George Steinbrenner has died, at age 80, of a massive heart attack. The Boss’ timing was perfect to the end: a week after his 80th birthday on July 4th, on the morning of the All-Star Game (with the baseball media all gathered in one place with nothing much to write about), which Joe Girardi will manage as the skipper of the defending champs (the 7th in the 37 years of Steinbrenner’s tenure), just days after the passing of public address announcer Bob Sheppard at age 99 (Sheppard being one of the last links to the old, pre-George Yankees, having been the PA announcer since Mickey Mantle’s rookie year, 1951), and less than a week removed from the LeBron James spectacle, which in its own way was the logical endpoint of a culture of free agency that George did as much to create in pro sports as anyone.
Steinbrenner’s personality and legacy will be described as “complicated,” which is sort of true although the pieces are easy enough to stitch together into a coherent whole with some effort. My all-time favorite line was from Luis Polonia in 1989: “Steinbrenner is only interested in one thing, and I don’t know what it is.” At times, when the Yankees weren’t winning, it seemed that way. Nobody cared about winning more than Steinbrenner, and that of course was his greatest virtue as an owner; the Yankees made a lot of money under George, but he never saw the money as something to pocket separate and apart from winning, and as a fan there are few things you want more in your team owner. His signature move was signing Goose Gossage to be his closer immediately after Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young Award, an act of colossal baseball gluttony that turned out to be visionary; Sparky’s arm gave out and he went, in Graig Nettles’ words, “from Cy Young to Syonara in one year,” while the Goose went on to have the prime of his Hall of Fame career in pinstripes.
But he cared about other things too, and even with winning, sometimes he cared too much. He was the only baseball owner you could turn into a Seinfeld character with minimal alteration. Until his old age and infirmities mellowed him, he meddled incessantly, firing managers like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, bullying his players in public (recall him calling Jim Beattie “gutless” on the occasion of summarily demoting him to AA), breaking the rules and the law to dig dirt on Dave Winfield and help Richard Nixon get re-elected. He created an impossible atmosphere for developing young players – especially pitchers, catchers, shortstops who can take more time to learn their craft – and it’s no accident that the two great Yankees teams of his tenure were built during his absences (the suspensions in the mid-70s over his conviction and in the early 90s over the Winfield affair), or that the second Yankees dynasty thrived because it never needed to replace its catcher, shortstop or closer again in George’s lifetime.
There was also his love of the back page, even his beer commercials with Billy and Reggie, and of course his obsession with topping anything that would get publicity for the Mets, even in periods when the Mets were in deplorable shape. But while George thrived on publicity and controversy and abused his subordinates, he was also long on forgiveness and charity. Many famous grudges were held against Steinbrenner, most famously Yogi Berra (the Yankees of the late 80s, like the Mets of the late 70s and the Yankees of the late 60s, endured the lost decade that is one’s penance for firing Yogi), but other than Winfield, who George perhaps hated the more because he remained under guaranteed contract, Steinbrenner was not a man to hold grudges; you could be fired today and rehired tomorrow. He loved giving second and third chances to guys with problems (Billy Martin, Steve Howe, Darry Strawberry, Dwight Gooden).
It’s too late, in a sense, to object to the changes Steinbrenner wrought on the game; he was a force for change, and shaped how those changes in the game occurred and were perceived. Steinbrenner was the ideal man for his franchise (while the Yankees lost the aura of classy professionalism they’d had in the 50s, they were always first and foremost about domination), and his adopted city’s tabloid culture (he could never have stayed in Cleveland). Love him or hate him, he was the kind of villain who made sports fun to follow and fun to write about, and the Yankees, yes, a fun team to hate. His controversies will pass; his monuments will be with us for some time.

5 thoughts on “Unbossed”

  1. “Babe Ruth was nothing more than a fat old man with little-girl legs. And here’s something I just found out recently. He wasn’t really a sultan. Ah, what d’you make of that? Hey, check this out. Lou Gehrig’s pants. Not a bad fit. Hey, you don’t think that nerve disease of his was contagious, do you? Uh, I better take ’em off. I’m too important to this team. Big Stein can’t be flopping and twitching.”

  2. speaking of Yogi…
    I watched an episode of Sgt. Bilko last night that had a young Berra and 1/2 dozen other mid 50’s Yankees in it – he was what he was even then.
    (It’s on the 59th anniversary collection disc 3 if you really want to see it – the whole episode is about baseball and Dick Van Dyke guest stars as the uber-talented hick prospect.)

  3. He was the Donald Trump of baseball, and he said “you’re fired” about as often.

  4. Excellent obit, Crank. Really well-done. First thing I’ve read today, in any context, that was both respectful AND honest.

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