For the first time in nearly four decades, baseball will welcome Opening Day without the presence of George Steinbrenner — neither front and center, as he was for most of his tenure as owner of the New York Yankees, nor behind the scenes, as he was during his late illness and two suspensions from the game. Once reviled as the man who had destroyed the New York Yankees, the Boss was lauded as the greatest sports owner in history when he died at 80 last July. While baseball’s Hall of Fame rejected him in December for inclusion, he’ll be enshrined eventually — and deservedly. His influence was vast, even if it contained as many, if not more, negatives as positives.
None deny that Steinbrenner’s purchase of the New York Yankees in 1973 for just $10 million represented a turning point for the franchise, which had languished in mediocrity and passive leadership for a decade. The Yankees recaptured their World Series form in the late 1970s, and then, after a long middle period of frustration and scandal, the team won four World Series in five years in the late 1990s. The Bronx Bombers broke attendance records, created their own Pravda-like broadcasting network, and became an unmatched global brand. In 2009, the team opened its $1.5 billion new Yankee Stadium and christened the place with yet another World Series victory. By then, Steinbrenner’s health was failing, and he had relinquished everyday control of the team to his sons. His passing left no sense of incompleteness. He had restored the franchise of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle to its preeminent position in American sports.
In the city where being top dog is immortalized in song, Steinbrenner earned respect even from critics for pouring so much of his money back into his team — all in the effort to produce winners. New Yorkers came to love him for that, and his memorable caricature on Seinfeld, which managed to make his obsessive personality into something endearing and goofy, also tracked the change in the city’s view of him from villain to venerable. He was hellish to work for, making 20 managerial changes in his first 23 years as owner and terrorizing low-level Yankee employees merely with his arrival at the stadium. But underneath the fury lurked a philanthropist: long before 9/11, he helped support the families of fallen cops and firemen, and he mandated free admission to Yankee Stadium for all uniformed military. Rudy Giuliani said that Steinbrenner would often call him when he was mayor, asking how to make anonymous donations to hard-luck people he had read about in the newspaper. When it came to baseball, Steinbrenner had a sentimental streak, too. He loved doling out second chances to fallen stars and bad boys like Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. Even the managers he fired seemed to stay on with the organization, drawing sinecures as “Yankees for life.”
Steinbrenner’s arrival in New York preceded by just a few years the players’ historic court victory ensuring their rights to become free agents. Instead of being permanently bound to their teams (or until they were traded), they could negotiate their own deals with interested teams once their contracts were up. Few recent labor disputes have been less ambiguous: the decision was a triumph for economic freedom. But economic freedom in baseball, as elsewhere, did not bring unadulterated fruits. Player salaries leaped, then skyrocketed, then disappeared beyond the horizon. As players jumped from team to team, fans’ loyalties were compromised and sports cynicism was born. Baseball’s old guard of owners, some of whom still made their livings from the game — stubborn grinders like Minnesota’s Calvin Griffith, Whitmanesque court jesters like Chicago’s Bill Veeck — disappeared, unable to pay the new going rates. New-breed owners like Chicago’s Eddie Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf spoke of broadcasting their teams’ games in the strange new universe known as cable TV. People scoffed; then they paid the bill. The money rolled in for the players and the owners. Grand old ballparks gave way to lavish new stadiums, most (save Yankee Stadium) taking the depressing names of their corporate sponsors, who paid huge sums to secure naming rights.
At the center of it all was Steinbrenner, his obsession with winning, and that obsession’s symbiotic relationship with money: you needed more money to win, and when you won, you could make still more money. (For the players, performance-enhancing drugs would satisfy both ends of that equation.) The more George spent, the more he seemed determined to spend, especially when — as was the case in 30 of his 37 years as owner — the Yankees failed to win the World Series. These “failures” never taught him that reckless investment cannot create success like a mathematical formula, and he never appreciated the delicate interplay between players and coaches that forms so much of any sports team’s success (and no small part of its enjoyment for fans). For Steinbrenner, if he could will it, others could achieve it.
IN THE NINETIES, the Yankees rose to the top again under manager Joe Torre, going on a historic run. Those teams spoiled everybody, especially Steinbrenner. He started to believe that they really could win the World Series every year, and soon enough, this expectation defined Yankee fans’ consciousness. For Yankee players, every season became a kind of death dance, where any step short of perfection brought doom. Even the team’s most revered player, Derek Jeter, often says that only winning the World Series counts as a success — apparently unaware of the effect this outlook has on young fans, to say nothing of the antics of Steinbrennerized sports parents around the nation. The Boss was loved, hated, feared, and envied, but above all he was emulated.
The emulation is ironic, considering that Steinbrenner gets too much credit for the Yankees’ on-field success. For most of his reign, the team succeeded despite his chaos brand of leadership, not because of it. In the eighties, the Yankees won no championships amidst his madcap hirings and firings of managers and his shuttling of high-priced players in and out of the Bronx. What made the glory years of the late nineties possible was Steinbrenner’s second suspension from baseball (his first had been for making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign). In probably the ugliest episode of his career, Steinbrenner paid a hapless gambler $40,000 to defame one of his stars, Dave Winfield, with whom he was engaged in a bitter dispute. During his exile, rational baseball men made shrewd judgments, and the young core of the great teams to come developed free of his interference. When he returned, Steinbrenner had learned enough to curb his most destructive instincts. Only then was he embraced as the Old Lion.
This past winter, many felt the Old Lion’s absence when the Yankees embroiled themselves in negotiations with Jeter for a new contract. They eventually reached terms, but not before Yankees executives needlessly denigrated the team’s captain in multiple public comments. It was another irony of the Boss’s passing that the organization now seemed to lack heart. Beware the stewardship of a great man’s sons: they know all about the levers but little of the gears.
The new Yankee Stadium is often called the House That George Built, an update on the original’s moniker as the House That Ruth Built. Yet the new stadium may be the Boss’s most objectionable legacy. For all of his bluster about “Yankee tradition,” he demolished one of the world’s most renowned sports shrines — after first threatening to build on the West Side of Manhattan or even in New Jersey, of all things. It was another victory for the Bigger and Newer Is Better gospel that governs so much of the national imagination. Only in America could an 85-year-old structure containing so much history and linked to enduring figures in our popular culture be viewed as expendable.
From the most accessible vantage points of a success-mad society — money, fame, victory — George Steinbrenner, a shipbuilder’s son, was certainly a great builder for the New York Yankees. But like great creators before him, he leaves destruction in his wake.