George Steinbrenner, who as part of a consortium bought the New York Yankees for $10 million in 1973 and turned the then-struggling franchise into a powerhouse that won seven world championships and 11 American League pennants, and is currently worth an estimated $1.6 billion, died yesterday of a heart attack. He was 80.
- KC's View:
- There were many sides to George Steinbrenner.
He was the arrogant blowhard who fired dozens of managers and general managers and who, as documentarian Ken Burns said yesterday, was unsuited for a sport in which even the best teams lose 40 percent of their games. Burns said he was better suited to football, which has fewer games and therefore, fewer losses.
He was the philanthropist who gave much to various charities and almost never sought recognition.
He was the owner who was twice suspended from baseball - once for making illegal campaign contributions to Richard M. Nixon (he was pardoned later by Ronald Reagan), and once for paying a bookie to dig up dirt on his own player, Dave Winfield.
He was the businessman who forged YES, the revolutionary sports network that owned rights to Yankee games and contributed millions to the Yankees’ coffers; he also managed, after years of threatening to move to New Jersey, to get a new Yankee Stadium built in the Bronx, complete with more luxury boxes with greater potential revenue.
He was the guy who completely alienated Yogi Berra for more than a dozen years, but who commanded so much respect that people like his current manager Joe Girardi and shortstop Derek Jeter referred to him as “Mr. Steinbrenner.”
He was, as Burns pointed out, an American original - he actually was born on the 4th of July. And he is the kind of sports owner who we may never see again.
For me, he was the owner that through his bombast drove me away from the team that I grew up rooting for, and into the arms of the New York Mets (which ultimately made sense, since I prefer the purer form of baseball that National League teams play).
When Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert blasted LeBron James for abandoning the franchise for the Miami Heat, the outburst reminded me of early Steinbrenner. It was the sort of impolitic, “damn the torpedoes” speech that one can imagine Steinbrenner using the criticize Reggie Jackson or Billy Martin. Early Steinbrenner was never easy Steinbrenner; he reminded a lot of people of every lousy boss they’d ever had.
But two things happened over the years. First, Steinbrenner mellowed. It wasn’t that he cared less, but age and a kind of maturity seemed to help him understand that patience sometimes actually is a virtue, and that baseball people need to be allowed to do their jobs. (Not always, of course; he pretty much bullied manager Joe Torre into quitting even after he guided the Yankees into the playoffs in 2007 but did not get into the World Series.)
The other thing that happened, it seems to me, is that in the end - as he aged and fell ill and rarely appeared in public - the thing that people seemed to recognize most in Steinbrenner was his passion. That passion sometimes could be destructive, but it also built a series of champions, and it could not, would not be denied. In that way, Steinbrenner may have reminded people of the kind of boss they’d like to have - the guy who believes so fervently, so completely, that he will do anything to succeed. I’ve worked for true believers, and I’ve worked for guys who were in it for the paycheck; even with the faults, I’ll take the believers anytime.
In this way, the reign - and that’s probably the best, most appropriate word for it - of George Steinbrenner in New York sports stands as an example of both the best and worst in leadership. Much to learn from there, I think.
One other thought. I have no idea how the Yankees’ ownership is structured, but it is certainly interesting to note that Steinbrenner died during the year when there is no estate tax. Does this mean that his family will be tempted to sell the New York Yankees for financial reasons? Hard to say, and I’m sure we’ll hear more speculation about this in coming days.
But the over-under on when the Yankees will be sold just got a lot more interesting. I hate to see the team move from family to corporate ownership, as often happens in these cases. Perhaps it is inevitable, and for the best. There will never be another George Steinbrenner, and for lots of reasons, nobody else should even try.