Steinbrenner Dies: Was the Boss Good for Baseball?

  • Share
  • Read Later

New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner at the Robert F. Kennedy celebrity tennis tournament on Aug. 27, 1977

In 1973, George Steinbrenner, then the new principal owner of the New York Yankees, uttered one of the most comically inaccurate forecasts in sports history. "We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned," he told the assembled media at his introductory press conference after buying the then woeful Yankees from CBS for $8.8 million. From that moment, Steinbrenner, who died Tuesday morning, July 13, at age 80, of a massive heart attack, would become the most nonabsentee owner in the history of sport. His hundreds of impulsive hiring and firings and free-agent signings highlighted a career of meddling that got him temporarily banned from baseball, memorably spoofed on Seinfeld — it even earned him a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live playing a cartoon version of himself. But under his "absentee" reign, the Yankees won seven World Series titles and firmly established themselves as the Tiffany sports team in this country. His club is worth some $1.6 billion.

The Boss changed baseball, and sports, forever.

Was Steinbrenner good for baseball? That question will be endlessly analyzed in the wake of his passing. If you're a player — or a Yankees fan — the answer is an easy yes. Once baseball's reserve clause was lifted in the 1970s and the free-agency era began, it was the Boss who opened up his checkbook, bringing stars likes Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and Dave Winfield to the Bronx. No one would outspend the Yankees, and every overpaid player in baseball today should hand over some commission to the Boss.

Steinbrenner's truculent, the-boss-is-always-right style created epic clashes with his managers and players, not the least of which was with Billy Martin, whom he dumped as manager five times. He even alienated the sainted Yogi Berra, although the two later repaired their relationship. "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," said Berra in a statement. Yet any Yankee fan wretches at the memory of Steinbrenner flops like Steve Kemp, Ed Whitson and Andy Hawkins. One trade made comedy history: Mr. Costanza and thousands of Yankee fans are still bitter about trading Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps.

Not everyone was as forgiving of Steinbrenner as Yogi. In 1990, baseball commissioner Fay Vincent banned Steinbrenner from baseball for life because he had paid a known gambler to dig up dirt on Winfield, who by the end of his Yankee days was feuding with the owner, like so many others before him. (It was Steinbrenner's second baseball suspension: in the 1970s, he pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon's re-election fund. That two-year penalty was reduced to 15 months, and in 1989 then President Reagan pardoned Steinbrenner).

But Steinbrenner would return, triumphantly. In 1993, he memorably posed as Napoleon on the cover of Sports Illustrated after his suspension was lifted. Though an often irrational, and underqualified, talent evaluator, Steinbrenner cared deeply about winning. Even the most cynical Yankee fan could give him credit for his passion.

To fans in small-market cities like Kansas City, Mo., and Pittsburgh, Pa., Steinbrenner is the reason their teams can't compete. While assembling his "Evil Empire" of rich stars, Steinbrenner helped price talented players out of those secondary markets, destroying competitive balance. No question, Steinbrenner's profligate spending helped give richer teams a huge advantage. The complainers, however, need to look at the list of small-market clubs, like today's Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays, who have succeeded through smart management, and at high-payroll duds, like too many New York Mets teams of the past 20 years, who think checkbook baseball will win the World Series. And it's worth remembering that the great late-1990s Yankee teams, which won four titles, were built on the foundation of homegrown players such as Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, and clever trades for blue collar veterans like Paul O'Neill and Scott Brosius.

The Boss was much more than big bucks. He'd needlessly berate a hapless team employee one minute, then quietly give money to local hospitals the next. He'd alienate a legend like Berra by firing him 16 games into a season but give second chances to drug abusers like Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden.

Before Steinbrenner, sports owners were a relatively buttoned-up, civic-minded lot. Now they all seem to be bombastic, just like the Boss. It's somewhat ironic that Steinbrenner died a few days after Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert issued his infamous missive attacking LeBron James upon the basketball star's announcement that he'd take his talents to South Beach. Many fans and commentators were racking their brain, trying to figure out if an owner had ever lambasted a player like that. "Did Steinbrenner even ever pull such a stunt?" they asked themselves.

Not really. Of course, the Boss would never have let LeBron get away.