King George Rules the Bronx
"If things go right, they're his team. If things go wrong, they're your team. His favorite line is, 'I will never have a heart attack. I give them,'" says former Yankees general manager Bob Watson about George Steinbrenner on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Steinbrenner has a bombastic, calculating and cold side that transformed the Yankees into baseball's foremost dictatorship. The other side of Steinbrenner is the philanthropist and father figure whose good deeds often get overshadowed by George the schoolyard bully.
He has presided over six world championships and ten pennants and his tenure as Yankees owner is the longest in team history. In his earlier years, only Steinbrenner's impetuosity matched his thirst for winning. Nicknamed "The Boss" by the New York tabloids, he changed managers 20 times in his first 23 seasons. Five times he hired Billy Martin, turning the George and Billy show into a stale comedy routine.
After the 1995 season, Steinbrenner named Joe Torre as his manager, laying the groundwork for four world championships and five pennants over the next six seasons. "I think (Steinbrenner) has mellowed over the last two decades," Torre wrote in his book, Ground Rules for Winners. "George is demanding, but I don't think he's the same man who had nasty public feuds with Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield."
Steinbrenner has been suspended twice from baseball, once for illegal contributions made to President Richard Nixon's 1972 campaign fund and once for paying a gambler for information on Winfield.
One of the first owners to utilize the free-agent market, Steinbrenner signed Catfish Hunter and Jackson to huge contracts in the 1970s and is widely blamed for the salary explosion that occurred.
"Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing," Steinbrenner said. "Breathing first, winning next."
He was born into a life of privilege on July 4, 1930 in Rocky River, Ohio. His father, Henry, owned and operated Kinsman Marine, a shipping company, while his mother, Rita, raised George and his two younger sisters in Bay Village, an affluent Cleveland suburb.
From his father, a standout in the hurdles at MIT in the late 1920s, Steinbrenner gained an early appreciation for sports. He played football and ran track at Culver Military Academy in Indiana before continuing his track career at Williams College in Massachusetts.
Steinbrenner graduated Williams in 1952, and then he had a two-year hitch in the Air Force. His duties included coordinating the athletic program at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio.
After his discharge, Steinbrenner launched a short coaching career. He went to Aquinas High School in Columbus, Ohio, as athletic director and basketball/football coach for a year before joining the college football ranks as an assistant at Northwestern in 1955 and Purdue a year later.
In 1956, Steinbrenner married Joan Zieg, and they would have four children. Steinbrenner was asked by his father in 1957 to help run the struggling family business. He accepted, and was given the title treasurer.
Then came another sports opportunity. For $25,000, he and a group of investors bought the Cleveland Pipers of the National Industrial Basketball League, in 1960. The following year the team joined the newly formed American Basketball League and won the championship.
Steinbrenner returned to shipping, taking over his father's business before buying the giant American Shipbuilding Company. The Cleveland Indians were next on Steinbrenner's wish list. He offered $9 million for the team in the early 1970s, but was rebuffed. Then he turned his sights on New York.
On Jan. 3, 1973, he was part of group that bought the Yankees for $10 million from CBS. Steinbrenner and Mike Burke, a CBS holdover, were the new general partners. "I won't be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all," Steinbrenner said. "I can't spread myself so thin. I've got enough headaches with my shipping company."
It didn't take long for him to renege on that promise. Steinbrenner and Burke soon clashed, and the latter resigned after only four months. Manager Ralph Houk survived the 1973 season but then quit. Bill Virdon became the first manager hired by Steinbrenner.
The big story at the time was Watergate. Steinbrenner found himself embroiled in the scandal when it was revealed he made illegal contributions to Nixon's campaign fund. On April 5, 1974, Steinbrenner was indicted on 14 criminal counts. Four months later he pleaded guilty to two -- making illegal campaign contributions and obstruction. He was fined $20,000.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn came down harder on Steinbrenner. Kuhn suspended him from baseball for two years, but the punishment was later reduced by nine months, allowing Steinbrenner back for 1976.
With Martin installed as manager, Steinbrenner's Yankees won the AL pennant that season before getting swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. In the offseason, Steinbrenner signed Jackson to a five-year, $3-million contract, bolstering the lineup and bringing a drawing card to Yankee Stadium.
The Steinbrenner-Martin-Jackson marriage soon became a sideshow. Three strong-willed personalities had difficulty coexisting, but it didn't reflect in their performance. The Yankees won the World Series in 1977 and 1978, beating the Dodgers both times.
The second championship came after Steinbrenner forced Martin to resign for making the comment "one's a born liar and the other's convicted." Martin was referring to Jackson and Steinbrenner. Still, The Boss was hardly finished with Martin, who made four comebacks as manager from 1979-88.
On Dec. 15, 1980, Steinbrenner made another big splash in the free-agent market when he signed Winfield to a 10-year contract that would be worth $23 million.
The Yankees returned to the World Series in 1981. After they lost the fifth game, Steinbrenner said he fought with two fans in a hotel elevator. He emerged with a fat lip and broken hand. His Yankees didn't fare any better, losing in six games to the Dodgers.
The rest of the 1980s continued to be filled with disappointment; the Yankees won more games than any team in baseball but went without a championship. The managerial carousel was on high speed. Among the casualties was popular Yogi Berra, whom Steinbrenner fired in 1985. Berra responded by shunning the Yankees for 14 years. Lou Piniella was hired and fired twice by Steinbrenner. Dallas Green, canned in 1989, dubbed Steinbrenner "Manager George."
Also in 1989, Winfield sued Steinbrenner for failing to pay the Winfield Foundation the $300,000 guaranteed in the outfielder's contract. Steinbrenner then paid Howie Spira, a gambler, $40,000 for dirt on Winfield. Commissioner Fay Vincent wasn't amused. On July 30, 1990, he banned Steinbrenner for life from running the Yankees. Two years later, Vincent allowed Steinbrenner to return for the 1993 season.
After the Yankees lost to the Mariners in the divisional playoffs in 1995, Steinbrenner hired Torre as his manager. The Yankees ended an 18-year world championship drought the following season by defeating the Braves in the World Series. The Yankees then swept the Padres (1998) and Braves (1999) before beating the Mets in 2000. The championship streak ended with a loss in seven games to Arizona in 2001. The Yankees returned to the World Series in 2003, but lost to the Florida Marlins.
During the Yankees' championship run, Steinbrenner settled into the background. But when they didn't win, he showed his frustration and returned to his role of the meddling Boss. Before the 2003 season, he put Torre and his coaching staff on notice and also criticized shortstop Derek Jeter. After the Yankees lost to the Marlins, Steinbrenner took control of baseball operations and alone handled negotiations that led to free-agent Gary Sheffield signing a three-year contract for $39 million.
Since 2003, the Yankees have failed to return to the World Series, disappointing Steinbrenner, who continues to preach his commitment to winning. After New York lost to Detroit in the 2006 Division Series, he was ready to fire Torre, but changed his mind. He also is at the forefront for the construction of a new Yankee Stadium, scheduled to open in 2009. Despite indications of failing health, Steinbrenner remains The Boss, even though he's making fewer public appearances than ever and does most of his talking through his personal PR spokesman.
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