Commentary

The Boss belongs in Cooperstown

For better or worse, Steinbrenner changed baseball -- and should be in the Hall of Fame

Originally Published: July 4, 2010
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

This column was posted on July 4, 2010 -- George Steinbrenner's birthday.

NEW YORK -- George Steinbrenner will not be at Yankee Stadium for the commemoration of his 80th birthday Sunday.

But his fingerprints will be all over the place, from the seven world championship trophies on display in the lobby to the outrageous prices at the concession stands to the unforgiving attitudes of the people in the exorbitantly priced seats.

The $1.5 billion ballpark at the corner of River Ave. and 161st St. in the Bronx stands as a monument to the man who built it, and you couldn't possibly purport to tell the story of the New York Yankees without prominent mention of the name George M. Steinbrenner III, and probably in the lead. He is identified as much with the success of this team as Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and Jeter.

"He's done the impossible," said Yankees GM Brian Cashman. "He took an organization with the history of the New York Yankees and improved upon it. He took one of the world's greatest brands and made it better."

To understand the impact Steinbrenner has had on this franchise, consider this: If LeBron James were a baseball player, would there be any question of where he would wind up playing?

And yet, asks Bill Madden, author of "Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball," "Could you write the definitive history of baseball without prominently mentioning George Steinbrenner?"

Well, Major League Baseball is trying its best to do just that at its own repository of the game's history.

Steinbrenner is in declining health and by the admission of his own lieutenants, no longer capable or desirous of being involved in the day-to-day operation of his ballclub. He is, for all intents and purposes, retired, much more a part of Yankees history than of the team's future.

And yet, the veterans committee of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown sees no reason to commemorate the legacy of a man who is as much a part of its game's history as Abner Doubleday or Willie Mays.

In fact, the last two times the committee met to discuss and vote on the merits of a baseball executive for induction, the name George M. Steinbrenner III did not even appear on the ballot.

"It would be a great thing for him to get on while he's still alive," said a Yankees executive who requested anonymity. "But I think there might be some resentment among the other owners. If it's gonna get done, it's gonna take Bud to do this."

Bud, of course, is Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball with whom Steinbrenner has had a curious love-hate relationship. But as a member of the Hall's board of directors, Selig ostensibly is just one man with one vote.

The real power is held by the group of 12: three veteran baseball writers, two former players and -- here's where it gets sticky -- seven current executives, several of whom gladly pocket Steinbrenner's money as part of baseball's revenue-sharing plan but still, it is said, harbor resentment over the way the Yankees, and Steinbrenner, do business.

That deep-seated resentment reared its ugly head at the last vote in December 2009, when Marvin Miller, the pioneering head of the players' association who was pivotal in opening the floodgates for free agency, was denied election by two votes.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Steinbrenner and Bud Selig
AP Photo/Kathy WillensBud Selig and the Veterans Committee should put pettiness aside and make it a priority to get George Steinbrenner in the Hall of Fame during his lifetime.

Of the seven executives, only two voted for Miller, who, like Steinbrenner, represents a part of baseball history a lot of owners would like to forget, or act as if it never existed.

Certainly, the Yankees' biography of Steinbrenner is not an entirely positive one. We all know the stories of bullying and bluster directed at everyone from Dave Winfield to the lowliest office clerk. We know about the felony conviction for illegal campaign contributions in 1973, and the two suspensions from baseball, the second for paying off a known gambler named Howie Spira.

Those, as a Hall of Fame executive quite rightly pointed out to me, can be interpreted as violations of the "character, integrity and sportsmanship" portion of the Hall's entry qualifications, every bit as much as steroid usage can for a player.

And there's no doubt that the culture of Yankee Stadium, populated as it is on a daily basis by affluent fans with no tolerance for failure and little patience even for the slightest imperfection -- they begin to grumble if a Yankees pitcher goes to a 2-0 count -- is merely an extension of The Boss' own insatiable demands on his players and staff.

And yes, there was a time when it looked as if The Boss was willing to sell out New York for a few more bucks, when he used the decaying neighborhood around Yankee Stadium as a threat to move his team to New Jersey if the city didn't help him move his team to a better part of town -- and then went and built his palace right across the street from the old stadium.

All of this is detailed in Madden's book, a meticulously researched and detailed biography that should serve as a reference book to the Steinbrenner Era for generations of baseball writers to come.

As one of Madden's colleagues, who opposes Steinbrenner's inclusion in the Hall, said to me, "Bill wrote the best argument of all for keeping him out."

But if we limited the Hall of Fame only to guys who were exemplary human beings, on and off the field, it would be a pretty empty place. And when you weigh all of his human failings against the ways in which Steinbrenner changed the game for everyone involved, it seems that his story is one that cannot be ignored if the definitive account of Major League Baseball is to be honestly presented.

He, and Charlie Finley, another maverick owner spurned by the veterans committee, were the first to recognize that player free agency need not be a death sentence, but a transfusion for the teams willing to spend money.

Selling the Yankees' TV rights to the MSG Network showed the rest of them how to maximize revenues without being solely dependent on ticket sales, and his decision to create his own regional network became a model that every other team in baseball has copied.

On his watch, as Yankees revenues skyrocketed, so did the fortunes of so-called small-market teams, which gladly pocket as much as $45 million a year of Yankees dough in the form of revenue-sharing and luxury tax. Teams like the Kansas City Royals, whose owner, David Glass, is a member of the veterans committee.

It is people like Glass, and Bill DeWitt of the St. Louis Cardinals, who apparently need to be convinced that the legacy of George Steinbrenner deserves to be preserved in Cooperstown.

You can make the argument that if Col. Jacob Ruppert -- the man who changed the name of the New York Highlanders to the Yankees, put them in pinstripes and built the original Yankee Stadium -- isn't in the Hall, then neither should Steinbrenner.

But you don't compound mistakes of the past by making the same ones in the present or in the future. The veterans committee won't convene again to vote on a baseball executive until December 2011. George Steinbrenner's name can't be left out of the discussion again.

George Steinbrenner will not be in the Bronx on Sunday to celebrate his 80th birthday. But by the time he marks number 81, they should be clearing some wall space for his plaque in Cooperstown.

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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