George Steinbrenner: Larger-than-life owner of baseball's most successful franchise, the New York Yankees

Thursday 15 July 2010 00:00

In the annals of America's broken public promises, the avowals of the Cleveland shipbuilder George Steinbrenner, buying the New York Yankees baseball club from the television network CBS in 1973, rank right up there 0with "you won't have Nixon to kick around any more". Steinbrenner told New Yorkers, "We plan absent ownership... we're not going to pretend we're something we're not. I'll stick to building ships."

Not for long. As anyone knows who's seen him portrayed as George Costanza's boss in Seinfeld (by actor Lee Bear, always seen from behind, with Larry David providing his voice) he was the most hands-on of owners, revelling in being known as "The Boss". His domineering style was closer to English football, a more successful Ken Bates, and like football club chairmen he had a particular lack of respect for managers, making 20 changes in his first 23 years of ownership, including five separate hirings and firings of Billy Martin. In 1984 he said the Yankee legend Yogi Berra would manage "the entire season, win or lose". Berra lasted 16 games and after his firing refused to return to Yankee Stadium for 14 years.

Steinbrenner was equally harsh with some players, calling pitcher Hideki Irabu "a fat pussy toad" when he was slow covering first base in a spring training friendly. Steinbrenner disliked sharing the spotlight; although he had put up less than $200,000 of the $10m paid to CBS for the team, by the end of the decade he had bought out all 13 of his partners. "There is nothing more limited than being a limited partner of George's," said one of them.

The Yankees are America's most storied sporting franchise, their dynasty established by Babe Ruth in the 1920s and continued through the Depression and the war by Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. In the '50s, led by Mickey Mantle, their World Series battles with the crosstown Giants and Dodgers, overflowing with grace and style, symbolised New York's position at the centre of the world. But when Steinbrenner took over it had been a decade since their last championship. Yankee Stadium, "The House That Ruth Built," was as dilapidated as its once-elegant Bronx surroundings. New York teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.

Steinbrenner spoke to a less sophisticated sense of triumph, as if you could take the boy out of Cleveland but you couldn't take Cleveland out of the boy. He gave New York what it wanted, a winner at any cost, but part of the cost was his gridiron mentality in which anything short of the ultimate title is failure. "Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing," he said, and he was a bad loser, parcelling out blame and accumulating huge fines for criticising umpires, league officials and opponents.

Steinbrenner won by spending over the odds to sign big-name free agents, the same tactic which brought Ruth to New York from Boston in 1919. Despite being suspended from baseball for two years after his 1973 guilty plea for making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon, when the Yankees paid an unheard of $3.75m in 1974 to buy Catfish Hunter, the best pitcher on baseball's best team, Oakland, everyone knew whose decision that was. In 1976, his ban served and the team moving back into a Yankee Stadium rebuilt for him, under threat of relocation, by a nearly bankrupt city, Steinbrenner signed Oakland's best hitter, Reggie Jackson. They lost the 1976 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, so he bought their best pitcher, and in 1977 they won their first World Series since 1962.

Described as "The Best Team Money Can Buy" they morphed into the "Bronx Zoo", characterised by vicious feuding and outsized egos. Manager Martin chafed at Steinbrenner's interference while hating his superstar, Jackson, termed "Mr October" for his play-off heroics. "One's a born liar and the other's convicted," Martin said, but the team kept winning. Third baseman Graig Nettles marvelled that as a boy he wanted to play baseball or join the circus. "With the Yankees, I can do both," he said. The 1977 team was portrayed in a 2005 mini-series, The Bronx Is Burning, with Oliver Platt as Steinbrenner and John Turturro as Martin.

George Michael Steinbrenner III was born on the Fourth of July 1930 in Cleveland's suburbs, where his father headed the family shipbuilding firm, Kinsman. George II, a champion hurdler and top of his class at MIT, and was a disciplinarian who demanded his son be the best at whatever he tried. He attended the prestigious Culver Military Academy, but was rejected by MIT and went to Williams College, where he played gridiron and followed his father as a hurdler. He served in the Air Force, took a Masters in physical education at Ohio State and was an assistant college football coach for two years before being summoned back to the family firm in 1957. Steinbrenner shrewdly amassed stock in American Shipbuilding and in 1967, merged Kinsman into it, eventually moving operations to Tampa, Florida. The deal was an immediate success and made him rich.

He had already dabbled in sports ownership, in 1960 buying the Cleveland Pipers, a successful amateur basketball team, and turning them professional in a new league, the ABL, which was challenging the NBA. He hired John McLendon, the first black coach of any big-league American team, and the Pipers won the league's first title, in 1961, before failing in its second season. He later bought a part-interest in the NBA's Chicago Bulls, but sold it just before the Michael Jordan era made it valuable. He also owned racehorses, entering the Kentucky Derby six times.

Where the Yankees' original dynasty had been maintained more by shrewdly acquiring and developing players than spending, Steinbrenner had no Plan B. In 1980 he lured Dave Winfield with another jaw-dropping contract; throughout the decade his high-priced mercenaries won during the season but failed in the play-offs. Steinbrenner sarcastically dubbed Winfield "Mr May", the inverse of Reggie Jackson. When the baseball commissioner Fay Vincent discovered Steinbrenner had hired a gambler to dig up dirt that might allow Winfield's contract to be voided, he was handed, in 1990, a lifetime suspension. The Boss was becoming King George III. The Yankees finished last that season, and columnist George Will moaned that Steinbrenner had done "something no one thought possible... wreck the Yankee franchise."

Of course, he hadn't. Steinbrenner shrewdly sold the bulk of the Yankees' televised games to a subscription cable channel; the huge New York market made the Yankees even more wealthy, and his suspension proved their salvation. While he busied himself with business, serving as Vice-President of the US Olympic Committee, and charitable works he attributed to his mother's softening influence, the club's general manager Gene Michael rebuilt the team's farm system. Steinbrenner was reinstated in 1993, and in 1996 he hired the unflappable Joe Torre as manager. The core of young players developed in Steinbrenner's absence, reinforced by a few key purchases, led the team to the World Series title, and three more between 1998 and 2000.

In the new century, the Bronx Zoo had become the Evil Empire. Steinbrenner created the Yankees' subscription channel, YES, maximising TV revenue, signed a marketing deal with Adidas and entered into a partnership with Manchester United. The decade's nadir was a baseball first, a seven-game play-off defeat to arch-rivals Boston Red Sox in 2004 after leading 3-0. Steinbrenner wanted to sack Torre but had to be satisfied with forcing out his closest assistants, before finally parting company in 2007.

By then he had passed day-to-day control to his sons Hank and Hal, having fired his son-in-law after his divorce from the boss's daughter. They completed his last great project, a new Yankee Stadium which opened in 2009. Resembling the House That Ruth Built on steroids, it rewarded fans' loyalty with fewer but more expensive seats and more luxury boxes. The 2009 team, whose six best players alone earned more than all but two other teams in baseball, dutifully captured Steinbrenner's sixth World Series, the Yankees' 27th, and were rewarded with a ticker tape parade down Wall Street, as if the stock market had never crashed.

The man who claimed "I will never have a heart attack – I give them" died nine days after his 80th birthday after suffering a massive coronary.

Michael Carlson

George Michael Steinbrenner III, businessman: born Rocky River, Ohio, 4 July 1930; married 1956 Elizabeth Joan Zieg (two sons, two daughters); died Tampa, Florida 13 July 2010.

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