Colorful Yankees’ owner Steinbenner dead at 80
NEW YORK — He was baseball’s bombastic Boss.
He rebuilt the New York Yankees dynasty, ushering in the era of multimillion-dollar salaries and accepting nothing less in return than World Series championships.
He fired managers. Rehired them. And fired them again.
He butted heads with commissioners and fellow owners, insulted his players and dominated tabloid headlines — even upstaging the All-Star game on the day of his death.
George Michael Steinbrenner III, who both inspired and terrorized the Yankees in more than three decades as owner, died Tuesday of a heart attack at age 80.
“He was and always will be as much of a New York Yankee as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and all of the other Yankee legends,” baseball commissioner Bud Selig said.
Once reviled by fans for his overbearing and tempestuous nature, Steinbrenner mellowed in his final decade and became beloved by employees and rivals alike for his success.
Steinbrenner was taken from his home to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, Fla., and died about 6:30 a.m, a person close to the owner told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the team had not disclosed those details.
“George was a fierce competitor who was the perfect fit for the city that never sleeps — colorful, dynamic and always reaching for the stars,” former President Bill Clinton said.
Yankees captain Derek Jeter added: “He expected perfection.”
In 37 1/2 years as owner, Steinbrenner whipped a moribund $10 million team into a $1.6 billion colossus that became the model of a modern franchise, one with its own TV network and ballpark food business.
Under his often brutal but always colorful reign, the Yankees won seven World Series championships, 11 American League pennants and 16 AL East titles, going on spectacular spending sprees that caused Larry Lucchino, president of the rival Boston Red Sox, to dub Steinbrenner’s Yankees the “Evil Empire.”
He moved the Yankees from their tradition-rich “House that Ruth Built” into a new $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium. Call it the “House the Boss Built.” He appeared there just four times: the April 2009 opener, the first two games of last year’s World Series and this year’s home opener, when Jeter and manager Joe Girardi went to his suite and personally delivered his seventh World Series ring.
“He was very emotional,” son Hal Steinbrenner said then.
Steinbrenner’s larger-than-life outbursts transcended sports and made him a pop culture figure whose firings were parodied on the TV comedy “Seinfeld” and even by Steinbrenner himself in commercials.
“George was The Boss, make no mistake,” said Berra, the Hall of Famer who ended a 14-year feud with Steinbrenner in 1999. “He built the Yankees into champions, and that’s something nobody can ever deny. He was a very generous, caring, passionate man. George and I had our differences, but who didn’t? We became great friends over the last decade and I will miss him very much.”
Steinbrenner’s death, about 14 hours before the first pitch of the All-Star game in Anaheim, Calif., was the second in three days to rock the Yankees. Bob Sheppard, the team’s revered public address announcer from 1951-07, died Sunday at 99.
A video tribute was shown and players bowed their heads during a moment of silence before the national anthem was played at Angel Stadium. Jeter and the Yankees wore black armbands, and the U.S., Canadian and California flags were lowered to half-staff.
New York was 11 years removed from its last championship when Steinbrenner, then an obscure son of an Ohio shipbuilder, headed a group that bought the team from CBS Inc. on Jan. 3, 1973, for about $8.7 million net.
Forbes now values the Yankees at $1.6 billion, trailing only Manchester United ($1.8 billion) and the Dallas Cowboys ($1.65 billion).
Former commissioner Fay Vincent, who fought many battles with Steinbrenner, said his legacy would be turning the Yankees “into an absolute gold mine and a monster of power and success in baseball.”
“He was one of the few who realized this was an iconic franchise, and he could turn it into something really special, and he did,” Vincent said.
Steinbrenner ruled with obsessive dedication to detail — from trades to the airblowers that kept his ballparks spotless. When he thought the club’s parking lot was too crowded, Steinbrenner stood on the pavement — albeit behind a van, out of sight — and had a guard check every driver’s credential.
But he also tried to make up for his temper with good deeds and often-unpublicized charitable donations.
His rule was interrupted by two lengthy suspensions, including a 15-month ban in 1974 after pleading guilty to conspiring to make illegal contributions to the re-election campaign of President Richard Nixon. Steinbrenner was fined $15,000 and later pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.
He also was banned for 2 1/2 years for paying self-described gambler Howie Spira to obtain negative information on outfielder Dave Winfield, with whom Steinbrenner was feuding.
Through it all, Steinbrenner lived up to his billing as “The Boss,” a nickname he clearly enjoyed as he ruled with an iron fist. While he lived in Florida in his later years, he was a staple on the front pages of New York newspapers with his tirades.
Steinbrenner was in fragile health for the past 6 1/2 years, resulting in fewer public appearances and pronouncements. He fainted at a memorial service for NFL great Otto Graham in December 2003, appeared weak in August 2006 when he spoke briefly at the groundbreaking for the new stadium, and became ill while watching his granddaughter in a college play in North Carolina that October. At this year’s spring training, he used a wheelchair and needed aides to hold him during the national anthem.
As his health declined, Steinbrenner let sons Hal and Hank run more of the family business. He turned over formal control of the Yankees to Hal in November 2008.
Dressed in his trademark navy blue blazer and white turtleneck, however, he was the model of success.
“He was truly the most influential and innovative owner in all of sports,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said. “He made the Yankees a source of great pride in being a New Yorker.”
Until his dying day, Steinbrenner demanded championships. He barbed Joe Torre during the 2007 AL playoffs, then let the popular manager leave after 12 seasons because of another loss in the opening round. The team responded last year by winning his final title.
“I will always remember George Steinbrenner as a passionate man, a tough boss, a true visionary, a great humanitarian, and a dear friend,” Torre said. “It’s only fitting that he went out as a world champ.”
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered flags to half-staff at City Hall Plaza.
“Few people have had a bigger impact on New York over the past four decades than George Steinbrenner,” Bloomberg said. “George had a deep love for New York, and his steely determination to succeed, combined with his deep respect and appreciation for talent and hard work made him a quintessential New Yorker.”
When the former Big Ten football coach bought the team, he famously promised a hands-off operation.
“We’re not going to pretend we’re something we aren’t,” he said. “I’ll stick to building ships.”
It hardly turned out that way.
He changed managers 21 times and got rid of about a dozen general managers. When a Yankees public relations man went home to Ohio for the Christmas holiday, then returned in a hurry for a news conference to announce David Cone’s re-signing, Steinbrenner fired him.
“There is nothing quite so limited as being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner’s,” said John McMullen, one of his associates.
Steinbrenner hired Billy Martin in 1975, 1979, 1983, 1985 and 1987, firing him four times and letting him resign once as the two battled over substance and personality.
Martin disparaged outfielder Reggie Jackson and Steinbrenner by saying: “The two of them deserve each other — one’s a born liar, the other’s convicted.”
After Steinbrenner dismissed Berra as manager 16 games into the 1985 season, the 10-time World Series champion vowed he wouldn’t go to back to Yankee Stadium for a game until Steinbrenner apologized — which he did 14 years later.
In 1985, Steinbrenner derided future Hall of Famer Winfield as “Mr. May” for poor performance — comparing him negatively to Jackson, whose nickname was “Mr. October.” He also once called pitcher Hideki Irabu a fat toad.
Players sometimes responded with their own insults. One night in 1982, reliever Goose Gossage let loose and called Steinbrenner “the fat man.”
Steinbrenner made no apologies for his bombast, even when it cost him.
“I haven’t always done a good job, and I haven’t always been successful,” Steinbrenner said in 2005. “But I know that I have tried.”
Still, Steinbrenner could poke fun at himself. He hosted “Saturday Night Live,” clowned with Martin in a beer commercial and chuckled at his impersonation on “Seinfeld.”
Steinbrenner spent freely on the likes of Jeter, Jackson, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, CC Sabathia and others in hopes of more titles.
“Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing,” Steinbrenner was fond of saying. “Breathing first, winning next.”
He kept a sign on his desk that read: “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.”
All along, he envisioned himself as a true Yankee Doodle Dandy — born on the Fourth of July in 1930.
Steinbrenner liked to quote military figures and saw games as an extension of war. In the tunnel leading from the Yankees’ clubhouse to the field in the old stadium, he had a sign posted with a saying from Gen. Douglas MacArthur: “There is no substitute for victory.”
He joined the likes of Al Davis, Charlie O. Finley, Bill Veeck, George Halas, Jack Kent Cooke and Jerry Jones as the most recognized team owners. But Steinbrenner’s sports interests extended beyond baseball.
He was an assistant football coach at Northwestern and Purdue in the 1950s and was part of the group that bought the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League in the 1960s.
He was a vice president of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1989-96 and entered six horses in the Kentucky Derby, failing to win with Steve’s Friend (1977), Eternal Prince (1985), Diligence (1996), Concerto (1997), Blue Burner (2002) and the 2005 favorite, Bellamy Road.
To many, the Yankees and Steinbrenner were synonymous. His fans applauded his win-at-all-costs style; his detractors blamed him for wrecking baseball’s competitive balance with spiraling salaries.
Steinbrenner negotiated a landmark $486 million, 12-year cable TV contract with the Madison Square Garden Network in 1988 and launched the Yankees’ own YES Network for the 2002 season.
The Yankees later became the first team with a $200 million payroll, provoking anger and envy among other owners. When the Yankees signed Steve Kemp after the 1982 season, Baltimore owner Edward Bennett Williams said Steinbrenner stockpiled outfielders “like nuclear weapons.”
There was no denying the results. When Steinbrenner bought the Yankees, they had gone eight seasons without finishing in first place, their longest drought since Ruth & Co. won the team’s first pennant in 1921.
“George has been a very charismatic, controversial owner,” Selig said in 2005. “But look, he did what he set out to do — he restored the New York Yankees franchise.”
Former AL president Gene Budig sometimes was on the wrong end of Steinbrenner’s barbs. After he left office, Budig maintained a friendship with him and even promoted Steinbrenner for the Hall of Fame.
Steinbrenner also had a soft side. He sometimes read about high school athletes who had been injured and sent them money to go to college. He paid for the medical school expenses of Ron Karnaugh after the swimmer’s father died during the opening ceremony at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Steinbrenner had a way of rehiring those he had once fired and liked to give second chances to those who had fallen from favor, such as Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden.
“I’m really 95 percent Mr. Rogers,” Steinbrenner said as he approached his 75th birthday, “and only 5 percent Oscar the Grouch.”
While Steinbrenner grew up in the Cleveland area as a Yankees fan, his first passion was football. He fondly recalled watching the Browns on winter days, and many believe the NFL’s must-win-today mentality shaped how he approached all sports.
Steinbrenner was raised in a strict, no-nonsense household headed by his father, Henry. The oldest of three children, Steinbrenner attended Culver Military Academy in Indiana. At Williams College, he ran track, specializing in hurdles. After that, he enlisted in the Air Force.
Following his discharge, he enrolled at Ohio State, pursuing a master’s degree in physical education. It was his intention to go into coaching, but after working at a high school in Columbus and at Purdue and Northwestern, he turned to the business world.
In 1963, Steinbrenner purchased Kinsman Transit Co., a fleet of lake ore carriers, from his family and built a thriving company. Four years later, Steinbrenner and associates took over American Ship Building and revitalized the company.
It was in Cleveland that Steinbrenner met baseball executive Gabe Paul and became involved with the group that bought the Yankees. With 13 partners, Steinbrenner purchased the team from CBS.
“When you’re a shipbuilder, nobody pays any attention to you,” he said. “But when you own the New York Yankees … they do, and I love it.”
With that, the Bronx Zoo days began. It was while he was under suspension that the Yankees ushered in baseball’s free-agent era by signing Catfish Hunter to a $3.75 million contract. Even though he officially was barred from participating in the daily operation of the team, no one believed Steinbrenner was uninvolved in the deal.
For the first five years of free agency, Steinbrenner signed 10 players for about $38 million. Steinbrenner’s $18 million, 10-year deal with Winfield was the richest free agent contract in history at the time.
During those days, Yankee Stadium underwent a $100 million facelift and reopened in 1976. That year, the Yankees won the AL pennant, but got swept in the World Series by Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. The Yankees surged back to win the World Series in 1977 and 1978 and the pennant in 1981.
Forbes magazine has estimated Steinbrenner’s estate at $1.1 billion. By dying in 2010 — during a yearlong gap in the estate tax — his heirs could realize an unexpected bonanza, depending on how his holdings were structured.
In addition to his sons, Steinbrenner is survived by his wife, Joan, daughters Jennifer and Jessica and 13 grandchildren. A private funeral was expected to be held this week, followed by a public memorial.
He never expected to die this way.
“I don’t have heart attacks,” he once said. “I give them.”