The urge to own a sports team was deeply rooted in his psyche. In 1961, when he was just 31 years old, he purchased the Cleveland entry in the American Basketball League, which formed as a rival to the NBA. He hired the first African-American head coach – John McLendon — in American professional sports and won the league’s first championship.
The team was financed on a shoestring. When he needed money to make the payroll, he would call his partners into a conference room, tell them how much money was needed, then write out his own check first and put it in the hat. When the others had followed and left the room, Steinbrenner extracted his own check and tore it up.
Rules didn’t always mean a lot to him. In 1971, even as he was trying to buy a baseball team, he made illegal donations to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign and subsequently pled guilty to felony charges. Thanks to that conviction, he spent most of his first year as Yankee owner under suspension.
The Yankees were a pathetic team by the time Steinbrenner got them, their previous great run that began in 1949 ending in 1964, the year that CBS bought the team for just over $11 million. When the network sold the franchise to a partnership headed by Steinbrenner nine years later, the price had dropped to $10 million.
Steinbrenner never owned 100 percent of the team. Initially his share was 51 percent, which made him the controlling partner with his fellow owners answering to the name of “limited partners.” One of them was John J. McMullen, a New Jersey shipbuilder, who once famously remarked, “There’s nothing more limited than being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner."
McMullen eventually sold his share and bought the Houston Astros and then the NHL New Jersey Devils.
His first signing was reliever Sparky Lyle, followed by Catfish Hunter. That was good enough to win the AL pennant in 1976, but not good enough to avoid getting swept by Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in the World Series. The following year, he added Reggie Jackson — signing him to a then unimaginable total of $3 million for five years — and won the first of two straight World Series. Jackson wasn’t the most popular guy in the Yankee clubhouse, and Billy Martin despised him, but it was in the Bronx that he cemented his place in the Hall of Fame along with his nickname, Mr. October.
In retrospect, most of Steinbrenner’s reputation was built in those first gloriously manic years. Lyle wrote a book about them with author Peter Golenbock and named it “The Bronx Zoo,” a name that stuck with the team long after the team stopped being a zoo.
But maybe Graig Nettles, the third baseman for that team, said it best when he quipped, “"When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a baseball player and join the circus. With the Yankees, I've accomplished both."
Those were the days when Steinbrenner re-hired Billy Martin four times and fired him five, when he consumed three managers in one year, when he fired Yogi Berra barely two weeks into a season, thereby chasing Berra away from the Yankees for two decades.
His heavy hands were all over the team in those days, and when he’d had his fill of bullying the hired help to their faces, he’d call selected beat writers and feed them inside stories about who was in trouble. The stories were plants, spun to Steinbrenner’s specifications, and he always insisted on not being identified by name. So countless stories appeared in the tabloids quoting “inside Yankee sources.”
One writer, the highly talented Mike McAlary, finally had his fill of serving as Steinbrenner’s P.R. department, so one day he wrote a story in The New York Post and attributed the information to “an unnamed Yankee owner.” He never got another scoop from Steinbrenner again.
Kidwiler Collection / Diamond Images/Getty Images
George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin were a combustible combination. The owner fired his manager five times.
No matter where he was, when his manager was debriefing the media after the games, a red phone on the manager’s desk would ring — the Bat Phone, some called it — and Billy Martin or Bob Lemon or Lou Piniella or Gene Michael or whoever was the future ex-manager of the moment would stop his comments, pick up the phone and start getting an earful, sometimes rolling his eyes dramatically for the benefit of the writers.
And they were all future ex-managers, and nothing they could do would keep them employed. That became obvious in 1980, when Dick Howser won 103 games — one of the best seasons in team history, and got fired for the crime of losing in the playoffs to Kansas City. (Steinbrenner said Howser had resigned to pursue a career in real estate, or some such nonsense, but everybody knew Howser had been canned.)
Steinbrenner never owned a home in New York, living in Tampa, where he’d moved his shipbuilding business and got involved with thoroughbred racing — he loved to say of ballplayers who didn’t measure up: “He spit the bit” — and other enterprises. In New York, he stayed in a hotel suite, but in those days it seemed that he was a constant presence in the ballpark, which the city had rebuilt at enormous cost in time for the string of titles in 1976.
Steinbrenner found ways to pay very little rent on the stadium, which the city owned, and made a piles of money by selling sponsorship rights to adidas. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the team endured an 18-year stretch without a World Series, he flirted with New Jersey politicians in an effort to get New York to build him a new stadium. After spending years claiming the Bronx was a poor location for a stadium, he changed his tune when the team returned to glory in the mid-1990s and began drawing four million fans a year, finally agreeing to build a new stadium himself next to the original stadium. The Bronx, it turned out, wasn’t such a bad site after all.
ATLANTA (AP) - Matt Harvey pitched six hitless innings, John Buck homered and the New York Mets held off another Atlanta comeback, beating the Braves 4-3 Tuesday in the first game of a doubleheader.
George Steinbrenner: 1930-2010
New York Yankees owner known as "The Boss"
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