George M. Steinbrenner III, the most visible, vilified and successful baseball owner of the free-agency era, died on Tuesday morning following a massive heart attack.
In his heyday he was known as many things -- most notably, as a bad loser -- but there is no denying that he made the Yankees into a winner. He was the shipbuilding magnate who bought the ball club for a relative pittance ($10 million in 1973) from CBS and restored the Yankee brand to its former glory. During his reign as owner, Steinbrenner's Yankees won 11 American League pennants and seven world championships, more than any other team in that span. The franchise's value soared into more than a billion as it became the staple product of its own cable network while still leading the big leagues in attendance year after year.
Along the way he exerted his will in an indomitable fashion, displaying legendary impatience and volatility. He bought out his 13 limited partners by the end of his first decade as owner, prompting John McMullen, who later owned the Houston Astros, to say, "Nothing is more limited than being a limited partner of George's." During his first 20 years with the Yankees, Steinbrenner hired and fired 21 managers, including Billy Martin five times. Before the 1982 season, Steinbrenner announced that manager Bob Lemon should feel secure in his job; Lemon was fired 14 games into the season. Two years later, Steinbrenner talked about his manager, Yogi Berra, before the season again and said "Yogi will be the manager the entire season, win or lose." After 16 games, Berra was fired. He would not return to Yankee Stadium for 14 years.
"In every other job I've had with him, he seemed to respect my opinion to some degree," said Gene "Stick" Michael, who was a player for Steinbrenner as well as scout, general manager and field manager. "But when you become his manager, it's like your IQ drops by 50 percent. All of a sudden you don't know anything."
Before firing Michael as manager in 1981, Steinbrenner told him, "Why would you want to stay manager and be second-guessed by me when you can come up into the front office and be one of the second-guessers?"
Yet Steinbrenner domineered his general managers equally as hard. In fact, clubhouse attendants, secretaries, p.r. men, players, anyone who was on his payroll, were hired and fired with regularity. In 1982, Steinbrenner had five different pitching coaches. Two years later, the Yankees lost three of their first four games to start the season. Rookie shortstop Bobby Meacham made an error in the third straight loss and Steinbrenner sent him to the Double A team, skipping Triple A altogether.
"They say I'm tough to work for," Steinbrenner once said, "Well, I am, but I'm not trying to win any popularity contest. I know only one way and that is to work my butt off and demand everybody else do the same."
Steinbrenner had a penchant for calling out rookies -- "He spit the bit," he said of pitcher Jim Beattie once after a bad start. He also loved to embarrass his stars. He publicly feuded with Dave Winfield for years, calling him "Mr. May," in 1985. In 1999, Steinbrenner called pitcher Hideki Irabu a "fat p---- toad" for not covering first base properly in a spring training game.
One former employee of the Yankees told Steinbrenner biographer Dick Schaap, "George Steinbrenner doesn't want to be loved, and he doesn't want to be hated, George Steinbrenner wants to be feared."
"Sometimes," Steinbrenner once told a reporter, "as much as I don't want to -- I have to inflict pain. But I also inflict some joy."
Steinbrenner would harass an employee to no end, humiliating and abusing them at his whim. Then he'd send their kids through college or hire them back with a bonus.
"George is the most charming guy in the world, a real Mr. Nice," said Campbell W. Elliott, former president of American Ship Building Company. "But to work for him? George's attitude is that they're damn lucky to have a job -- and if they don't like the way he treats them, they can just get the hell out."
Umpires, league officials and rival managers were also favorite targets for Steinbrenner when the Yankees didn't win. In 1983, Steinbrenner was suspended for a week after he repeatedly criticized National League umpires during spring training. By the end of the season, he was fined a then-record sum of $250,000 for his behavior following the infamous "Pine-Tar Game."
The Boss was simply an incorrigibly poor loser who personalized the team's failures. "There is always a feeling that the losses come from a defect in character, or spite," wrote Ed Linn in Steinbrenner's Yankees. "He has put together a winning team, and so if they're not wining, it has to be their fault." After the Yankees lost the 1981 World Series to the Dodgers, Steinbrenner publicly apologized to the city of New York.
"You have to understand how I feel," Steinbrenner once said after he was caught cursing by TV cameras during a playoff loss in 1980. "There are 5 million Yankee fans just like me sitting in front of TV sets with beer and hollering the same thing ... I want this team to win. I'm obsessed with winning, with discipline, with achieving. That's what this country's all about, that's what New York's all about -- fighting for everything, a cab in the rain, a table in a restaurant at lunchtime -- and that's what the Yankees are all about."
Steinbrenner's impact was felt immediately after he bought the team, even though he told reporters, "We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned. We're not going to pretend to be something we aren't. I'll stick to building ships."
The secretaries no longer had flowers delivered daily to their desks. The players were ordered to cut their hair, and manager Ralph Houk suddenly started receiving calls constantly from the new owner. (Houk quit at the end of the season.) Steinbrenner also liked to address his team and give them rah-rah pep talks as if they were a college football team. His Knute Rockne routine left the Yankee players rolling their eyes.
The following year -- as the Yankees played the first of two seasons at Shea Stadium in Queens while Yankee Stadium was being remodeled -- Steinbrenner was indicted for making illegal campaign contributions to the committee to re-elect President Nixon. He pleaded guilty in August and shortly thereafter was suspended by commissioner Bowie Kuhn for two seasons. As the Yankees found themselves in a late-season pennant race, Steinbrenner taped a speech and had manager Bill Virdon play it for the team in the locker room. "You've got to have balls," Steinbrenner implored.
Few believed that the suspension had any teeth to it, however, especially when the Yankees signed Jim "Catfish" Hunter, the game's first free-agent (via a loophole), that winter to a then-unheard of five-year, $3 million deal.
The Yankees won the American League pennant in 1976 for the first time in 12 years but were swept in the World Series by the Cincinnati Reds. The following year, the first year of free agency, Steinbrenner signed pitcher Don Gullet and outfielder Reggie Jackson. Steinbrenner's Yankees, run expertly by general manager Gabe Paul, were called "The Best Team Money Can Buy," and the arrival of Jackson began the Bronx Zoo years in New York, the most written about era since the days of Babe Ruth.
When the Yankees won back-to-back championships in '77 and '78, Steinbrenner was at the height of his popularity in New York. He was a darling of the tabloid media, naturally charming, and a master at getting the headlines. Steinbrenner regularly "leaked" stories to the papers. "A high-placed source" was often Steinbrenner himself. It took him just five years to win his first World Series and, suddenly, he was as popular and as visible as any of his players. He was the talk of the town. Playgirl listed him as one of the sexiest men in America.
"In New York," Steinbrenner once told former New York Times baseball writer Murray Chass, "athletics is more than a game. You're in the Big Apple. The game is important, but so is the showmanship involved with the game important. You have to have a blend of capable, proficient players, but you have to have another ingredient in New York and that's color."
But there was an underside to the success. Steinbrenner would not tolerate failure and he "fooled himself that he could arrange for success," according to the baseball writer Roger Angell in Ken Burns' Baseball. "He didn't really want to let his ballplayers play the games. He didn't want to put them out on the field and wait to see what happens, which is what you have to do in the end. He wanted to impose his will and in doing that he got between us and the players. I always had the feeling at Yankee Stadium when he was there that he was standing up in front of me and I was looking at George Steinbrenner and I want to see the Yankees, instead."
In the '80s, the Yankees imploded. Steinbrenner bought talent -- after the 1980 season, he made Dave Winfield the richest man in sports with a 10-year, $23 million deal -- and traded away promising prospects such as Jose Rijo, Willie McGee and Fred McGriff. The Yankees had the best cumulative regular-season record in baseball during the decade with only the '81 Series loss to show for it.
"The problem with the Yankees," wrote Bill James in 1988, "is that they never want to pay the real price of success. The real price of success in baseball is not the dollars you come up with for a Jack Clark, or a Dave Winfield or and Ed Whitson. ... It is the patience to work with young players and help them develop. So long as the Yankees are unwilling to pay that price, don't bet on them to win anything."
From 1989-1992, the Yankees were 288-359, never placing higher than fourth. In 1990, they bottomed-out, finishing dead last, 21 games out.
"Steinbrenner did something no one thought possible," added George F. Will, in Baseball, "wreck the Yankee franchise. It's astonishing. They have a wonderful tradition, terrific farm system, the largest market, a cash flow that you would think would finance excellence even if you weren't real smart."
It was the end of the line for Steinbrenner, too. In January 1990, he paid $40,000 to Howie Spira, a small-time hustler who had previously worked for Winfield's foundation. Steinbrenner had long resented Winfield for not delivering a championship and used information Spira had given him in an arbitration case with the Winfield Foundation a year earlier.
When Steinbrenner was busted, Commissioner Fay Vincent suspended him for two years. This suspension was enforced more vigorously than the first, and Steinbrenner was in fact in the background as "Stick" Michael rebuilt the Yankees in the early '90s. By this point, Steinbrenner had become a living caricature; the most air play he got during this period was as a character, played by Larry David, on Seinfeld.
During Steinbrenner's exile, Michael made sage pickups for veterans such as Paul O'Neill, Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key, augmenting young talents Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter. Williams' development, in particular, was a startling change of pace for the organization because he was a slow starter, withdrawn and lacked natural baseball instincts, just the kind of player Steinbrenner had no tolerance for. But Michael's patience paid off.
Buck Showalter, a taciturn, organizational man, was promoted to manager and held the job for four seasons (1992-95), the longest consecutive stretch to that point of the Steinbrenner era. The Yankees reached the postseason in 1995 by winning the first AL wild card, and lost a dramatic-five-game Division Series against the Seattle Mariners. Steinbrenner fired two of Showalter's coaches -- a favorite Steinbrenner reaction to loss. Showalter's contact was up and he walked away from the job.
Steinbrenner turned to veteran baseball man Joe Torre and in 1996, Williams had his breakout season, rookie shortstop Derek Jeter showed the makings of a star, and the Yankees defeated the Braves in six games in the World Series, their first title since 1978.
Torre, who had been a prominent player representative for the union during his playing days, knew how to handle Steinbrenner. In '96, the Yankees had to play a doubleheader in Cleveland with two untested rookie pitchers. Steinbrenner called a meeting of his top advisors in New York. It was the day before the game, an off-day for the team, and Steinbrenner called Torre.
"Where are you?" Steinbrenner barked.
"I'm playing golf," said Torre through a speaker phone.
"Well, while you're out in the goddam woods having fun, we're trying to figure this damn thing out for tomorrow."
"How the hell did you know my ball was in the woods," said Torre, and cracked up the entire room, including Steinbrenner.
Torre was able to disarm Steinbrenner with great success. As the Yankees continued to win in the late '90s, winning the Series again in 1998, '99 and 2000, Torre's celebrity status grew. Steinbrenner grew increasingly resentful. Torre was getting more credit than Steinbrenner and that made the owner privately furious. But he couldn't do anything about it because Torre continued to win. Torre had an advantage over Steinbrenner that no manager, not even fan-favorite Martin, enjoyed. Torre was an icon; he was the public face of the new Yankee Dynasty. Even George knew that he would look like the old heavy if he sacked Torre.
That didn't prevent Steinbrenner from giving Torre a hard time -- coaches Don Zimmer and Mel Stottlemyre left with hard feelings -- especially from 2002-06. But Torre was always willing to deal with Steinbrenner's public tirades. Torre lasted until 2007, his 12th season as Yankee manager, a streak that is almost as improbable as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, before leaving to manage the Dodgers.
Steinbrenner's health problems first surfaced when he fainted at the funeral for football great Otto Graham in December 2003. He later fainted while watching his granddaughter perform in a school play. Suddenly, Steinbrenner was given to unpredictable displays of emotion, such as when he began to cry after the Yankees won a regular-season game against the Red Sox in 2004. He was not a presence at Yankee Stadium, or, more alarmingly, in the newspapers. For a man who lived for headlines, Steinbrenner's public dealings with the media were almost exclusively handled by his public relations man, Howard Rubenstein. By the summer of 2007, it was leaked that Steinbrenner was suffering from dementia.
In his absence, his sons Hal and Hank Steinbrenner took on the duties of their father as active owner.
The mouth that roared was suddenly quieted. During the course of his run as Yankee owner, Steinbrenner was often the most-hated man in sports, a fitting title that he wore well. He was combative, belligerent, charitable and ruthless. Most of all, though, he made the Yankees matter again.