Steinbrenner, iconic Yankees owner, dies
'Boss' rebuilt franchise, embraced free agency, won seven titles
George M. Steinbrenner, the principal owner of the New York Yankees since 1973 who returned the storied franchise to prominence both on and off the field and won seven World Series titles, died Tuesday. He was 80.
Steinbrenner passed away at his home in Tampa, Fla. The Steinbrenner family confirmed his passing in a statement issued by the Yankees.
"He was an incredible and charitable man," the family said in the statement. "He was a visionary and a giant in the world of sports. He took a great but struggling franchise and turned it into a champion again."
Steinbrenner was the longest-tenured owner in Major League Baseball. Through his purchase of a downtrodden Yankees franchise in 1973, Steinbrenner became one of the game's best-known personalities; a demanding type who earned the long-standing nickname, "The Boss."
Steinbrenner's passing occurred eight months after the Yankees celebrated their 27th World Series title and first since 2000, a victory they dedicated to Steinbrenner. As the team hoisted the championship trophy over the infield at Yankee Stadium, they did so under a graphic that read, "This one's for you, Boss."
"On behalf of Baseball, I am very saddened by the passing this morning of George Steinbrenner," said Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig. "George was a giant of the game, and his devotion to baseball was surpassed only by his devotion to his family and his beloved New York Yankees. He was and always will be as much of a New York Yankee as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and all of the other Yankee legends.
"I have known George ever since he entered the game in 1972. He was my dear friend for nearly four decades. Although we would have disagreements over the years, they never interfered with our friendship and commitment to each other. Our friendship was built on loyalty and trust and it never wavered. We were allies and friends in the truest sense of the words."
A moment of silence took place prior to Tuesday night's All-Star Game at Angel Stadium, and Yankees players will don commemorative uniform patches to honor Steinbrenner for the rest of the 2010 season. The patches will be worn over players' hearts.
"I think he's a father figure to everyone that was in our organization in the past or present, because he really took care of his players," said Yankees captain Derek Jeter. "Whether it was a player that's on the team now or someone that played for a week 30 years ago, he really went out of his way to take care of the players."
In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that all flags would be lowered in City Hall Plaza to honor Steinbrenner's achievements and impact on the city.
"This is a sad day not only for Yankee fans, but for our entire city," Bloomberg said. "Few people have had a bigger impact on New York over the past four decades than George Steinbrenner."
Steinbrenner's leadership style was perhaps best represented by a plaque he enjoyed having sit upon his desk at Yankee Stadium, which read: "Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way." Steinbrenner led, and it was up to his employees to decide between their other two choices.
"George was The Boss, make no mistake," said Yankees legend and Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. "He built the Yankees into champions and that's something nobody can ever deny. He was a very generous, caring, passionate man. 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."
Born on July 4, 1930, in Rocky River, Ohio, Steinbrenner grew up in the Cleveland suburb of Bay Village and established his connections to the sports world at an early age, as a multi-sport athlete at Culver Military Academy in Indiana and at Williams College, from which he graduated in 1952.
Steinbrenner served two years in the Air Force before launching a coaching career, first at Aquinas High School in Columbus, Ohio, before accepting football assistant coaching positions at two Big Ten schools: Northwestern in 1955 and Purdue in 1956.
Preceding his purchase of the Yankees at age 42, Steinbrenner built his fortune with the American Ship Building Company. He briefly owned the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball Association and flirted with acquiring both an NBA franchise and the Cleveland Indians baseball club before ultimately landing his treasured prize in the Bronx.
"Owning the Yankees," Steinbrenner once said, "is like owning the Mona Lisa."
On Jan. 3, 1973, a group headed by Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees from CBS, the Columbia Broadcasting Company, for a net of $8.7 million, re-injecting funds -- and more important, hope -- into a franchise that had fallen into a period of dormancy during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
At a press conference announcing the deal, Steinbrenner famously told reporters that he did not intend to be a hands-on owner, a statement that Steinbrenner himself would later laugh at.
"We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned," Steinbrenner said. "We're not going to pretend we're something we aren't. I'll stick to building ships."
Instead, Steinbrenner helped the Yankees build a dynasty through heavy utilization of the free-agent market. Though once critical of free agency, saying that it could "ruin baseball," Steinbrenner soon became one of its biggest proponents.
Pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter received a record-setting $3.35 million contract in 1974, and slugger Reggie Jackson netted a five-year, $3.5 million deal after the 1976 season.
Steinbrenner brokered deals with stars face-to-face, famously leading Jackson through the streets of Manhattan during their courtship, where Steinbrenner let the city ooze its star power. It took Steinbrenner just five years to turn the Yankees into World Series champions once again.
Steinbrenner's ownership of the Yankees spanned seven championships, 11 American League pennants and two dynasties, one of which -- the team's run of two World Series victories and three appearances from 1977-1981 -- is remembered as the controversial "The Bronx Zoo" era.
In that time period, Steinbrenner became famous for his headline-grabbing statements and frequent changes of managers and general managers, all in relentless pursuit of a victorious Major League club.
"Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing," Steinbrenner once said. "Breathing first, winning second."
In his first 23 seasons, Steinbrenner switched managers 20 times -- including hiring and firing Billy Martin on five occasions -- and went through 11 general managers in 30 years.
"He's the one that really made the words, 'You're fired!' fashionable," said Hall of Fame outfielder Dave Winfield. "Donald Trump just branded it and marketed it. He was doing it long before Donald Trump."
The payoff came in the form of back-to-back World Series titles over the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1977 and '78, the Yankees' first consecutive titles since '61 and '62.
The Yankees also appeared in the 1981 World Series against Los Angeles, though the end result was unacceptable to Steinbrenner, who issued a public apology to the city of New York for the six-game defeat.
"George was like a father figure to me," said Cubs manager Lou Piniella, a former Yankees player and two-time manager who, like Steinbrenner, was a Tampa resident. "He treated me well, he treated me fair and he gave me a wonderful opportunity to play and manage the game we all love.
"George will be remembered as one of the most influential and renowned owners of a franchise in sports history. He leaves a legacy of winning and an unwavering passion for success. My wife Anita and I send our heartfelt thoughts and prayers to the Steinbrenner family and the Yankees' organization. George was very special to me and I loved him."
The Yankees did not win a World Series championship throughout the 1980s, the first decade since the 1910s in which they failed to do so. New York's more recent dynasty of four World Series championships from 1996-2000 was constructed behind a decidedly more hands-off approach.
Joe Torre lasted as manager for 12 seasons, and a blossoming farm system allowed the Yankees to reap the rewards of developing players like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams to great success, while still adding free agents to round out talented rosters.
"I will always remember George Steinbrenner as a passionate man, a tough boss, a true visionary, a great humanitarian, and a dear friend," Torre said on Tuesday. "I will be forever grateful that he trusted me with his Yankees for 12 years. My heart goes out to his entire family. He will be deeply missed in New York, Tampa and throughout the world of baseball. It's only fitting that he went out as a world champ."
Steinbrenner's ownership of the Yankees was by far the longest of any owner in the storied franchise's history, exceeding the stewardship of Col. Jacob Ruppert, who purchased the club in 1915 and served as owner for 24 years until his death in January 1939.
"Today we lost a great person, a great leader and a great American," said Yankees president Randy Levine. "There will never be anyone like George Steinbrenner. He was a winner."
Steinbrenner's reign endured its share of controversy. In 1974, Steinbrenner was suspended by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for two years, 15 months after pleading guilty to a felony crime of making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. The suspension was later reduced to nine months.
In July 1990, Steinbrenner was handed a lifetime ban from baseball by Commissioner Fay Vincent for paying $40,000 to a gambler named Howie Spira in exchange for damaging information about outfielder Dave Winfield. Steinbrenner's ban was lifted by Vincent in March 1993, allowing Steinbrenner to resume his role as general partner of the club.
"I don't begrudge either Commissioner that suspended me," Steinbrenner told the Sporting News in 1998. "I have no ill feelings for either Bowie Kuhn or Fay Vincent. They did what they felt they had to do. I'm not saying that they were right, but they felt they had to do it and they did it. I put that behind me. I've moved on."
Steinbrenner was a brilliant capitalist behind closed doors and changed the face of the Yankees again in 2002 with the formation of the YES Network. Regional television deals created new revenue streams for the organization, swelling the value of the team past $1 billion, allowing the pursuit of even more talented players.
"He was really passionate about the game and for many, many years, spent the most money to try to bring the best players in the world to play for his organization," said Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who signed a 10-year, $275 million deal after the 2007 season.
In 2002, Steinbrenner was honored with the Gold Medal Award from the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame for a lifetime of "outstanding commitment, dedication and dynamic leadership in both his business and personal lives." It is the highest and most prestigious award bestowed by the College Football Foundation.
Steinbrenner was also known for his support of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Steinbrenner served on the NCAA board of trustees, was chairman of the U.S.O.C. Foundation from 1997 through 2002 as well as the Olympic Overview Commission in 1988 and '89, which was created to evaluate the structure and efforts of the United States Olympic program.
Many of Steinbrenner's philanthropic endeavors were performed without fanfare. However, he was repeatedly recognized by the communities in which he immersed himself. In March 2008, Steinbrenner tearfully attended the renaming of the Yankees' Spring Training facility to George M. Steinbrenner Field, following unanimous resolutions by the Tampa City Council and the Hillsborough County Commissioner's Office.
In autumn 2009, George M. Steinbrenner High School was opened in Lutz, Fla. The school was named after Steinbrenner by the Hillsborough County School Board in recognition of his philanthropic involvement in the community, particularly with the school system.
"In the end," Steinbrenner once said, "I'll put my good acts up against anybody in this country. Anybody."
He had endured public health scares in recent years, limiting his public commentary mostly to pithy statements released through his longtime publicist, Howard Rubenstein. In 2007, Steinbrenner passed control of the Yankees' day-to-day operations to his family, acknowledging his stepping down by saying, "It's time to let the young elephants into the tent."
Steinbrenner's final legacy was completed in 2009 with the opening of a dazzling new $1.6 billion Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, replacing their old facility just across 161st Street in the first-class image that Steinbrenner has demanded the Yankees represent.
Steinbrenner's final appearance at Yankee Stadium was on Opening Day of this season, when manager Joe Girardi and Jeter took the elevator ride up to the owner's suite and presented Steinbrenner with his 2009 World Series ring.
"It was a great experience. It was fun," said Jeter. "And I got a chance to tease him because he had an Ohio State ring on. I told him to take it off now and place it with the Yankee ring. Those are the memories that you remember."
The "House that Ruth Built" may have been the Stadium that Steinbrenner called his office, but the one that the Yankees will occupy for the foreseeable future is, clearly, "The House that the Boss Built."
He is survived by his wife, Joan; sisters Susan Norpell and Judy Kamm, children, Hank, Hal, Jennifer and Jessica; and his grandchildren.
Steinbrenner's funeral, which the family said will be private, reportedly is likely to be held on Saturday. Memorials are expected to be held at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa and later in New York, probably at Yankee Stadium.
In lieu of flowers, the Steinbrenner family requested that donations be made to the following charities:
The Silver Shield Foundation
866 United Nations Plaza, Suite 307
New York, NY 10017
Special Operation Warrior Foundation
P.O. Box 13483
Tampa, FL 33681-3483
The Gold Shield Foundation of Tampa
P.O. Box 271791
Tampa, FL 33688-1791
Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay
1307 North MacDill Avenue
Tampa, FL 33607
In support of Bronx based Boys and Girls Clubs
Boys and Girls Club of America (Northeast)
5 Hanover Square, 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10004-2657
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.