Woke up today to the news that George Steinbrenner had died, nine days after his 80th birthday and on the morning of one of baseball’s showcase events, the All-Star Game. I have a feeling Steinbrenner wouldn’t have minded stealing the spotlight one last time.
He was “The Boss” long before Springsteen, and one of the truly unique figures in American sports. Hate him for building up the Evil Empire, for the callous way he treated employees (especially PR directors, pitching coaches and managers), for believing that the Yankees had a divine right to be the biggest, flashiest and best. Love him for his immense charitiable donations, his over-the-top patriotism, for inspiring one of the great Seinfeld characters. Certainly, owners around baseball are grateful for the models he provided in the art of maximizing revenue streams. Of course, fans might think he irrepairably sullied the game in the process.
It was impossible to be neutral about George Steinbrenner. He had gone dormant in recent years because of health issues, and it’s easy to forget what a mercurial, bombastic, blustering force of nature he was for so long. I remember being at Yankee Stadium in the 1990s, when all the New York papers had a reporter whose sole assignment was to be at the elevator and exits where Steinbrenner might emerge, just in case he chose that day to pop off. I’ve heard it said that being a Yankee beat writer in the 1970s, when Steinbrenner was at his fiercest and most arbitrarily vindictive — and, oh yeah, Billy Martin was in the mix, and Reggie and the rest of the fabled Bronx zoo — was the toughest job at any newspaper. Covering politics or the crime beat was a piece of cake compared to the round-the-clock vigilance required of the Yankee writer. You never knew when The Boss might call a reporter and stir things up with a threatening quote, or choose to answer a call with some biting commentary he knew would win him the back page of the Post or Daily News.
I interviewed Steinbrenner one-on-one just once, when he returned a call I put it into the Yankees requesting a few minutes of his valuable time. I believe it was for a story I did on Lou Piniella. He didn’t identify himself. He just started talking. It took me a moment to realize this was George Steinbrenner, but he didn’t let me down — he was gruff, frank and effusive. Gave me just what I wanted, and then he was gone, without so much as a goodbye.
Now Steinbrenner is gone for good, and the eulogies will point out how he bought the Yankees from CBS in 1973 for $10 million, money he had made in the shipbuilding industry, and immediately issued one of the most retrospectivally hilarious quotes ever: “I will not be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all. I’ll stick to building ships.”
Of course, no owner has ever been more active, for good and bad. And say what you will about Steinbrenner and his methods, he restored the Yankees to an iconic place in the sports world, turned them into perhaps the most profitable franchise of them all with his visionary ideas about cable television and his relentless pursuit of the top players, cost be damned. Of course, those same traits are why he — and the Yankees — were loathed as much as loved, but that never seemed to bother Steinbrenner. In fact, he reveled in it.
The Yankees were such a powerhouse that toppling them — as the Mariners did in 1995 — was especially sweet. Steinbrenner, who never took losing well, was fined by MLB for complaining about the umpiring in that division series. According to the New York Times, that brought his total of disciplinary payments to $645,000. Steinbrenner was also suspended twice by baseball, once after pleading guilty to making illegal political campaign contributions, the other time for paying a gambler to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, the Hall of Fame outfielder with whom he clashed after signing him to a big contract and then deriding as “Mr. May.”
Critics noted that while Steinbrenner was sidelined in the early ’90s, the Yankees, behind Buck Showalter and Gene Michael, used The Boss’s hiatus to get away from checkbook baseball and built the farm system that produced Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, the cornerstones of the five World Series titles that followed.
The last vintage Steinbrenner moment I remember was his rage after the Yankees lost the 2001 World Series to the Diamondbacks, when he assured that changes would be made to ensure that never happened again. His bluster began to fade in the ensuing decade, though in his final interview, in 2007, he threatened to fire Joe Torre if the Yankees were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. As a finale, that was the Steinbrenner equivalent of Ted Williams hitting a home run in his final at-bat.
Now his sons, Hal and Hank, run the team, and they seem much more circumspect than their dad — nary a popoff or threat to be heard. It might be better business, but where’s the fun in that? George Steinbrenner built a dynasty, lived a full and boisterous life, evoked strong emotions from everyone who knew him or knew of him, and in the process ensured that he will never, ever be forgotten.
(Pictured is the Sports Illustrated cover from March 1, 1993)