Commentary

Hard-driving Boss made a huge impact

Yankees' longtime owner learned his demanding nature from his late father

Originally Published: July 13, 2010
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

Henry Steinbrenner, father to George Steinbrenner, was a hard man to please and he was tough on his son. After news broke that George Steinbrenner, then 42 years old, had worked out a purchase of the New York Yankees, Henry Steinbrenner was quoted in a local newspaper as saying that it was about time George had done something right.

During a subsequent spring training game, father and son sat together and George chatted on and on about something going on in the game; others around them thought George was just showing off for his father. And Henry Steinbrenner turned and told George -- a grown man -- to shut up, in front of his employees.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Steinbrenner
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesGeorge Steinbrenner was the owner of the Yankees for 37 years.

Henry Steinbrenner died in 1983. Twenty-seven years later, George Steinbrenner followed him, on July 13, 2010, at the age of 80 -- inarguably the most famous owner in the history of professional sports, and a man who transcended baseball. George Steinbrenner hosted "Saturday Night Live," inspired a recurring character on "Seinfeld," the most popular sitcom at the time, and his reputation as an impossible-to-please boss would inspire reality television that extended from chefs to designers to Donald Trump, who points a finger and jabs at employees with the words Steinbrenner made famous: "You're fired!"

Steinbrenner's attitude, shaped by his demanding father, was distinctly American. Finishing second was unacceptable. Not only did he want to succeed, he wanted to win with flair; he wanted to dominate, with the best and the brightest players and the biggest stars. The Yankees had a good team in 1975 and he fired the manager, inspired to do so by how he thought the best Broadway shows should operate. He pursued the first significant free agents, from Catfish Hunter to Reggie Jackson to Goose Gossage.

In the mid-80s, he was despised by baseball fans, by some of his own players and by some columnists for the way he conducted his daily business. But after Steinbrenner returned from his second suspension from baseball and the Yankees began their dynasty of 1996-2001, there was a transformation in how the fans and players felt about him. His brash style -- more refined in his later years as owner -- mattered less, and his competitiveness became a respected trait rather than something reviled. Fans called to him at the stadium, memorably, in one of the last years he controlled the team, and Steinbrenner broke down, deeply touched. His drive to win became something loved by his players. Derek Jeter and Roger Clemens called him "Mr. Steinbrenner," and Paul O'Neill and David Cone referred to him as George, with affection.

And he loved his players, and loved their approval. As a boy, he had gone to Union Station in Cleveland when the Yankees came to town, and the image of Joe DiMaggio's luggage was as dear to him as the moment he introduced DiMaggio to Henry Steinbrenner. He controlled the players, he bought and sold them, but they validated him. On a night when the Yankees won a playoff series during the O'Neill-Tino Martinez dynasty, Jeter had snuck up behind Steinbrenner as The Boss talked to some reporters and Jeter mentioned that somebody's hair was just too dry -- and as Jeter poured champagne onto Steinbrenner's head, the Boss giggled, in the way that he might have as a child.

He could be a brutal boss -- a man of small, petty and demeaning acts -- and he also was a man of extraordinary charity. He doled out college scholarships the way others doled out boxes of chocolates, and he honored and included military veterans every chance he could. He screamed at employees, who sometimes thought he was unnecessarily demeaning and ultimately correct in his demands.

When he was about to arrive at Yankee Stadium, somebody would send out an e-mail -- a warning, really -- and everybody would be on their best behavior, making sure any bit of trash that might set him off might be picked up, that the hallways of Yankee Stadium were clean, that everybody would appear to be doing what they were supposed to be doing. As a boss, he was much like Henry Steinbrenner was as a father -- tough and impossible to satisfy.

But George Steinbrenner, as The Boss, accomplished far more than what Henry Steinbrenner ever would have expected from his son. Today might have been a day when Henry Steinbrenner would have felt enormous pride in the impact that George has had, in sports and beyond.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He updates his Insider blog each morning on ESPN.com.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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