Commentary

Steinbrenner was, most of all, The Boss

Whether you feared or respected his authority, you knew Steinbrenner was in charge

Updated: July 14, 2010, 2:46 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

The sports world is full of nicknames but it's hard to think of one that ever fit as perfectly as George Steinbrenner's handle, The Boss.

Steinbrenner was a force of personality as much as the owner with the loosest purse strings in baseball. Whomever first christened him The Boss -- a capital T, capital B seems imperative -- perfectly evoked the essence of Steinbrenner, a power broker who affected the machine politics of baseball in the same way politicians like Mayor Richard Daley once ran old Chicago.

Steinbrenner always seemed to rule with bluster and daring, threats and muscle. He was never destined to be a sainted figure in the same way Branch Rickey was. Steinbrenner ran things with an iron hand and sharp tongue. He could be a dictator to work for. But if you were a New York Yankees fan, the way he plowed money into player salaries rather than just his own pockets made him the best owner in sports.

Steinbrenner, who died Tuesday at the age of 80, had just celebrated his birthday on the Fourth of July. The early morning announcement of his death came as baseball was preparing to play its 81st All-Star Game. The coincidence seemed apt. No American sports owner ever courted and collected more stars than The Boss. Though Catfish Hunter and Curt Flood deservedly have starring roles in baseball's history of free agency, Steinbrenner is right up there with them. No owner took advantage of the opening of the market to greater effect. But as players soon found out, he wasn't running some sprucy country club in the Bronx. No owner was more unforgiving about demanding results, too.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Steinbrenner
John Munson/US PresswireAn emotional George Steinbrenner felt the love from the crowd at the 2008 All-Star Game in the Bronx.

In Steinbrenner's heyday it was always a kick to see him come striding down the corridors beneath old Yankee Stadium doing that master-of-the-universe power walk of his, staring straight ahead with an almost maniacal glare, his chest stuck out like the prow of a battleship, cleaving his way toward the clubhouse as the inevitable crowd in the hallways parted. Heads would snap around and players would stand up a little straighter when the door swung open and Steinbrenner blew into the locker room. Usually he'd give the players a little nod as he hung a quick right and headed for the manager's office first.

All of that, of course, was when he was still The Boss, and not yet troubled by the never-detailed health problems that dogged him in his last few years, ultimately rendering that famous voice of his silent.

In his heyday, Steinbrenner was a presence among the Yankees even when he wasn't around. If the team was riding a little three-game losing streak or one of its high-paid stars was delivering puny results, it was often delicious fun to sit back and read the carefully worded, mostly unattributed tea-leaf readings about Steinbrenner's latest mood swings. It was always presumed he couldn't wait to swoop in and make a big gesture to fix things. But the longer he stayed away, saying nothing, not even showing his face, the more wonderfully exaggerated and bombastic a figure Steinbrenner became, and the more inflated his rage and his famous desire to turn things around all grew.

Quite often, no one really talked on the record about Steinbrenner back then. They didn't dare. George was just "said to be" furious and "said to be" wagging a finger and shrieking, "I told you so!" At such times, it was easy to imagine Steinbrenner sitting up in bed in his undershirt in the middle of the night and causing the telephones to jingle on the bedroom nightstands of his GM or manager, who often had to play the additional role of human sandbags or firewalls against disaster -- especially when, say, the Yanks just got swept by the Red Sox and The Boss was "said to be" inclined to trade half the roster or three-quarters of his farm team.

In recent years, current Yankees general manager Brian Cashman would often joke, "The Lion still roars, believe me." Bob Watson, one of Steinbrenner's former GMs, used to crack that we all know what The Boss says when the only thing standing between him and another big name that fascinates him is a little word like Y-E-S.

"If a move works out, it was his idea. If it fails, it was yours," Watson once said.

People often wondered if at least some of Steinbrenner's bombast was an act, but the truthful answer is probably only some of it. He certainly appreciated showmanship (did you know as a younger man he dabbled in producing a few Broadway plays with the Nederlander family?) and he could be a bit of a ham, as his VISA commercials with Derek Jeter or his star turn as host of "Saturday Night Live" showed.

Steinbrenner had a sense of theater too. For years he played a cat-and-mouse game with reporters who would stake out his favored exit from the old stadium when he seemed about to blow a fuse or his latest Yankees manager was dangling by a thread. Most nights Steinbrenner would walk by, eyes blazing with that penetrating, straight-ahead stare of his, and act as though he intended to say nothing. Then he'd pause and fire off some staccato burst of words -- "I'm not happy with the third baseman" -- slam shut the door of his waiting black car and be gone.

Because his health problems became a greater challenge in recent years, one of Steinbrenner's last appearances in New York was at the 2008 All-Star Game, the same year the old stadium closed. That night really did feel like the start of goodbye.

Part of it was the spectacle of the 49 Hall of Famers who had been invited to the game -- all of them heroes once upon a time, but gray and balding now -- making the long walk in from Monument Park for pregame ceremonies. Part of it was the sight of Steinbrenner being ferried around the ballpark in a golf cart to help out at the mound with the first-pitch ceremonies, and fighting back tears as the ovation followed him around the field. Steinbrenner looked like an old man whose life was flashing before his eyes. And maybe it was.

Once the golf cart brought him to the mound, good old Whitey Ford, then Yogi Berra, then Reggie Jackson and Goose Gossage -- past Yankees stars all -- each leaned over and kissed Steinbrenner gently on his cheek.

The game hadn't even started yet, but it was all just another reminder that the old building the Yankees played in long before Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973 was never just about the bricks and mortar -- it was what people did there that made the place so special. And the same goes for Steinbrenner's tenure.

It wasn't just New York arrogance or Yankees hyperbole. He was The Boss, all right. No other major league team won more World Series than the Yankees did during Steinbrenner's 37-year reign. A Tuesday news release from Steinbrenner's longtime publicist, Howard Rubenstein, said that in that time, more than 100 other owners came and went in baseball. The average American might not be able to name three of them. But nine out of 10 probably know who George Steinbrenner was.

Steinbrenner once compared running the Yankees to the responsibility of owning some treasure like the Mona Lisa. Steinbrenner's rapacious desire to win and his habit of plowing money back into the franchise and not just his own pockets made him popular among fans. But if you're judging Steinbrenner's life on style or decency points, that's another issue. Steinbrenner was both the author and cause of some pretty famous lines during his tenure. Mr. October and Mr. May both played for him, remember. The scalding experience of working for him is something that some past employees, to this day, can't joke about.

But as he aged and became more vulnerable, even Steinbrenner's lousy days in office seemed mitigated. The truth is, Steinbrenner was almost anything you want to make him -- tycoon, tyrant, soft touch, scoundrel. Visionary, venal, amusingly self-parodying. He's one of the last pro owners who ran his empire like some idiosyncratic family business, insisting on personal touches like the Gen. MacArthur quotes and clean-shaven players, Kate Smith's rock-ribbed rendition of "God Bless America" and the bald eagle flyovers at Yankee Stadium after 9/11. Remember how he personally wooed David Wells back to the team over burgers in Tampa one year, or how he made Roger Clemens all dewy-eyed by telling him, "I need you back"?

Steinbrenner was called a lot of things over the years -- some you can actually print. He was King George, the Bronx Bomb Thrower, ruler of the Evil Empire, or just Dad to his sons Hal and Hank, who have run the team since 2008.

Most of all, Steinbrenner was an American original.

The one and only Boss.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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