07/13/10 2:40 PM ET
Boss will be remembered as a trailblazer
By Marty Noble / MLB.com
And veteran Goose Gossage was moved to respond, "Oh no, not normal."
Such was the way of Steinbrenner for most of his time as dictator of the Yankees. More than anyone else connected with the game's flagship franchise, Steinbrenner was -- to borrow phrasing from Reggie Jackson -- the "straw that stirred the drink." Because of him, the Yankees routinely operated in ways foreign to other professional franchises. The unusual was commonplace for them, the outrageous hardly uncommon. And, because of him, the Yankees were extraordinarily successful and profitable.
Now the impatient and impulsive, divisive and manipulative, pioneering and controversial sportsman who restored and occasionally tainted the Yankees image is gone. The Boss, as he liked to be called, passed away Tuesday morning after more than 35 years as the foremost tyrant in American sport. An unbridled passion, obsessive need to succeed and willingness to do -- or spend -- whatever was necessary passed with him nine days after his 80th birthday and 3 1/2 months after his final public appearance at what now stands as his monument, the new Yankee Stadium.
It had been speculated for an extended period that he had suffered a stroke in the last five years. But no confirmation of that was made. He had at least two fainting episodes in public in his final seven years.
Steinbrenner's death followed, by two days, the passing of Bob Sheppard, the beloved public-address announcer at the old Yankee Stadium.
Almost from the day he and his partners purchased the Yankees from CBS in January 1973, Steinbrenner began to change the landscape of ownership in American professional sports. He did so largely through lavish spending on players, using free agency as no other club did and proving that significant money needed to be invested before enormous profit could be had. But his innovative thinking and uncompromising manner were equally responsible for the success of the franchise.
"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," was part of the an understated statement released by his family Tuesday.
Michael Weiner, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, issued this statement about the man most responsible for the remarkable increase in players' compensation since the beginning of free agency: "George Steinbrenner's passion for the game of baseball helped revive one of the game's most storied franchises, and in the process, ushered in the modern era of baseball business operations. Mr. Steinbrenner understood and embraced the power of the players, and he put this knowledge to good use in establishing the Yankees as one of the sports world's most iconic brands."
Weiner's predecessor Donald Fehr had this to say: "Everyone involved in the game had great respect for what the Yankees accomplished during his tenure, both on and off the field. George Steinbrenner shared the players' competitive drive: his goal was for his team to win. I also had the privilege to work with him on matters involving America's Olympic athletes. He was extremely well regarded for his efforts on their behalf over the years. I am glad that I had a chance to be a part of Baseball while George Steinbrenner was on the scene."
"The passing of George Steinbrenner marks the end of an era in New York City baseball history," read a statement from the Mets organization. "George was a larger-than-life figure and a force in the industry. The rise and success of his teams on the field and in the business marketplace under his leadership are a testament to his skill, drive, and determination."
Steinbrenner's Yankees were pioneers in creating revenue streams. A long-term deal with the Madison Square Garden Network was reported to have brought the Yankees $485 million in the '80s. The franchise later formed its own network, YES, that increased the annual revenue beyond what MSG had paid. A lucrative contract with the Adidas sporting goods manufacturing company was said to be worth nearly $100 million for 10 years. More recently, television outlets have been charged $3,000 for each postgame feed originated on the Yankee Stadium field.
The Steinbrenner way was to use the enormous profits to fund more investments in the roster. Although he did cash in the remainder of the MSG contract in the early '90s, sharing the windfall with his delighted partners and temporarily creating cash flow problems for the franchise, those problems are long gone.
Steinbrenner attained a profile higher than any owner in sport, and not only because it was under his lead that the estimated worth of the Yankees exceeded $1.5 billion and their brand became recognized worldwide. He became internationally known for his successes and second guesses, his hirings, firings and bullying and and his influence within and outside the game that served as his podium. His acts of kindness and generosity went mostly unheralded and flew in the face of his image.
"He was an incredible and charitable man. First and foremost, he was devoted to his entire family -- his beloved wife, Joan; his sisters, Susan Norpell and Judy Kamm, his children, Hank, Jennifer, Jessica and Hal; and all of his grandchildren," the family statement said.
Acrimony and controversy seemingly were the life blood of the franchise during the first 20 years of Steinbrenner's reign; they forever marked his extended run as general partner of the once-staid and stuffy franchise. More recently, the Yankees' manner -- and their successes, no doubt -- prompted Red Sox president Larry Lucchino to identify the franchise as "the evil empire." Steinbrenner focused on the word "empire" and enjoyed the distinction.
Such was his way. A man who fostered ambivalence in almost everyone he touched, The Boss often was perceived as a mad scientist because of his baseball manipulations. He created roster concoctions not necessarily based on the team's needs but rather his whims, insulted his well-compensated advisors, dismissed their input and more than occasionally dismissed them. Nonetheless, the Yankees achieved success unrivaled during his time.
He reveled in the renaissance they executed within the first four years of his involvement and the revival they accomplished in the mid-'90s that reached into this century. He took particular pride is having restored the regality of the franchise, symbolized by the spectacular Yankee Stadium that opened in 2009. The House The Boss Built is only part of his legacy.
During his time as the Yankees' primary executive that ended before the franchise's 27th World Series championship was won in October, the team won six World Series, 10 American League championships and 16 AL East championships. The '09 championship, secured in the palace in the Bronx, was seen as his, however.
Obscured somewhat during his rule was a 13-season sequence -- 1982-94 -- during which the Yankees made no postseason appearances, the longest such period in the club's history since before the franchise's first league championship in '21. Despite Steinbrenner's denials, the crude chants directed at him by Yankee Stadium patrons during those dark ages wounded him like shrapnel and hurt him more than any unflattering adjectives reporters, talk show callers and hosts, players or other owners used to characterize him.
The warm reception afforded him at the 2008 All-Star Game at the Stadium was said to have healed most of those wounds. The public's opinion of Steinbrenner seemingly softened in recent years as his failing health reduced his involvement in the daily operation of the club. He came to be seen more as a Yankees hero, an image he had cultivated and treasured. He received an ovation at the opening of the new park in April 2009 and wept as he had after his reception at the All-Star Game.
Born of the Fourth of July, George Michael Steinbrenner III advocated patriotism, discipline and neat appearance, admired military personnel, football coaches and John Wayne, championed a football mentality and regularly invoked "Yankees tradition" and his sense of the resilience of New Yorkers. He often spoke as if the Yankees' successes served as a salve for the put-upon masses of the Big City.
"With all they have to deal with," he said in 1998, "New Yorkers deserve the best."
And he ceasingly strove to provide it, putting the Yankees' annual player payrolls at levels that left fellow owners aghast and angry, more than $200 million. While he scoffed at paying a payroll luxury tax, he also forced other clubs, notably the Red Sox and Blue Jays, to increase their investments in player development and payroll.
When the Yankees failed, The Boss either distanced himself from the shortfall, vowed to fund success the following season or, as was the case following their defeat in the 1981 World Series, apologized publicly for it. That apology, in particular, rankled his players and, player agents later suggested, contributed to a reluctance among available free agents to accept his millions in subsequent years. No such apologies were expressed following losses in the 2001 and '03 World Series.
In his time, Steinbrenner routinely confronted commissioners, secretaries, umpires, fellow owners, chauffeurs, general managers, shortstops, city and league officials, reporters, catchers, public relations directors, columnists, managers and designated hitters. He butted heads most famously with Billy Martin, the manager he hired and discarded five times; Reggie Jackson, the free agent The Boss "hustled like a broad" to sign; Yogi Berra, the Yankees icon he betrayed; and Dave Winfield, perhaps the most talented player ever in his employ, whom he permanently stained with the epithet "Mr. May."
The Boss' feelings about Winfield and his efforts to discredit his outfielder ultimately led to the second of his two suspensions in July 1990. Then-Commissioner Fay Vincent suspended Steinbrenner for having paid $40,000 to Howie Spira for "dirt" on Winfield. The owner was disappointed with Winfield's performance and claimed contributions by Winfield to his own foundation had not been made.
Steinbrenner regained control of the Yankees in 1993, his return being trumpeted on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was dressed as Napoleon in the cover photograph. Though it was widely speculated that he had some involvement with the club during his suspension, that period is recognized as the time when Gene Michael, a Steinbrenner favorite, made personnel decisions that led to the Yankees' ascent to the World Series in '96 and their four Series championships in five years.
Sixteeen years before Vincent exiled him, Steinbrenner was indicted on 14 criminal counts -- he pleaded guilty -- of making illegal contributions to the re-election campaign of President Richard Nixon and a felony charge of obstruction of justice. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn imposed the first suspension, covering two years. Steinbrenner himself was fined $15,000, and a fine of $20,000 was imposed on American Shipbuilding, his firm. The Boss served 15 months of his suspension and later was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan for his legal transgressions.
Before and after his suspensions, Steinbrenner publicly chastised his best players, even Derek Jeter, discarded pitching coaches like a man with the sniffles discards tissues, and sometimes seemed jealous when those in his employ, particularly Joe Torre, received more credit than he for the Yankees' successes. His relationship with Torre was similar to his relationships with most of the other 15 men employed as manager since 1973 -- hot, warm, cool, cold -- even though Torre's tenure produced a dozen postseason appearances in 12 years.
Steinbrenner made passive Bob Lemon angry, tormented Lou Piniella and insulted Berra to the extent that the Hall of Fame catcher removed Yankee Stadium from his list of places to visit until Steinbrenner publicly apologized to him. The Boss loved Piniella and also Bobby Murcer, the popular Yankee he agreed to trade in 1974. He fired Piniella. He sparred regularly with Martin in each go-round. The friction between them became legendary. Martin's respective condemnation of Jackson and the Boss in 1978 -- "One's a born liar, the other's convicted" -- was classic Bronx Zoo theater.
The Boss was investigated and had others investigated. He paid former FBI men to tail players. He challenged employees with lie detectors tests and was not always familiar with the truth himself. He claimed to have challenged elevator passengers in Los Angeles in 1981. Most often, he challenged his managers and players. Newsday columnist Joe Gergen referred to him as "The Prod of the Yankees."
Over the years, Steinbrenner coveted Big Papi and let the world know he wasn't responsible for the Red Sox getting to David Ortiz. He acquired Dale Murray -- the payment was Fred McGriff -- in hopes of luring Gossage back as a free agent. He signed Davey Collins, though there was no need for Collins' skills. And, after Mattingly had emerged as a brilliant player, he facetiously claimed he had discovered Mattingly as a Sports Illustrated "Faces in the Crowd" entry. The Draft preceded Mattingly's SI appearance.
He caused the terms "Pine Tar" and "My Baseball People" to be uppercased, often used horse racing phrasing when he chastised a player -- "He spit the bit" and "He's a morning glory" -- and regularly invoked the word accountability, using it as a synonym for "blame."
He forbid employees to attend certain events on their own time, punished a secretary in Spring Training by revoking her rental car privileges and once, with his shoes and socks removed and his slacks rolled up, he raked the outfield grass in Fort Lauderdale to help prepare a wet field for an exhibition game. Most memorably was his directing traffic in the players' parking lot adjacent to the old Stadium. He was confident his way was better, and no one argued with him.
He regularly pursued and occasionally signed players without notifying his general manager and once negotiated a uniform number for me-first Deion Sanders. He called media relations directors at all hours, called managers during and immediately after games, promised to return phone calls if he was contacted before 8 a.m. -- and kept his promise, sometimes.
He supported Phil Rizzuto for Hall of Fame election. His loud advocacy was a double-edged sword.
He had flowers sent daily to George Bamberger while the then-Brewers manager recovered from bypass surgery. "Maybe he wanted me to be one of his pitching coaches," Bamberger said. The Boss provided private flights for reliever George Frazier to see his ill father and advanced salary to Mickey Rivers. He saw himself as a father figure to some of his employees. He thought he discovered Michael. He hired his college roommate and gave him a job with no discernible responsibilities. In 1974, he sent personally signed Christmas cards to reporters covering the team. He purchased a shirt for one reporter because he said it was the style the reporter favored.
Steinbrenner enjoyed bringing former Mets icons -- Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Lee Mazzilli and, as an announcer, Tom Seaver -- to his side of town. He banished those who performed poorly against the Mets -- in Spring Training games. He offended the Mets when he had more comfortable furniture brought to the visiting clubhouse at Shea Stadium during the 2000 World Series. He afforded Strawberry and Gooden multiple second chances. He funded others.
Most of all, he made news, distorted it or fabricated it -- or he held his news until the Mets were poised to make a splash. Only after Steinbrenner learned they were to announce a trade for Gary Carter did the Yankees announce plans to reduce the dimensions of Death Valley. He ordered untested pitcher Gene Nelson added to the Opening Day roster in 1981 to offset the Mets' plan to carry Spring Training phenom Tim Leary. Three years later, Jose Rijo was rushed to the big league as a response to the emergence of Gooden.
"He entertains himself with some of the things he does," Gossage once said.
The Boss favored some newspapers and some reporters, used some and ignored others. Yankees beat writers often were worn out. They measured time in "Yankee years," always expecting and sometimes fearing a story that would occupy them for days or even weeks. The "Pine Tar Game," replete with legal wrangling at the Bronx County Court House and the firing/resignation of Howser were prime examples of The Boss being The Boss.
A columnist once wrote "Everyone who considers himself a baseball writer ought to have the experience of covering the 1977 Yankees. No one should have to do it twice in a lifetime." The Boss tried and at least temporarily succeeded in having certain newspaper reports quashed. Ed Bradley interviewed five newspaper men for a "60 Minutes" segment on Steinbrenner. Their candid comments, most of them not complimentary, were not used. One that painted Steinbrenner in a more positive light was.
A slow news day during Spring Training, usually Steinbrenner's most active period, was rare. "The Yankees provide [stories]," reporters said. Steinbrenner claimed a high degree of ignorance concerning Bob Dylan, but cackled when a reporter linked Dylan's song "My Back Pages" to him. The Boss liked to think he controlled them too. In Spring Training of 1987, he declined to answer reporters' questions unless they were written.
The Yankees signed Jim "Catfish" Hunter on New Year's Eve 1974; Steinbrenner was almost as gleeful about upsetting the evening plans of his staff and reporters as he was landing the prized pitcher.
During his most conspicuous years, Steinbrenner often was seen wearing a white turtleneck and blue blazer. A Yankees windbreaker also was favored. His hair wasn't short, but in place at all times except after he had been doused with October champagne. He was something less than burly, but he wasn't thin. Gossage, angered by a pervasive negativity he blamed on The Boss and the media, once told reporters they could "take it to the fat man upstairs."
Graig Nettles, barely recovered from hepatitis, ran out an inside-the-park home run in a 1980 playoff game. Afterwards, when Steinbrenner kidded him about how difficult the run had been, Nettles quipped "Yeah, it felt like I was carrying you."
Steinbrenner could take a joke and often did. Witness the SI cover and his hosting Saturday Night Live during the 1990 World Series. He acknowledged enjoying how he was spoofed in "Seinfeld" and roared when he was roasted by the Shriners in '80 and by the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. He enjoyed and also bristled about of the work of famed New York Daily News sports cartoonist Bill Gallo who created helmeted "General von Steingrabber" as his Steinbrenner character in countless comic commentaries.
Players referred to him in various ways -- The Crazy Man, The Schizophrenic, Good Cop, Bad Cop. But most of them, even those who left the Yankees in a huff, came to appreciate him and his generosity. Even Rick Cerone, the catcher who gave a verbal finger to Steinbrenner in 1981, had compliments for him in subsequent years.
"He's everything you want in an owner and less," reliever Dick Tidrow once said, using phrasing from a Miller Lite commerical. "And the next day he's everything you wanted in an owner and more."
Good, bad and -- on rare occasions -- indifferent, there always was more of The Boss.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.