- Bill Nack
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One hundred years from now, when sports historians yet unborn convene to vote upon the most influential figures in the history of baseball, right there near the top of the list -- among the Black Sox and Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Barry Bonds and Marvin Miller -- will be the Ohio shipping tycoon who descended on the game with the all-embracing warmth of the Hindenburg. And surely they will note, among George Steinbrenner's more memorable legacies, the solemn vow he made after he and his partners bought the New York Yankees from CBS for $8.7 million.
"I won't be active in the day-to-day operation of the Yankees," Tycoon George said at the time. "I'll stick to building ships."
Lest we let this moment pass unmentioned, the date was Jan. 3, 1973, and while we did not know it at the time, we had just arrived at the beginning of what turned out to be the wildest, weirdest, damnedest, most colorful and controversial reign of ownership in the history of baseball. Or of any major sport. Steinbrenner, who died Tuesday after a heart attack in Tampa, Fla., at the age of 80, might have been anonymous in Cleveland, his hometown. But in New York, he expanded into a kind of public landmark unto himself, a helium balloon as large and familiar as Yankee Stadium -- hovering over the city like a scold, firing this guy and that, throwing millions here and there, preening and careening, blustering and bumbling, at last bringing to mind Winston Churchill's immortal line about a certain U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, whose diplomatic skills tended toward the gauche.
Said Churchill, "He's the only bull I know who carries his china shop with him."
And Yankee Stadium was George's shop. Whatever you thought of him, good or ill, the fact remains he was the most prominent owner in sports for more than three decades. And because of his dogged, big-money pursuit of free agents, he became, historically, the most important owner of all time, forcing a salary revolution that turned even modestly talented utility players into millionaires. No wonder his co-owners viewed him with fear and loathing. When star pitcher Catfish Hunter became a free agent in 1974, as owners wrung their hands and bayed to commissioner Bowie Kuhn in primal screams, Steinbrenner stepped up and offered Catfish a then-staggering $700,000 a year -- and this at a time when the game's superstars, like Boston's Carl Yastrzemski, were barely making six figures a year.
To the further horror of his fellow patrons, and by now clearly enjoying himself, Steinbrenner then shelled out another $3 million to sign Reggie Jackson to a five-year-contract.
"The reason I'm a Yankee is because George Steinbrenner out-hustled everybody else," Mr. October said at the time.
Those valuable acquisitions aside, Steinbrenner was also sage enough to allow the best horse trader in baseball, Gabe Paul, to make the deals that turned the Yankees into two-time world champions in 1977 and 1978.
Yet the man who had vowed to steer clear of the daily operations of the Yankees, to be a hands-off owner, was forever poking his finger in every pie -- and every eye. Tramping the Yankee clipper like Captain Ahab himself, Steinbrenner was everywhere, bestride the city like a colossus, as no other owner in her history. To those who knew the brighter side of his nature, he was a beneficent philanthropist and father figure with a sense of humor he kept concealed up his sleeve, as though it were a card rarely to be played. To the larger public, though, he was known as an imperious autocrat who seemed to delight in abusing his employees and who ruled the Yankees like the head of a banana republic.
In whatever incarnation, Steinbrenner was catnip to the tabloids, whose news-famished editors regularly splashed him across their front pages. In a doffing of their collective cap, they anointed him "The Boss." He played them like so many violins, using them to publicly scratch and maul his players and managers, and along the way he turned his public fiddling with the Yankees into a metropolitan art. In his first 17 seasons, he changed managers 17 times. He hired and fired Billy Martin five times; Lou Piniella two times. From his glass box at Yankee Stadium, high above the field, he often looked like an unhappy monarch, viewing his team and subjects with a scowl. Twice suspended from baseball, he became the suds in his own soap opera. In 1974, after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's election campaign, baseball suspended him for two years. In 1990, during a feud with his star outfielder, Dave Winfield, he paid a small-time gambler $40,000 to dig up dirt on Winfield. When baseball commissioner Fay Vincent learned of it, he banned Steinbrenner from ever running the Yankees again. But The Boss came charging back in '93.
These gaucheries aside, what truly marked his reign as Boss George was his pathological desire to win-win-win.
"Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing," Steinbrenner said. "Breathing first, winning next."
George M. Steinbrenner first began breathing on Independence Day, 1930, and he did so into a life of privilege and wealth -- the son of a successful marine company owner who had been a star hurdler at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and who later pushed his son into the world of competitive athletics. The father, Henry Steinbrenner, had a bit of "The Great Santini" in him when it came to dealing with his son. George took up the hurdles at age 12; whenever the boy finished second in a race, his father would materialize at his side and demand an explanation.
"What the hell happened to you?" the old man would bark. "How'd you let that guy beat you?"
It was a message and manner that would ring for years in George's ears, as clear as wind chimes, and he spent 30 years replicating those sounds for every losing manager and general manager he ever had.
At all events, competitive athletics -- highly competitive athletics -- became an integral stitch in the fabric of Steinbrenner's life. He ran track and played football at Culver Military Academy in Indiana, and continued running the hurdles at Williams College, from where he graduated in 1952 on his way into the U.S. Air Force. At Lockbourne Air Force Base in Ohio, he organized the base athletic program, and after his discharge, he appeared to be moving toward a career in athletics -- first as athletic director and football coach at Aquinas High School in Columbus, Ohio, then as an assistant football coach at Northwestern University and then Purdue.
In 1957, though, Henry asked his son to lend a hand to his now-struggling shipping business. George left coaching, never to return, but at once he began dreaming of a future as an owner. For $25,000, he and a gang of investors bought the Cleveland Pipers of the National Industrial Basketball League and moved them to the fledgling American Basketball League, where they won the league championship in 1962. They had the Pipers at the door of the NBA but could not raise the $250,000 needed for the entry fee. When the team went belly-up, Steinbrenner lost nearly all he had. To his credit, he refused to file for bankruptcy. In 1963, he took over his father's shipping business, turned its finances around, and parlayed his new fortune into a partnership to buy the American Ship Building Co. out of Cleveland.
With George as president, the company flourished, but sports remained an itch he had to scratch. He was a multimillionaire by the early 1970s when he tried to buy the Cleveland Indians for $9 million. Luckily for him, the Indians turned him away at the door. Looking east, he saw that the struggling New York Yankees, barely a .500 team, were for sale -- and that the chairman of the Columbia Broadcasting System, William Paley, wanted out of the baseball business. Steinbrenner might have been spurned by the Indians, but he got his quick revenge, stealing off with the one Indian the team could least afford to lose: general manager Gabe Paul. Paul brokered the deal that gave the Yankees to Steinbrenner and his partners for $8.7 million, a steal given that the franchise would be worth more than $1 billion in less than 30 years.
Steinbrenner barely had time for a cup of coffee as the new Yankees owner when federal prosecutors nailed him for making those illegal contributions to Nixon's campaign -- a rap he protested on the grounds that, as a Democrat, he was shaken down and forced to pay the money as the price of doing ship-building business with a corrupt Republican administration. As punishment, he not only paid $35,000 in fines to the government, but far worse -- horror of horrors! -- Commissioner Kuhn suspended him from baseball for two years.
Kuhn lifted the suspension early, in the spring of '76, and the first thing Steinbrenner did was go barging into spring training camp in Florida and immediately and loudly order his Afro-coiffed outfielder, Oscar Gamble, to get a haircut. One Newsday sports columnist referred to him thereafter as "Hair Steinbrenner."
The gaudiest show in baseball had only just begun. It ran from opera to soap opera to the just plain sick: To his hilariously running feuds with Billy Martin, who once got himself fired when, in a public reference to Reggie and George, he said, "One's a born liar, the other's convicted." And to his feuds with Don Mattingly and Dallas Green, who called him "Manager George" for his meddling. And to the public bitterness caused by his summary firings of two popular managers, Yogi Berra and Dick Howser -- Yogi eight games into the '85 season, Howser after his team won 103 games in 1980 but was swept by Kansas City in the playoffs. And to the odious running battle with Winfield, which began after the player went 1-for-22 in the World Series in 1981 -- the first season of a 10-year, $25 million deal that Steinbrenner signed him to as a free agent.
Steinbrenner turned right to the tabs and snapped like a turtle. "Has anybody seen Reggie Jackson?" Steinbrenner asked. "I need Mr. October. All I have is Mr. May."
One can almost see and feel the hand of Henry Steinbrenner in all this, the iron fist demanding to know: "What the hell happened to you? How'd you let that guy beat you?"
When the George Steinbrenner history is written at last, one wonders just how much importance will be given to the tasteless sideshows that went on behind the main tent. Surely his most important legacy is the push he gave to the free-agency revolution, feeding his fragile ego as he threw around bags of cash. He was, in a very real sense, baseball's first truly modern owner. Steinbrenner was always in a hurry to win, sensing his father standing at his side. He wanted to win today, not tomorrow, and certainly did not want to wait until next week, or next year. For Steinbrenner, at least in the first 20 years of his reign, developing talent in the minor leagues was a bridge too far.
As patience was not among his virtues, he came to the Yankees at the perfect time -- a time when he could buy anything on the market through free agency. He chased those baubles with a fervency that hinted of monomania. Though initially opposed to the concept, his early experiences with free agency -- through the immensely rewarding acquisitions of Hunter, Jackson and relief pitcher Goose Gossage -- made him a devoutly true believer in what it seemed to promise. In fact, because he had more cash than anybody else, because the winning Yankees were turning into a license to print money, Steinbrenner came to see the playing field as a vast marketplace where he could shop endlessly, the biggest cattle baron in Dodge. Steinbrenner believed in the power of money to build and sustain dynasties, and he was lured by the seductive fantasies of the free market all through the decade of the '80s. Yet as hard as he tried to repeat his successful free-agent picks from the '70s, he failed utterly in the following decade and ended up wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on players' salaries to win nothing. What he often ended up with was a bunch of talented players on teams that had all the chemistry of a tobacco chaw.
So perhaps the most enduring lesson of the early Steinbrenner years was that the game is not for sale, that the unbridled pursuit of the best free agents in the world does not victory guarantee. Looking back, we learned as much from Steinbrenner's extended absences as in the years of his devouring presence. During Steinbrenner's first suspension, in the early 1970s, Paul was free to make a variety of moves, including shrewd trades for Graig Nettles and Willie Randolph, for Mickey Rivers and Ed Figueroa, that made possible the championship years of '77 and '78. And it was not until Vincent banished Steinbrenner -- and wiser baseball minds began developing homegrown players such as Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera -- that the Yankees won again in the 1990s.
Steinbrenner's Yankees won 11 pennants and seven World Series during the 37 years he or his sons were in charge, and no one can deny that he awakened a moribund franchise and brought a keen sense of baseball drama and excitement back to Yankee Stadium. He made himself the toast of New York -- or, perhaps, the official host of New York. Everybody from the rich to the famous -- from real estate moguls to entertainers to politicians -- watched Yankees games with Steinbrenner inside his box: from Donald Trump to Billy Crystal, from Dick Cheney to Rudy Giuliani, from Joe DiMaggio to Bill Clinton.
There is some evidence that Steinbrenner mellowed in the '90s, following his second suspension, and that the run of winning years under manager Joe Torre actually settled and relaxed him to the point that he appeared to enjoy his status as the owner of the most famous franchise in America, once again repeat World Series champions.
In a 1998 story for The New York Times, Yankees beat writer Buster Olney (now an ESPN The Magazine senior writer) said that Steinbrenner was still given to raging temper tantrums, but that the man had clearly learned from his mistakes. "Whereas some players despised or feared Steinbrenner in previous years," wrote Olney, "the '98 Yankees seem to genuinely enjoy his presence, his effect. He, in turn, basks in his players' reflection and adores the attention he is receiving as a result of their play. He loves being loved, and in the Bronx, the 1998 season has so far been a George Steinbrenner lovefest."
Hiring the phlegmatic Torre as manager -- not an obvious choice and one that many observers questioned at the time -- was perhaps the smartest thing that Steinbrenner ever did as Yankees owner. Torre was at the very heart of "Pax Georgiana" in 1998, when he and the Yankees were about to win yet another World Series, the second of four titles in the team's resurgence. In fact, Torre reported that Steinbrenner had never meddled in filling out the team's lineup card and had rarely intervened in any managerial decisions. Far from it, Torre said; the Boss allowed him to run his corner of the Yankees operation with an autonomy never known by any of his predecessors. The two men did speak regularly, but not always about the ballclub. Torre liked thoroughbred racing, enjoying the sport as a gambler, and Steinbrenner had a flourishing thoroughbred breeding farm in Florida. He liked running his horses at major venues, from Belmont Park to Churchill Downs. So the two men often talked about horses.
"I've always enjoyed being around George," Torre said. His 12-year run as manager was three times longer than any other skipper who ever toiled for the man; but like all the other Yankee skippers who came before him under George, like all the others who had hit a rough patch with the team and failed to win, Joe was finally pushed out, too. George showed him the door after the Indians whipped the Yankees in the 2007 divisional playoffs. Surely, as time stole home in the final years, Torre saw the man's diminishment.
Steinbrenner's health first appeared to be faltering in 2003, after he fainted at the funeral of a friend. From there, he began a slow retreat into a carapace of reclusion. By early 2007, he appeared to stumble when he walked and mumble when he talked, and he no longer had any contact with the press. Once the most visible presence in the Yankees organization, Steinbrenner was now a ghost, all but hidden from public view. That year, he was seen at Yankee Stadium on Opening Day, but never again, not until writer Franz Lidz -- in the company of one of Steinbrenner's oldest sportswriting friends, Tom McEwen, got through the gates of Steinbrenner's Tampa home and met him on the front porch. Steinbrenner looked bloated and pale, Lidz wrote in Portfolio magazine, not anything like the blustery entrepreneur of old. Steinbrenner was then 77, and to each question McEwen asked when they first met on the porch, Steinbrenner replied, "Great to see ya, Tommy."
He was out of it, to be sure; his reign as "Boss George" clearly over. And what could be said, in sum, at the end of his run? There is this: More than he loved winning, Steinbrenner hated losing. "I hate to lose," he said. "Hate, hate, hate to lose." So he threw everything he had into the race not to lose those World Series titles -- all his money and energy, his will and fire, all his anger and pride. He seemed to have it all. But did he? What was missing in this manic pursuit of winning was any sense of joy in the endeavor, any hint that this driven man at the top was enjoying himself, any hope that he would ever be satisfied with what the Yankees were accomplishing. Before his players could wash the champagne from their hair, there was Steinbrenner in the manager's office, demanding to know what might be done to make them better. He did hate to lose, you see, more than he loved to win.
"Owning the Yankees is like owning the Mona Lisa," Steinbrenner said.
Alas, sadly, without her smile.
William Nack was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for nearly 25 years and covered stories in a wide variety of sports and on a wide range of subjects. He is the author of three books: "Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance," "My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood-Money and the Sporting Life" and "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion."