Bluster and Luster: George Steinbrenner (1930-2010)

Death comes a-callin’ again at 161st St. I just posted this at Baseball Prospectus:

A titan has fallen, and an era has ended. Just two days after legendary Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard’s death, and nine days after celebrating his own 80th birthday, principal Yankees owner George Steinbrenner passed away Tuesday morning due to a heart attack. He had been in failing health for several years, rumored to be suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, and had ceded control of the team to sons Hank and Hal as his handlers increasingly protected him from the glare of the spotlight.

Often a bully and sometimes a buffoon, George Michael Steinbrenner III was unequivocally “The Boss,” and occasionally as unhinged as the British monarch with whom he shared both a name and a numeral. A football player at Williams College and an assistant coach at Northwestern and Pudue, he fully subscribed to Vince Lombardi’s “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” ethos, often failing to understand that running a baseball team on a daily basis required a subtler touch and a deeper reserve of patience than his gridiron sensibility could muster.

Nonetheless, aside from Connie Mack and Walter O’Malley, perhaps no other owner in the history of baseball was as influential or successful over such a long period of time as Steinbrenner was. Beyond the latter, who uprooted the Dodgers from Brooklyn, none gave more ammunition to his critics and detractors, or unified so many in their hatred. Steinbrenner spent much of his tenure as a cartoon villain, and was suspended from baseball by commissioners not once, but twice. Even in absentia, had the foresight to embrace the dawn of the free agent era, and for all of his tyrannical meddling — hiring and firing 21 managers in his first 20 years, and burning through general managers at a similarly absurd clip — he stayed out of the way of what his baseball men built in his absences long enough to preside over four pennant winners and two world champions from 1976-1981, and six more pennants and four world champs from 1996-2003, adding one final victory last October. For all of his notorious bluster — and brother, did he have a lot of it — he was a big softy at heart, quick to put the Yankees name behind charitable causes (even the Red Sox-related Jimmy Fund), and to give people in his organization second (and third, and fourth…) chances, just as he had received. In the end, he was the benevolent despot who restored the luster to the Yankees franchise, turning it into the most valuable property in professional sports, estimated to be worth $1.6 billion.

Like Reggie Jackson, Steinbrenner was a larger-than-life character in my imagination as a youth. He was well ahead of his time with regards to understanding free agency, though he certainly made his mistakes both with that and with how he handled himself and his employees. Ultimately, I think he deserves less credit for winning the championships themselves — the groundwork for which was laid in his absence — than he did rebuilding the Yankee brand, though he could not have done that without a keen understanding that nothing drove value like winning. Pal Steven Goldman summed it up thusly at the Pinstriped Bible:

Steinbrenner’s legacy is obvious: a team which he bought for relative peanuts is now the most valuable sports property in America, if not in the world; a beautiful new ballpark; seven championships and 19 postseason teams. More than those things, Steinbrenner understood something that should have been an object lesson to his fellow owners decades ago: the best way to build a successful franchise is to put an exciting, winning team out on the field. To compete for the New York City entertainment dollar, Steinbrenner knew his team had to be a compelling, can’t miss entertainment. He spent money to get eyeballs, be they on television, on the newspaper pages, in the stands. He knew that in the end those eyeballs would translate into revenue for his team, be it in demand for seats, merchandising, or the most lucrative cable deal in the business, and, ultimately, his own regional sports network. If that meant that he and his limited partners sometimes took home less money at the end of the year, so be it. Comparatively few owners have had such a firm grasp on the basics of baseball: nothing succeeds like success.

About 12 years ago, I first entered George Steinbrenner’s office at the old Yankee Stadium. I had read things about that office over the years, that Steinbrenner had had inspirational mottoes on display there: “Show me a man with guts.” “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” I didn’t see any of those things. What I did see surprised me: countless awards from charitable institutions, many of which benefitted police and firefighters. I was looking for words and I found deeds. I think that gets at the essence of the man: there were words, sometimes too many words, words you would not have had him say. There was anger, frustration, bluster, and yes, sometimes cruelty. But there was also accomplishment. There was an identification with and pride in his team that in these days of transient ownership, corporate ownership, or both, you just don’t see anymore. His was a unique and complex personality, but beyond that, he was the last of the old-time baseball owners, the men who lived and breathed baseball. We won’t see his like again.

Perhaps my favorite epitaph comes from the New York Times‘ Harvey Araton. Back in 1998, after the Yankees had blown the doors off the rest of the league by winning 114 games and producing a team that seduced even this heart-hardened third-generation Dodgers fan, Araton had pleaded with Steinbrenner not to sell out to the Dolan family via an open letter:

Steinbrenner may be a windbag but he’s our windbag. He may call his players ”my kids” and use every cliche in the book, but that’s part of the act many baseball fans and even a few nonfans (let’s not even get into the sportswriters) are used to. I would bet there are more people than we realize who relish the idea that the Yankees’ owner is a character even Seinfeld couldn’t resist.

Yankee fans at least know they can scream at someone when the season falls apart. Good luck to suffering Rangers fans these days, waiting for Dolan to chat up reporters, or go on with Mike and the Mad Dog. For that, he has his basketball and hockey person, Dave Checketts. Can you imagine Steinbrenner fronting for Dolan, parroting the company line about not being able to pursue a player he wants? Not through the first long losing streak, can I.

Dolan, who is mostly interested in addressing his customers via their expanding cable bill, is your classic back-room deal-maker who is generally held accountable for nothing. His Madison Square Garden partnership with the Dodgers’ owner, Rupert Murdoch, should be raising many ethical questions, as it relates to Cablevision’s Yankees bid. At the very least, it is another ominous sign to the big-market owner who is unbound by hidden agendas and potential conflicts of interest.

Compared with these guys, Steinbrenner is practically a peon, a dying breed. He is a rich guy who bought a team for $10 million a quarter century ago to exercise his birthright of megalomania. His primary source of income is his baseball team, which means the Yankees are not just another revenue-producing toy in his corporate playland. The Boss isn’t about synergy. He has one vision, and that is the Yankees’ prominence, for the benefit of his pocketbook.

Above the bottom line, even Steinbrenner’s worst critics have to admit the guy lives for the competition, which counts for much. Dolan, for all we know, gets all his thrills from winning another team’s broadcast rights.

Today Araton reprises that with a piece that’s part of a series of remembrances at the Times‘ Bats Blog:

He was a bully with a big heart, a man who commanded stage and spotlight and was twice naughty enough to be forcibly (though temporarily) removed from it.

He was born into wealth, on third base, but he put together the deal to buy the Yankees without family help and that certainly qualifies him as a self-made sportsman.

Publicly at least, Steinbrenner was the most unreasonably demanding owner in the modern era but he got what he wanted and leaves behind an expanding core of Yankees –- from Reggie Jackson to Derek Jeter -– who would swear on a stack of their own rookie cards that Steinbrenner’s way was the right way.

…George Steinbrenner came, he bought, he conquered. He died as he no doubt wished to be remembered, as a defending World Series champion.

If you lived in New York and rooted for the Yankees, Steinbrenner was your windbag, your rich uncle, your benevolent despot. He won more than any owner of his era, and built the most valuable property in sports, becoming synonymous with the brand in the process. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

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