George Steinbrenner, the imperial owner of the New York Yankees who died on July 13 at 80, riveted the sports world with his free-spending ways and back-office shenanigans. And for all his excesses, the man sportswriters dubbed "King George" left the arena a champion. It's not simply because the Yankees clinched seven World Series victories during his turbulent reign. Steinbrenner restored the Bronx Bombers to their former glory, turning them into the richest team in baseball and a global brand. His triumphs often irked fellow owners, who resented his throwing around money as if there were no tomorrow.
Then again, that's the way Steinbrenner rolled. "We'd be winning games, and he'd be semi-embarrassed because we'd win on a squeeze bunt or a base hit," recalled former Yankee manager Joe Torre, who departed in 2007. "He wanted to mutilate people."
Steinbrenner credited his insatiable drive to his father, Henry, a shipping magnate. "He graduated from MIT near the top of his class and became the school's only NCAA champion in track and field ever," Steinbrenner once said. "I was an only son, and I knew he was always watching."
Steinbrenner went to Williams College, where he studied English literature and ran track like his dad. He joined his family's Kinsman Marine Transit business in 1957 and went on to become fabulously wealthy. He never lost his passion for sports. He hit the big time in 1973 when he and his partners bought the Yankees from CBS for $10 million. He later bought out the others.
Under King George, the Yankees won two early championships, followed by a 13-year playoff drought during which his feuds overshadowed the team's performance. He hired and fired manager Billy Martin five times. In 1990 Steinbrenner paid an admitted gambler $40,000 for damaging information about outfielder Dave Winfield. Commissioner Fay Vincent banned Steinbrenner from baseball for life, then reinstated him for the 1993 season.
Shortly thereafter, the franchise regained its footing and won four World Series in a five-year span through 2000. By 2005 the Yankees were the most expensive sports team ever assembled in North America, with a payroll of $208 million. That brought it its seventh Series in 2009. Earlier this year, Forbes estimated the Yankees' value at $1.6 billion.
After the 2007 season, Steinbrenner named family members to top posts at the holding company for his team and its regional television network. His health deteriorated, and he was rarely seen in public. But he didn't let up. "I keep telling my guys, 'Always remember that winning is everything,' " Steinbrenner said in a 2005 interview. "It's a way of life."
Rocky River, Ohio, heir to a Great Lakes shipping business
The long shadow of a successful father drove him to excel
A sports and broadcasting empire worth an estimated $1.6 billion