“I will never have a heart attack—I give them,” once said George Steinbrenner, the endlessly quotable owner of the New York Yankees, off and on, since 1973.
On July 13, he finally had one. Steinbrenner, 80, died of a heart attack at his home in Tampa, Fla.
On the New York networks, he was lionized and hailed as a runaway success who was brash and unapologetic; the man who brought the Yankees out of their nadir in the late ’60s and early ’70s and made them champions.
He would have been plenty pleased with the coverage. “George was a totally new invention,” said Peter Golenbock, author of George: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built the Yankee Empire (Wiley, 2009) and the 1979 classic about the early Steinbrenner days, The Bronx Zoo (Outlet). “He was an owner who wanted to see his name in the paper every single day. He was the sort of guy who didn’t care that much whether he was praised or lambasted. He just wanted to see himself in the paper every day.”
If the Yankees today, with their outlandishly high payroll of $200 million–plus and their $1.6 billion value and their $1 billion new stadium and their history and their rings, are the Evil Empire, Steinbrenner was their guiding force. He has at times been loathed equally by fans and by the baseball world—he was once socked with the same lifetime ban from the game as Pete Rose and Joe Jackson after he hired a bookie to get dirt on Dave Winfield, only to have the ban lifted and return to the Yankees. This is the man who oversaw the exile of Yogi Berra from the Yankees family; who feuded with legends like Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson and Joe Torre; and who took a proud franchise and made it a laughingstock by rotating more than a dozen managers in and out of the Bronx. And yet this is also the man who won. “Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing,” Steinbrenner once said. “Breathing first, winning next.”
Since he bought the team, Steinbrenner won more titles than any other owner in New York sports. The Giants have won three times, the Rangers once, the Mets once. During the time Steinbrenner owned the Yankees, they won the World Series seven times, and 11 American League pennants. “He was a guy who if he ran a newspaper or a shipbuilding firm or a baseball team, it would have been successful,” Gay Talese said of Steinbrenner. “He never left anything to chance. He was on top of everything.”
He was, in many ways, a quintessentially complicated New York leader. If Robert Moses rebuilt the city and left behind an amazingly mixed, even ugly, legacy, Steinbrenner did the same. He led on his terms, no matter the cost.
“There were people whose budget for public relations was a total waste,” said Talese, who compared Steinbrenner to Moses and Abe Rosenthal, the imperious and legendary former editor of The New York Times. “They didn’t know how to behave beyond what they were. They didn’t have a capacity to spin anything. They were so incontrovertibly who they were. They didn’t make a secret of it.
“Abe Rosenthal loved Steinbrenner, too,” Talese continued. “And there was kind of a similarity in personality—a great editor, but someone who was loathed up and down and on every floor of the building.”
By time the ’90s rolled around, Steinbrenner seemed softer, even a little kinder. Hotheads such as Jackson and Martin were replaced by cool-headed leaders such as Derek Jeter and Torre. Even Phil Rizzuto and Bill White, two wacky announcers in the 1970s, are long gone, replaced by the painfully serious Michael Kay. And then, in 1999, fences were mended and Berra came back.
Naysayers say the Yankees built their two championship clubs (the ’77 and ’78 team; and the 1996-2000 team) despite Steinbrenner. The argument goes like this: After he was suspended following some shady contributions to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, it allowed team president Gabe Paul time to pull together the talent that made the Yankees champs. Likewise, when the Boss was banned from baseball, Gene Michael built the team that would later dominate in the late ’90s since Steinbrenner wasn’t around to trade them away.
But that seems too fine a point. He laid the ground for those men to work. He created the atmosphere that led to that team.
To a Mets fan—and that’s what I am—there’s no better way to illustrate the Steinbrenner legacy than the 2000 World Series. The Yankees had won three out of the previous four World Series, and were trying to put the capstone on their dynasty. The Mets were a ragtag bunch that included the likes of Turk Wendell and Jay Payton and Benny Agbayani.
It’s been said by many sports writers that Steinbrenner hated losing attention to the Mets almost more than anything.
In that series, which the Yankees won four games to one, the Yankees outscored the Mets by only three runs. It was a close series. But the team that acted like a champion did win it. Whereas Mets fans would fall to their knees and scream in joy when they got as much as a single against the Yankees, very little (other than winning) could satisfy Steinbrenner. Talese said that when he visited the Steinbrenner box in the ’90s, the Boss was drinking a beer, eating popcorn and screaming and cursing, probably at some beloved Yankee such as Bernie Williams because he made some minor mistake.
“He was like a crazy man,” Talese said, “but later that day, or later in the week, the results were evident. He was ahead.”