March 25, 2017

There Will Never Be Another Owner Like ‘The Boss’

July 14, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

When I received news that George Steinbrenner had passed away at the age of 80, a wave of thoughts and emotions came over me. A lifelong fan of the Yankees, I was 10 years old when Steinbrenner and his partners bought the team for $8.8 million in 1973 in a deal that now rivals the Louisiana Purchase for one-sidedness. Over the years I grew to simultaneously hate him for his heavy-handed meddling while loving the fact he was willing to invest in a winner. There was no mistaking the fact “The Boss,” as he was aptly named by sportswriter Mike Lupica, was larger than life, even as his mental faculties slowed in recent years.

When he took over the club Steinbrenner was determined to restore the once-proud franchise to greatness, which he did by quickly delivering back-to-back World Series titles in 1977 and 1978, the Yankees’ first in 15 years. What he was really trying to do was make his stern and demanding father, Henry, proud of him. There is no evidence that ever happened.

Ironically, I literally just finished reading two biographies about Steinbrenner: “George: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built the Yankee Empire” by Peter Golenbock and “Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball” by Bill Madden. In between I read David Falkner’s 1992 book, “The Last Yankee: The Turbulent Life of Billy Martin.” I now have a better understanding of Steinbrenner’s Jekyll and Hyde personality as well as greater insights into the complicated love-hate relationship between George and Billy. What follows are some thoughts on what it was like growing up a Yankee fan in the reign of “The Boss” as well as an overview of the two excellent books that have been published about him within the last year.

I can probably sum up the feelings of most Yankee fans by saying Steinbrenner was a jerk, but he was our jerk. When he was calling Hideki Irabu a “fat, pussy toad,” I had to agree with him. Irabu only won five more games after being shipped off to Montreal. When he referred to Dave Winfield as “Mr. May,” it was refreshing to know the owner was willing to hold the star player accountable for going 1 for 22 in the World Series. George didn’t tolerate losing, and we Yankee fans learned to love that aspect of his personality because it meant the team was always looking to improve.

When Steinbrenner aggressively pursued and ultimately signed Catfish Hunter as baseball’s first big free agent in late 1974, it represented a seismic shift in how championship teams could be built. No more waiting for prospects to develop or relying on trades that could backfire when all you had to do was whip out the checkbook. Unfortunately, Steinbrenner could never delegate the major personnel decisions to the hired help, so his teams sometimes underperformed despite regularly outspending the competition. The Yankees failed to make the playoffs every year between 1982 and 1994, mainly because Steinbrenner kept hiring and firing managers and general managers on a whim while signing the likes of Ed Whitson, Danny Tartabull and Dave LaPoint. Those years were pure torture for spoiled Yankee fans to endure, especially because it meant a gamer like Don Mattingly had to retire without a ring.

One has to wonder how many championships the Yankees would have won if Steinbrenner had merely bankrolled the annual free-agent spending without meddling in the decisions. For example, in the winter of 2003-04 he let Dwight Gooden talk him into signing his nephew, 35-year-old malcontent Gary Sheffield, when his General Manager Brian Cashman was on the verge of signing Vlad Guerrero, who was entering the prime of his career at 28. As Madden recounts the tale in his book, George told his front office men, “I’m handling this. We’re doing it my way now. I’ll decide who we’re getting.”

Actually it was always done George’s way, whether it was signing Sheffield or Dave Winfield, trading for stars past their prime like Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown, bringing in Goose Gossage when he already had a Cy Young closer in Sparky Lyle or judging whether the restrooms in Yankee Stadium were sufficiently clean on Opening Day. He was a tyrannical control freak who treated his employees like indentured servants, made them work 52 weeks a year and screamed at them for trivial transgressions. Employees waited by the phone and prayed it never rang.

Steinbrenner always remembered the advice of Jimmy Nederlander, a Broadway producer and one of his original partners in the team who told him in the early days: “Never forget, New York is a city of stars. You gotta have stars!” writes Madden. From Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson to Derek Jeter, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriquez, George always had enough stars for a three-ring circus, and he loved being the ringmaster. After all, he understood successful baseball teams were in the entertainment business.

Steinbrenner craved the attention his bombastic ways created, which is how he ended up as a recurring character on “Seinfeld,” hosting “Saturday Night Live” and appearing in Miller Lite commercials with Martin. As Golenbock points out, Steinbrenner exhibited all the traits of a narcissistic personality disorder, seeing all publicity as good, exaggerating his talents and developing a grandiose sense of himself. When the team won, he should get credit; when they team lost, it was someone else’s fault.

Madden recounts the time Steinbrenner repeated a famous quote from Hemingway: “To be a good loser takes practice,” to which Steinbrenner added, “and I don’t intend to practice.”

He was such an arrogant, egomaniacal jerk it was easy to hate him, until you heard about his many acts of generosity. Steinbrenner viewed himself as an underdog—the kid who wasn’t as good at the hurdles as his NCAA champion father or as successful a businessman as his father. So he was always looking to help out the underdogs he came across in life, people who saw the odds stacked against them.

Golenbock shares a number of anecdotes that illustrate the benevolent side of King George. Like the time he paid for the funeral of a Sarasota man who was killed by a stray bullet, or the funerals of the four children of a Bronx family who died in a house fire. Or the hundreds of kids he paid to send to college such as Tony Fossas, a native Cuban and promising high school athlete who went on to pitch 12 years in the majors.

Madden recounts how in 1982 Steinbrenner started up the Silver Shield Foundation, which paid for the college educations of several hundred sons and daughters of New York City firemen, policemen and troopers killed in the line of duty. As Madden writes, “In the aftermath of 9/11, it paid for 700 more, and after that it expanded its bounds to accept corporate donations. By 2010, the foundation had an endowment of nearly $4 million.”

As Joe Torre enjoyed an unprecedented 12-year run as manager from 1996-2007, it was hard to tell whether Steinbrenner mellowed on his own or by the unforgiving hand of Father Time. Team Turmoil wasn’t exactly a thing of the past, thanks to the addition of the self-absorbed A-Rod in 2004, but the mercurial owner seemed to have lost most of his bluster. Six straight division titles from 2001 -2006 without a World Series ring would normally have sent him off the deep end, with a handful of managers sacrificed for screwing up his handiwork, but the Boss barely let out a whimper.

Leo Hindery, who was hired in 2001 by Steinbrenner to get the YES regional sports network up and running, looked on with fascination as he saw a Shakespearean tragedy play out. When George started turning over control of the team to his sons Hank and Hal, who had been told all their lives they were worthless, Hank quickly pushed aside his more docile brother and seemed to be trying to demonstrate he could be even meaner and crueler than his dad. As Golenbock writes in his book, quoting Hindery: “George was abused by his father, who sent him off to military school. For George it’s ‘I’ll show you, Dad. I’ll send my own kid off to this same military school.’ So instead of being the best parent, George becomes the same parent…There is rudeness and haughtiness and cruelty, and it just repeats.”

Not surprisingly, the Boss picked the perfect time to check out. 2010 is the one year without an estate tax, which not only saves his heirs about $600 million in inheritance taxes, it ensures the family won’t have to sell the team to pay Uncle Sam. For the man who never met a down-on-his-luck person he couldn’t lift up, is it any wonder he made sure his loved ones didn’t suffer an inconvenient downsizing of a business empire he took a lifetime to build. Keep in mind he was nearly broke a decade ago, until he sold 40 percent of the team to Goldman Sachs for $600 million and then started up the YES Network.

It will be interesting to see how the Steinbrenner kids, specifically Hal, carry on their father’s legacy with the team, and whether they will continue to funnel their obscene profits back into the club or even decide to sell the team. Quite frankly, the Yankees could literally double their payroll and still turn a healthy profit, thanks to the twin windfalls of the YES network—by far the most successful sports regional network ever—and the luxurious new Yankee Stadium, a baseball palace fit for a King that shall be forever known as the House that George Built.

In the ultimate sign of respect, the Red Sox observed a moment of silence for Steinbrenner before their game against the Rangers on July 15. The Boss’ drive to win at all costs had forced other teams such as the Red Sox to raise the bar of their own performance or be left to eat the Yankees’ dust. Adopting a similar aggressive mentality toward spending and revenue enhancement has led the Sox to earn two hard-fought championships in recent years after 86 years of disappointment. Even more than the Evil Empire, Steinbrenner had created the Enviable Empire. Sixteen division titles, three wildcard berths, 11 pennants and seven World Series championships in his 37 years of ownership—that’s a legacy of success that will be hard to top in the future.

The two Steinbrenner books complement each other nicely, with surprisingly little overlap in content. Golenbock offers more stories I hadn’t heard before, while Madden does a more thorough job of recounting the highs and lows of the Yankee years. Golenbock offers more detail on George’s formative years in Cleveland, working for his father, attending military school in Indiana, running the sports program at Lockbourne Air Force Base, operating the Cleveland Pipers basketball team and his failed bid for the Cleveland Indians. Madden, on the other hand, offers greater insight into the revolving door he had for managers and general managers and the constant turmoil of the Reggie-Billy years.

Neither book is able to offer a real sense for why Steinbrenner kept going back to the well with Billy Martin. One or two times OK, but five? That’s just insane. If Billy had not died in a tragic auto accident on Christmas Day 1989, there was a strong chance Billy was coming back to the Bronx for Round 6 of his devil’s dance with George. Luckily, I also read Falkner’s tome about Martin which provides greater background on why Billy and George were so dependent on each other, recalling elements of the dysfunctional families they both grew up in. One ultimately comes away with an overriding sense that Steinbrenner put no more thought into his managerial decisions than he did on which blue blazer to wear that day. If the team is underperforming, change the manager or ride the GM a little harder. I mean, only an idiot would fire their manager after only 16 games, especially when it’s a legendary figure like Yogi Berra.

I don’t think Steinbrenner could have got away with hiring and firing Billy five times in today’s 24-7 media storm of blogs, Internet sports sites and talk radio. Growing up, I remember looking forward with great anticipation to Old-Timer’s Day. What trick would George have up his sleeve this year? Bringing Billy back to manage the next year—perfect! By about the fourth time Martin was hired as manager, I was starting to think such managerial shell games were pure madness but as long as the Yankees started winning again I was on board with it. At least George was not going to stand idle while another season went up in flames.

Madden offers a detailed account of the sordid Howie Spira-Dave Winfield affair, and he provides a particularly scathing indictment of the heavy-handed way Commissioner Fay Vincent ignored due process in an attempt to run Steinbrenner out of the game. “I have no intention of cross-examining any of the people that you might call as witnesses. I don’t want the record cluttered with testimony that I don’t think is relevant,”      Vincent told a dumb-founded Steve Kaufman, Steinbrenner’s attorney. He also refused to share his investigator’s report with Steinbrenner’s attorneys, illustrating at every step of the way that his mind was made up before the evidence was presented.

Vincent’s outrageous behavior toward Steinbrenner changed baseball history in unforeseen ways.  Other owners saw how the commissioner treated one of their own, and they had been further disillusioned when he made concessions to the players to settle the 1990 spring training lockout (ironically at the urging of Steinbrenner). They decided they needed someone a little more understanding of their situation. In fact, why not put an owner in charge of baseball? They turned to Bud Selig, owner of the small-market Brewers, whose determination to break the union caused a strike that led to the World Series being cancelled in 1994. And if someone other than Selig had been at the helm of baseball, perhaps the whole ugly steroids era would not have played out in a way that tainted the great records of the game.

After another disappointing loss to the end the 2007 season, the final days of Torre’s tenure as manager are spelled out in detail by Madden, who portrays Torre as an ingrate for daring to suggest his skill as a manager had created the wealth and success Steinbrenner now enjoyed. Although Madden got the date wrong—it was October 2007, not 2008—Torre’s delusional view of his place in the Yankee kingdom was a notable slap in the face that the Steinbrenner of old would not have tolerated.

It’s interesting to know that ex-Yankee greats like Berra, Winfield and Jackson, who all hated Steinbrenner at one time for various transgressions, came full circle in their relationship with him and not just because the Boss mellowed over the years. When he learned about Steinbrenner’s death, Winfield respectfully said, “He has to be considered one of the greatest owners in all professional sports.”  Berra called him a friend and “a wonderful man,” while Jackson increasingly thought of him as a father figure.

No owner tried harder to make his team a winner, even if his methods and his madness often got in the way of his goal. His players generally respected him, except for his ill-conceived trips to the clubhouse to deliver a motivational speech, because they knew he would do whatever it took to field a team capable of winning a championship. But by the early 1990s, great players such as Greg Maddux were turning down George’s money, because they didn’t have the stomach for the constant turmoil and aggravation of being one of his hired guns. Today, all the best players want to play for the Yankees (and not just because they have the most money) so they can play in the venerable Yankee Stadium and take their place among all-time greats such as Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Jeter and Rivera. The Boss had built a sports brand so powerful that even an image-conscious megastar like Lebron James thinks it’s hip to be seen wearing a Yankees cap.

One question I’ve wrestled with over the years is deciding whether Steinbrenner is deserving of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Should his two banishments from baseball be enough to exclude him from Cooperstown? Is it possible to overlook the way he bullied his employees throughout his tenure? Should he earn demerits for all the terrible personnel decisions he made?

Ultimately, it seems necessary to focus on the fact he made it impossible to ignore the Yankees, always finding a way to keep the team on the back pages of the New York tabloids. His win-at-all-costs approach has caused fans in other cities (and other sports) to use the Yankees as a measuring stick for their teams’ commitment to winning. His will and passion to win were unmatched, and may never be matched by any other owner. You certainly have to admire the fact he took a $168,000 personal investment and turned it into a $1.5 billion empire, the most successful sports franchise in history. Along the way he brought up the franchise value of all teams. The Yankees have the most world championships of any team in any professional sport, and they have won the most World Series and have the highest winning percentage in baseball since Steinbrenner took over in 1973.

If someone like Tom Yawkey—who won zero World Series during his 43 years of ownership with the Red Sox and made sure they were the last team to sign a black player—and a bumbling incompetent like Bowie Kuhn can be enshrined in Cooperstown, then surely there’s a place for the greatest owner in the history of professional sports. There will never be another “Boss” like Steinbrenner, and that is both good news and bad.

Chris Jensen grew up just outside Cooperstown, N.Y., and his heroes have always been Yankees. A member of SABR and the Hall of Fame, he now lives in Indiana.

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