They used to be venerable, largely anonymous men. Baseball teams were the family business. You never saw them, rarely heard from them.
You had an occasional buffoon (Bill Veeck), or a pioneer (Branch Rickey), or a turncoat (Horace Stoneham). Those anomalies aside, the rest of them wore stuffy suits, counted the day’s receipts, and some thought a hit-and-run was a traffic accident.
Their players were indentured. Thanks to the Reserve Clause, a big league ballplayer had the freedom of a goldfish in a plastic bag full of water and the leverage of a six-inch long plank.
Then came George Steinbrenner.
Steinbrenner, the Yankees owner who died early Tuesday morning at age 80, ripped the cloak of anonymity from team sports ownership. He gave it a face.
You may not have liked what you saw, but one thing was certain: You couldn’t look away.
Before Steinbrenner, you had no idea how much a team owner could care about winning or losing.
He was born on July 4, which I always found deliciously ironic, and maybe at times very appropriate, for Steinbrenner hated losing, and so do Americans.
Most of us just didn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars with which to do something about it.
Steinbrenner bought the Yankees from CBS in 1973. He made his money in shipping, and he only bought the Yankees because he couldn’t buy his home state Cleveland Indians.
Can you imagine? All of the bombastic antics, impetuous behavior and soap opera-like drama could have played out on Lake Erie instead of the East River.
Before Steinbrenner, the Yankees were a has-been. Their stadium was run down, their fan base dwindling, and their won-lost record pedestrian. The face of the franchise was Bobby Murcer, a fine ballplayer but with the charisma of a frog.
Steinbrenner bought them and for the first time in Yankees history, the owner was the star, though a polarizing one. The talent on the field lacked fizz, so George provided it. He moved his team into Shea Stadium for two seasons so that Yankee Stadium could be refurbished. At the same time, he set out to dismantle his roster, too.
New Yankee Stadium was unveiled in time for the 1976 season, and it was gorgeous. About the same time, the team itself was getting prettier.
Baseball rules changed regarding free agency, and Steinbrenner was truly unleashed. He went through cash like a teenager does with his allowance.
Never before had baseball owners been able to go to the candy store and buy players. And George, armed with his own cash and money made off TV contracts and the like, blew the doors off free agency.
But no owner, no matter his personality and largesse, is anything without foils, without supporting characters.
Steinbrenner wouldn’t have been half of what he was if he didn’t have Billy Martin or Reggie Jackson or Dave Winfield around him. Without them, he would have been just a loudmouth guy with a lot of money. He would have been Mark Cuban.
Everyone was on edge who worked for the Yankees, from Jackson to the night custodians.
George seemed to like that, because he wanted everyone associated with the Yankees to detest losing.
“When you put on a Yankees uniform, you’re not just putting on pinstripes,” Steinbrenner once said. “You’re putting on tradition. And you’d better treat that accordingly.”
Under Steinbrenner, every Yankees manager was interim. Job security was something to be winked at—like an inside joke.
At times, there was a question as to what Yankees players hated more: losing, or Steinbrenner.
“The more we lose, the more he’s apt to travel to see us play,” one former player said. “And the more he flies, the better the chance is that his plane will crash.”
Graig Nettles went on camera years after retiring.
“He’d light into us when we played bad, and if we started winning, George thought it was because he lit into us,” Nettles said. “That wasn’t the case, but that’s what George thought.”
Steinbrenner had success with the Yankees early on, winning four pennants and two World Series between 1976-81. But from 1982-94, the Yankees failed to make the playoffs. It was during that time, in the early-1990s, when Steinbrenner was suspended by Commissioner Fay Vincent from running the Yankees.
The announcement of Steinbrenner’s banishment incited a 90-second standing ovation at Yankee Stadium. Part of that reaction was because the last straw for Vincent was Steinbrenner paying gambler Howard Spira $40,000 to smear fan favorite Dave Winfield.
But George came back, in 1993. Those close to him say he was a different man after his suspension. Not coincidentally, the Yankees soon started winning World Series again—four in five years from 1996-2000.
Yankees players and managers took turns feuding with Steinbrenner, always publicly. There was Martin and Jackson, of course, and the three of them formed a menage a trois that was dropped on the media as if it came from the Fairy Godmother of Journalism.
The Yankees with George Steibrenner, Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson was like a summer-long episode of “COPS.” The Yankees clubhouse was filled with domestic disturbances in those days.
We’ll likely never see anything like that again; the combination of drama, intrigue, pettiness, and winning was at the same time intoxicating and repelling.
Steinbrenner relinquished most of the control of the Yankees to his sons in his later years, but he still went out as a winner. He died on top, as owner of the defending champs.
“What do I want it to say on my tombstone?” Steinbrenner said back in 1998. “I just want it to say, ‘He never stopped trying.'”
And we never stopped watching him trying. How could we?