"We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned," the unknown shipping magnate from the suburbs of Cleveland said when the sale was announced. "We're not going to pretend we're something we aren't. I'll stick to building ships."
In the annals of statements that didn’t turn out to exactly true, that ranks up there with “Peace in our day,” and “I did not have sex with that woman.”
It was both fortunate and unfortunate for the Yankees and for baseball that he broke that promise almost as soon as it was made. Fortunate because Steinbrenner would return the Yankees to glory, to the financial betterment of every team in baseball. Unfortunate because he would drive salaries up to astronomical levels, making it all but impossible for the teams at the bottom of the income scale either to hold onto top players or to dream about winning the World Series.
But no matter how you view the massive footprint he left on a city and a game, one truth can’t be denied: George Steinbrenner was one of the most important and transformational figures in the history of the game.
Steinbrenner was characterized in many ways during his epic career as the owner of the Yankees. He was lauded, loathed and lampooned, respected and reviled, feared and fawned over. He was bombastic, cruel, demanding, outrageous, outspoken, and charitable, a man who could fire a secretary for messing up a sandwich order but who also gave extra World Series tickets to bus drivers and servicemen, a man who fired managers in a blizzard of public invective, then hired them back as team executives at more than their original salaries.
He was called The Boss, the Mad Shipbuilder, George III, Mount St. Steinbrenner and, by New York Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo, General von Steingrabber. In the Yankee clubhouse he was Mr. Steinbrenner.
Rickey’s decision to integrate America’s pastime changed the game as profoundly as Babe Ruth had when he took baseball out of its dead-ball era and introduced it to the home run. Steinbrenner’s decision to break the salary line had no less an effect. Rickey’s decision brought a flood of new talent into the game; Steinbrenner’s brought a flood of money.
“Portfolio” magazine has estimated that Steinbrenner’s Yankees generate $700 million in revenue each year for the 29 teams he doesn’t own. Part of that is in the form of the luxury tax he pays on his enormous payroll, far and away the highest in the game. Most of it is in the form of the revenue his team provides by filling nearly every ballpark it visits. And when his Yankees are in the playoffs, television ratings — and revenue — increase substantially.
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
George Steinbrenner takes part in the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Yankee Stadium last August.
And it’s all because of Steinbrenner, a fact that he knew — and broadcast.
He was also fiercely interested in sports and by winning. He got that — along with his business sense and his penchant for flogging his players and employees in public — from his father, who ran a shipping company on the Great Lakes.
Hank Steinbrenner was by all accounts an uncompromising and demanding sire. When little George, who took up the hurdles at the age of 12, finished first in a race, his father said little. When he finished second, the pater familias demanded to know how his son could let his opponent win.
He went to Culver Military Academy, the same prep school his father had attended and the same one his own children would be shipped off to. He got his bachelor degree at Williams College and attended graduate school at Ohio State. For several years after, he tried to make his way as an assistant football coach, first at Northwestern and then at Purdue.
But in 1957, at the age of 27, he returned to Cleveland to work for his father’s shipping company, Kinsman Marine Transit. Six years later, he bought out his father, and four years after that merged with American Ship Building.
Steinbrenner had gotten his start in business as a boy, raising chickens in the yard of the family home and selling their eggs to neighbors. One imagines the gratification he harvested when underperforming hens were served up for Sunday dinner.
He often acted as if he’d like to do the same with his underperforming ballplayers.
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George Steinbrenner: 1930-2010
New York Yankees owner known as "The Boss"
Video: George Steinbrenner, 1930-’10
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