George Steinbrenner, the mercurial and free-spending owner of the New York Yankees who presided over the restoration of one of the great franchises in professional sports after turning it into baseball’s version of a soap opera, has died. He was 80.
He died today in Tampa, Florida, according to a statement by his family. He suffered a heart attack, the Associated Press reported. Major League Baseball is in the midst of its annual midseason break for the All-Star Game, being played tonight in Anaheim, California.
The man known as “The Boss” took baseball by storm in his 37-year tenure, helping to usher in free agency and multimillion-dollar contracts, changing managers 24 times and serving two suspensions.
“We’d be winning games and he’d be semi-embarrassed because we’d win on a squeeze bunt or a base hit,” recalled Joe Torre, who spent 12 seasons as manager through 2007. “He wanted to mutilate people.”
Steinbrenner’s Yankees won two early championships, followed by a 13-year playoff drought during which his combustible personality overshadowed the team’s performance. The franchise regained its footing in the 1990s, fueled by Steinbrenner’s prodigious spending, and won four World Series in a five-year span through 2000, inviting comparisons to previous sports dynasties.
In all, the Yankees won seven of their record 27 world championships during Steinbrenner’s reign, most recently in 2009, the first season after he turned over day-to-day operations to his youngest son, Hal.
Steinbrenner’s Yankees lured the game’s top players with blockbuster contracts funded by the team’s league-leading attendance, global popularity and regional sports network. His aggressive business tactics widened the Yankees’ lead as baseball’s richest team while irking other owners.
“I’m going to miss him,” Marvin Miller, the former head of Major League Baseball’s players union, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t mean he was pro-union in any sense of the word, but he was clearly not of the school of the hard-line owners that felt the unions were treasonous.”
By 2005, the Yankees were the most expensive sports team ever assembled in North America, with a payroll of $208 million. They became the first baseball franchise worth more than $1 billion the following year in Forbes magazine’s annual rankings. In April 2010, Forbes estimated the Yankees’ value at $1.6 billion.
Steinbrenner helped establish that players were free agents, able to move teams and sign with the highest bidder, by plucking pitcher Catfish Hunter from the Oakland Athletics in 1974 with a five-year, $3.5 million contract, a record at the time. Two years later, he landed Oakland slugger Reggie Jackson, the biggest star available on the first open free-agent market.
During the second of Steinbrenner’s two suspensions from baseball, from 1990 to 1993, Yankee management led by General Manager Gene Michael stocked the franchise with future stars -- including shortstop Derek Jeter and pitcher Andy Pettitte -- who would lead the team to its most successful run of the Steinbrenner era.
That core group of homegrown players led the Yankees to 13 straight playoff appearances, through 2007, and World Series titles in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009.
After numerous threats to leave the Bronx for New Jersey or Manhattan if attendance didn’t pick up, Steinbrenner decided to build a new Yankee Stadium next to the one that housed the team since 1923. The new $1.3 billion stadium opened in 2009.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, today saluted Steinbrenner as “a champion who made New York a better place” and said flags at City Hall Plaza would be lowered.
George Michael Steinbrenner III was born July 4, 1930, in Rocky River, Ohio, the oldest of three children of shipping magnate Henry Steinbrenner and his wife, Rita Haley. His drive in sports and business was imbued early.
“My father expected me to do well in everything,” Steinbrenner recalled. “He was a big man, a great athlete, and a fine student. He graduated from MIT near the top of his class and became the school’s only NCAA champion in track and field ever. That’s what I was up against. I was an only son, and I knew he was always watching.”
Before turning 10, Steinbrenner used a loan from his father to buy baby chickens and went into business selling eggs.
He attended Culver Military Academy in Indiana, then Williams College in Massachusetts, where he studied English literature and ran hurdles, as his father had.
After serving two years as an aide to an Air Force general in Ohio, he indulged his love of sports as an assistant football coach at Northwestern and Purdue universities. He returned to the family fold in 1957 by joining Kinsman Marine Transit, the Great Lakes shipping company his grandfather and great-grandfather had founded in 1901.
He succeeded his father as company president in 1963 and, four years later, led a group that took over a bigger rival, American Ship Building. The resulting company was the largest grain carrier on the Great Lakes.
“This was a rocket rise to wealth, but all the while part of his focus stayed on sports,” Roger Kahn wrote in his book on the 1978 Yankees. “In a sense, sport to George was like that beckoning green light Jay Gatsby saw and sought on a dock he could not reach.”
Steinbrenner bought a basketball team, the Cleveland Pipers, which went bankrupt when its league collapsed.
He leaped into the big time in 1973, leading a group of investors that bought the Yankees from CBS Corp. for $10 million. Rich history aside, the Yankees were a .500 team at the time and hadn’t made the World Series since 1964. Though his initial investment was just $168,000, Steinbrenner would buy out his partners over the years to become principal owner.
Steinbrenner was indicted in 1974 on charges of making illegal contributions to President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. Pleading guilty to a felony and a misdemeanor, he admitted he tried to “influence and intimidate” employees of his company to lie about the donations. Avoiding prison, he was fined $15,000.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn banned Steinbrenner from the game for two years, then reduced the sentence to 15 months. Years later, President Ronald Reagan would grant Steinbrenner a pardon. Steinbrenner thanked his lawyers by doubling their $50,000 fee.
‘The Bronx Zoo’
In Steinbrenner’s fifth season, 1977, the Yankees won the first of two straight championships while enduring feuds among three outsized personalities: Steinbrenner, Jackson and manager Billy Martin. The team earned the nickname “The Bronx Zoo.”
After losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1981 World Series, the Yankees missed the postseason every year until 1995. Steinbrenner changed managers 12 times during the 1980s. The combative Martin alone was hired and fired five times over 14 seasons.
One of his most destructive feuds was with legendary Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, who managed the team to a third-place finish in 1984. Sixteen games into the next season, Steinbrenner fired him, choosing to send an intermediary to deliver the news rather than do it personally.
So angry was Berra that he vowed never to step foot in Yankee Stadium while Steinbrenner was in charge. Steinbrenner patched the rift in 1999, apologizing at an in-person meeting. Berra’s wife, who attended the meeting, said Steinbrenner told Berra that the way he fired him was “the worst mistake I ever made in baseball.”
Berra, 85, said in a statement today, “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.”
In 1990, Steinbrenner paid an admitted gambler, Howie Spira, $40,000 for damaging information about star outfielder Dave Winfield, with whom Steinbrenner was feuding. Commissioner Fay Vincent banned Steinbrenner from baseball for life, then reinstated him for the 1993 season.
Steinbrenner grew incrementally more patient in his later years, the Yankees prospering amid the stability. Torre’s 12-year run as manager began in 1996, and Brian Cashman has been general manager since 1998.
‘Divide and Conquer’
Steinbrenner’s patience didn’t necessarily translate to softer treatment of the people under him. In a 2009 memoir, co-written with Tom Verducci, Torre said Steinbrenner governed with a “divide and conquer dynamic” that encouraged employees to denigrate others.
Steinbrenner capitalized on the franchise’s popularity in 2002 by launching the Yankees Entertainment & Sports (YES) Network, a regional cable network built around Yankees programming. The Yankees owned 40 percent of the venture. In 2008, the network’s estimated $2 billion value surpassed that of the franchise proper.
In stepping back after the 2007 season, Steinbrenner named sons Hank and Hal co-chairmen of Yankee Global Enterprises LLC, the holding company of the team and its television network. He appointed daughters Jennifer and Jessica, and wife Joan, as vice chairwomen.
On occasion, Steinbrenner poked fun at his image. In a 2004 credit card commercial, he appeared with his arm in a sling, ostensibly from having signed too many checks.
He and his family spent summers at Kinsman Stable, his horse farm in Ocala, Florida, which produced six Kentucky Derby entrants. Steve’s Friend had the best showing, finishing fifth in 1977.
Steinbrenner married the former Joan Zeig in 1956. Like their father, each of their four children graduated from Culver Military Academy.
Steinbrenner brought his passion for the military to the Yankees. At his behest, a sign was hung in the corridor leading from the clubhouse to the field. Each game, Yankees players read the words of Gen. Douglas MacArthur: “There is no substitute for victory.’
“I keep telling my guys, always remember that winning is everything,” Steinbrenner said in an interview on YES in 2005. “Winning is important. It’s a way of life.”