deeper reserve of patience than his gridiron sensibility could muster.
Nonetheless, aside from Connie Mack and Walter O'Malley, perhaps no other owner in the history of baseball was as influential or successful over such a long period of time as Steinbrenner was. Beyond the latter, who uprooted the Dodgers from Brooklyn, none gave more ammunition to his critics and detractors, or unified so many in their hatred. Steinbrenner spent much of his tenure as a cartoon villain, and was suspended from baseball by commissioners not once, but twice. Even in absentia, had the foresight to embrace the dawn of the free agent era, and for all of his tyrannical meddling — hiring and firing 21 managers in his first 20 years, and burning through general managers at a similarly absurd clip — he stayed out of the way of what his baseball men built in his absences long enough to preside over four pennant winners and two world champions from 1976-81, and six more pennants and four world champs from 1996-2003, adding one final victory last October. For all of his notorious bluster — and brother, did he have a lot of it — he was a big softy at heart, quick to put the Yankees name behind charitable causes (even the Red Sox-related Jimmy Fund), and to give people in his organization second (and third, and fourth...) chances, just as he had received. In the end, he was the benevolent despot who restored the luster to the Yankees franchise, turning it into the most valuable property in professional sports, estimated to be worth $1.6 billion.
"George Steinbrenner came, he bought, he conquered. He died as he no doubt wished to be remembered, as a defending World Series champion," wrote the New York Times' Harvey Araton.
A shipbuliding magnate from Cleveland, Steinbrenner led a group of investors which purchased the Yankees from CBS in 1973 for about $10 million. The franchise had fallen upon hard times, having not appeared in a World Series since 1964, or won since 1962. Initially, Steinbrenner pledged to keep his nose out of the team's business. "We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned," he said upon the announcement of the sale. Soon enough he was crowding out his fellow investors, starting with team president Mike Burke, who had run the team during the CBS era and was the point man in negotiating with the city of New York to renovate Yankee Stadium. "Nothing is more limited than being a limited partner of George," minority owner John McMullen would later say.
It wasn't long before Steinbrenner ran afoul, however. In August 1974, he plead guilty to charges of making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's re-election campaign and of obstructing justice, and was suspended by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for two years, a ban later reduced to 15 months. Nonetheless, he continued to exert his influence via the direction of Gabe Paul, who while still general manager of the Indians had initially paired Steinbrenner and Burke, then became a minority partner during the deal and soon pushed the latter out as team president. Desperate to restore glory to the franchise which had won 20 World Series prior to his arrival, Steinbrenner embraced the impending era of free agency, signing A's ace Catfish Hunter to a five year, $3.35 million deal in December 1974, when A's owner Charlie O. Finley failed to make an annuity payment in a timely fashion. Thanks to that move as well as a handful of key trades made by Paul — not to mention the hiring of manager Billy Martin — the Yankees opened their renovated stadium in the Bronx and welcomed Steinbrenner back by winning the 1976 AL pennant.
Triggered by arbitrator Peter Seitz's landmark Messersmith-McNally decision, the free agency era kicked off in earnest in the winter of 1976-1977, and Steinbrenner quickly made his mark by signing pitcher Don Gullet and slugger Reggie Jackson, the latter to a five-year, $3 million deal. Those two helped put the Yankees over the top in 1977, as they beat the Dodgers in the World Series, with Jackson emerging as a superstar for the ages — "Mr. October" — as he tied the World Series record with five home runs, including three in the Game Six clincher. In typical Steinbrenner fashion, that only led him to open his checkbook again; ignoring the fact that Yankees reliever Sparky Lyle had won the AL Cy Young Award that year, he signed free agent Rich Gossage to a six-year, $2.75 million deal.
The Yankees repeated as champions in 1978, but not without so much turmoil that the team became known as "The Bronx Zoo," not coincidentally the title of Lyle's diary of that season. With the Yankees trailing the Red Sox by as many as 14 games on July 17, the situation reached a boiling point when Martin yanked Jackson — with whom he'd already feuded the previous season, going so far as to take an unsuccessful swing at the slugger in the dugout during a nationally televised game — for bunting when he'd been ordered to swing away, soon suspending him for five games. "The two men deserve each other," the skipper told reporters shortly after Jackson's return. "One's a born liar, the other's convicted." Less than 24 hours later, Martin was fired, the first of five times he'd be axed by Steinbrenner.
Fueled by more free agent signings, particularly those of Tommy John and Dave Winfield, the Yankees won one more pennant during the first Steinbrenner epoch. But they lost a rematch with the 1981 World Series in the Dodgers (an event which was a crucial touchstone of my childhood). During the series, Steinbrenner — who'd already moved into the cultural spotlight by making light of his on-again, off-again relationship with Martin via commercials for Miller Lite — injured his hand, the result of what he claimed was a scuffle with two Dodger fans in the hotel elevator. Just as the Dodgers clinched in the Bronx, he issued a rather gauche apology for his team's performance, and a promise that plans to build a champion for 1982 would begin immediately.
Those plans did not come to fruition, as Steinbrenner's profligate spending and his meddling in the club's affairs led to their downfall. Deciding that the team needed to emphasize speed more than power, he let Jackson escape to the Angels in 1982, while the Yankees kicked off what came to be known as the Dave Collins era via a series of ill-fitting free agents parading through the Bronx. Prospects were swapped for over-the-hill veterans and would go on to flourish elsewhere while the Yankees failed to win another AL East flag for more than a decade. Steinbrenner soon soured on Winfield, nicknaming him "Mr. May." Eager to get out from under Winfield's 10-year contract, he hired a shady small-time gambler named Howard Spira to dig up dirt on the future Hall of Famer. When Commissioner Fay Vincent learned of the connection in 1990, he tried to ban Steinbrenner from baseball for life. Ironically, this came just over a year after President Ronald Reagan had pardoned Steinbrenner for his Nixon-era transgressions.
The ban didn't last; Vincent reinstated Steinbrenner as of March 1, 1993, in a decision he made just before being ousted by the other owners. While he remained as feared as ever, he stayed out of the way of what general manager Gene Michael — a man he'd hired and fired as manager a couple of times in 1981 and 1982 — had done during his absence. Michael curbed the team's tendency for quick fixes via the swap of prospects for veterans, and sowed the seeds of the forthcoming dynasty via astute drafting and amateur free agent signings such as "the Core Four" of Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada, not to mention a brilliant deal which sent Roberto Kelly to Cincinnati for Paul O'Neill and freed up center field for Bernie Williams. He also hired Buck Showalter to manage the club. Showalter's four-season tenure, which lasted through 1995, when the Yankees reached and were ultimately eliminated from their first postseason appearance in 14 years, was the longest on Steinbrenner's watch thus far.
Michael was ousted along with Showalter, and Steinbrenner hired Bob Watson as the team's GM. Watson's choice as manager was Joe Torre, a former National League MVP who in 14 seasons of managing the Mets, Braves and Cardinals had won just one division title and produced a .470 winning percentage. The tabloids derided the choice to hire "Clueless Joe," but the Yankees won their first World Series since 1978 that year, and Torre showed a knack for enduring the crucible produced by Steinbrenner and the New York media. Reaping the benefits of Michael's groundwork, the team would go on to reach the postseason in each of Torre's 12 years at the helm — longer than any Yankee skipper than Joe McCarthy, with Casey Stengel and Miller Huggins also clocking an even dozen — winning 10 division titles, six pennants, and four World Championships.
Steinbrenner's persona as something of a benevolent despot emerged during this time via his repeated lampooning on Seinfeld, with series creator Larry David giving voice to the owner's long and often petty diatribes. His soft, paternalistic side revealed itself when he gave multiple second chances to Steve Howe, Dwight Gooden, and Darryl Strawberry, all of whom had battled substance abuse problems. He attached the Yankees' name to numerous charities, but bristled at the thought that they should include his competitors. "I would sooner send $1 million to save the whales than send it to the Pittsburgh Pirates!" he told his fellow owners.
With the Yankees restored to the top of the heap, Steinbrenner withstood the temptation to sell the team to Cablevision's Dolan family, a move that could have been disastrous given the utter catastrophe that the Dolans wrought upon the Knicks' franchise. Furthermore, he resisted the allure of the suburbs or Manhattan's West Side when it came to his desire for a new ballpark, and whatever the legerdemain it took to build the $1.5 billion "House That Ruthlessness Built" next door to "The House That Ruth Built," he ultimately understood that the Bronx was a key part of the Yankees' brand.
So too was big-dollar spending. In the name of building the fans of New York winner after winner, he spared no expense in pursuing free agents, signing big names such as Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia, and okaying the acquisitions of Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and Kevin Brown. Yet he chafed at the fact that Torre and general manager Brian Cashman, who took the reins following the 1997 season at the tender age of 30 after rising through the front office ranks, received the lion's share of the credit for building a winner. Despite Torre's deference to the Boss and understanding of the tenuous nature of his own job — he often mused publicly about who wrote the checks — the owner showed his jealousy via a string of power struggles. After the 2003 season, he forced the resignation of Don Zimmer, Torre's bench coach and right-hand man, and exerted his influence over the team's free agent signings via a semi-anonymous cabal of Tampa advisors who often undercut the Bronx brass. He retained Cashman in late 2005 only after committing to letting him restructure the baseball operations side to mute the Tampa influence.
Steinbrenner finally ceded control of the Yankees' daily operations in late 2007, a chain of events that upon the team's ouster from the playoffs led to Torre's departure. Thereafter he receded from the public eye, refusing interview requests and speaking publicly only through designated mouthpiece Howard Rubenstein. One could be forgiven for expecting a prepared statement this morning from Steinbrenner himself on his own passing.
Ultimately, the indomitable owner's legacy is a mixed and complicated one. He was certainly no saint, but neither was he the font of pure evil that his detractors made him out to be, and particularly during his later years, the hints of his mortality humanized him at least somewhat. For all of his flaws, he understood that nothing drove financial success the way that winning did. He won more than any owner of his era, and built the most valuable property in sports, becoming synonymous with the brand in the process. They don't make 'em like that anymore.
A few highlights from around the web:
• Alex Belth at SI.com:
• Back in 1998, the aforementioned Araton pleaded for Steinbrenner not to sell out to the Dolan family, because for all of his flaws, he represented accountability:
• Former Yankees beat writer Pete Abraham is crushing it from his perch at The Boston Globe with his own remembrances, those of numerous others from Yogi Berra to Mayor Mike Bloomberg, as well as Red Sox brass including owner John Henry, once one of Steinbrenner's limited partners:
• Jason Rosenberg of It's All About the Money rounds up Steinbrenner's greatest quotes, among them:
We at Baseball Prospectus offer our condolences to the Steinbrenner family, and to the larger Yankees family as well.