The Boss is dead. And with his death baseball has lost one of the most bombastic, controversial, and important figures in its long, colorful history.
George Steinbrenner was characterized in many ways during his lifetime: The narcissistic owner who battled with his managers behind closed doors and in the public domain of the press, the tyrant who paid a professional gambler to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield after the player sued the Yankees over $300,000 that he claimed they failed to pay to Winfield’s foundation, the business mogul who built the New York franchise into the wealthiest organization in all of sports, and the Bronx savior that restored the Yankees to their rightful place at the head of the pantheon of the baseball universe, lifting up the city as much with his penchant for generosity as with his proficiency for victory.
All of these things were true about The Boss. He was, at times, narcissistic and a tyrant, but he was an amazing businessman who created a baseball empire that generated more revenue and more victories than any other organization in the game. Most importantly, George M. Steinbrenner was an owner so committed to winning, so intent on putting the best possible product on the field, that despite his behavioral faults he was one of the greatest and most important owners in the history of sports.
The year was 1973. CBS had owned the Yankees since 1965; the team had not won a World Series since 1962 and had not seen the playoffs since 1963. The franchise that won 6 World Series Championships in the 50s and 20 Championships pre-CBS had fallen on disgracefully hard times. Mickey Mantle’s career was ending with no legend to replace him as he had once replaced Joe DiMaggio, attendance was dismal, and the team lingered near the bottom of the American League nearly every season.
But as new owner George Steinbrenner stepped into command, it was clear almost instantly that the days of losing were over in the Bronx. By 1976 the Yankees were back in the World Series and by 1977 New York won the first of back-to-back Championships. There were fights, there were verbal barrages, but most importantly there were victories. Since The Boss purchased the team in 1973 the Yankees have a better winning percentage (.566), more division titles (16), and more World Series Championships (7), than any other franchise in baseball. A number of individuals have won as the owner/owners of the New York Yankees, but Jacob Ruppert never had to deal with free agency or the players’ union.
Over the next few days the full spectrum of Steinbrenner’s character will be examined. On the most basic level, George Steinbrenner was the owner that every fan, coach, and player wants, whether they will admit to it or not. As a businessman, The Boss took a broken product and turned an 8 million dollar investment into a 1.5 billion dollar machine. He took a fledgling team, stripped of their stockpiles of talent by expansion and the amateur draft, and restored a fallen Titan, newly structured for the very different modern era of baseball. Many owners spend money on their teams and don’t win as much as Steinbrenner. The Yankees themselves, owned by one of the largest T.V. networks in the country, could not win without strong leadership. The wealth of the owner or owning party does not directly translate to victories and never has.
Mr. Steinbrenner was volatile, tenacious, and driven. The list of positives and negatives and the derisions and superlatives used to illustrate his character and ownership style could fill a nearly infinite list. But one thing is certain: Any fan that spent their hard earned money on a ticket to Yankee Stadium while George Steinbrenner was the owner of the team was treated to the very best possible product that the organization could provide and, in the final judgment
of the owner of a sports franchise or the CEO of a corporation, that is the highest compliment one can receive. As Tommy Lasorda said when asked about his impression of Steinbrenner, “His philosophy was, those fans pay a lot of money to see our team play. We gotta give them a championship.”
All baseball teams are owned by multi-millionaires or large corporations. Very few give their fans the return on their purchase and their loyalty that George Steinbrenner did. In a capitalist nation where those who grow their businesses and their fortunes are rewarded with praise, it has always been ironic that Steinbrenner was maligned for building the most lucrative team in Major League Baseball. The only time that opposing teams were not complaining about Steinbrenner’s wealth was when the Yankees’ players were stationed in the visitor’s dugout and the seats of usually empty stadiums were full. As the years roll on and the negative memories fade into the distant past, George Steinbrenner will be forever remembered as an icon, a mogul, and most importantly, a winner.
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