The Boss is dead. George M Steinbrenner III died today in Tampa, at age 80. Steinbrenner had been owner of the Yankees since 1973, buying the team from CBS with a group of investors for $10 million. He was at the forefront of the free agency movement, signing players for, what were then considered astronomical sums.
His early forays into free agency were very successful, transforming a franchise that had fallen on hard times back into a perennial contender. In 1976 the Yankees won the AL Pennant for the first time in 12 years and in 1977 they captured their first World Series in 15 years. In 1978, the Yankees repeated their victory, but not without controversy. Billy Martin, the combustible manager, and Reggie Jackson, the combustible star, hated each other and Steinbrenner fought and feuded with both of them. Martin, sick of the entire situation referred to Jackson and Steinbrenner with the memorable line, “One’s a born liar; the other’s convicted.” Martin was forced to resign and the Yankees went on to recapture the World Series.
Those early victories left Steinbrenner with an insatiable thirst for victory. Managers were changed at a whim—Billy Martin managed the club five separate times. No one escaped his wrath, from secretaries and low-level employees who were fired or punished by being forced to work weekends and holiday to stars like David Winfield who Steinbrenner dubbed “Mr. May” for his terrible performance in the 1981 World Series. In 1985, Steinbrenner gave Yankee legend and current manager Yogi Berra, the axe after only 16 games. He took losing personally, allegedly fighting two Dodgers fans in an elevator during the ’81 Series and apologizing to New York City for the Yankees losing that series. As he once said, “Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing. Breathing first, winning next.”
But the constant quest for a championship proved to be self-defeating. As the Yankees constantly sent prospects back on “the Columbus Shuttle” or to other teams in trades for over-the-hill veterans the team slipped back into mediocrity. Things culminated in 1990 when Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball for his attempts to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. When news of his suspension reached Yankee Stadium, the fans gave a 90-second standing ovation and chanted "No More George".
Freed from the constant meddling and threats of Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ rebuilt their farm system. While he was suspended the Yankees drafted players like Derek Jeter and held onto future stars like Pettitte, Posada and Rivera. Steinbrenner returned to baseball in 1993, but he returned a changed man. He still had the will to win, but his methods had mellowed a bit. Managers no longer had to live in day-to-day fear of firing and players were subjected less frequently to Steinbrenner’s temper.
But George still wanted results and used threats when needed. For years he threatened to move the Yankees to New Jersey and the Yankees were also the first team linked to the infamous “West Side Stadium” in Manhattan. But, the Yankees eventually agreed to stay in the Bronx, lured by plenty of tax perks and city concessions that helped them build a shiny, new palace of baseball.
And on the field the results were great as well. In 1996 they won their first World Series in 18 years and they won three more from 1998-2000 with the 1998 team winning an incredible 125 games between the regular season and playoffs. But once again Steinbrenner’s victory at all costs approach led to problems. The Yankees repeated the mistakes of the 80’s and chased older players at the expense of their farm system. Unlike the 80’s, Steinbrenner had changed the economics of baseball to such a degree that the Yankees could outspend every team in the league by such a margin that they could afford the mistakes they made. The team kept making the playoffs, but it didn’t advance and Steinbrenner grew increasingly frustrated.
That frustration led to changes. The first came in 2005 when Steinbrenner gave Brian Cashman control over the entire organization and started rebuilding the farm system. Prior to that, Steinbrenner was the true GM, but his 2005 decision marked the start of his move into the background. The second change was the very ugly and public divorce with longtime manager, Joe Torre. After that Steinbrenner disappeared almost completely, shifting control to his sons. He appeared in a golf cart during the 2008 All-Star Game, crying as he was driven around the field, but was unable to attend the clinching game of the 2009 World Series.
Now Steinbrenner has departed from the stage for good, leaving a diverse legacy. He performed thousands of acts of charity and kindness, writing checks for causes and concerns that he would just read about in the paper. He built the Yankees back into the preeminent franchise in sports, created his own network and a brand new stadium. Yet, his methods and behavior often left much to be desired. He once said that he wanted “He Never Stopped Trying” carved on his tombstone. And he never did, regardless of the consequences.