Even in death, the man goes out big. By dying this morning of a heart attack at the age of 80, George Steinbrenner has turned tonight’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game into his own nationally broadcast wake. Love or hate what he did with Yankees, the man deserves all the attention.
Steinbrenner was an obscure shipbuilder from Cleveland when he bought the Yankees in 1973 from CBS for $10 million, in what will forever be the greatest steal in the history of major sports ownership, and during his first press conference uttered what became probably the greatest ironic statement in the history of sports ownership: “We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned. We’re not going to pretend we’re something we aren’t. I’ll stick to building ships.”
Instead, he threw money and passion at the moribund franchise. The results were frequently ugly (Dave Collins! A mysterious World Series fistfight with Dodgers fans in a hotel elevator! A criminal indictment! A “lifetime” suspension from baseball! Steinbrenner’s sick co-dependent relationship with Billy Martin!), but never dull, and ultimately hugely profitable, on the field and off: The Yankees won seven championships under Steinbrenner’s ownership, and the franchise is worth about $1.6 billion, or at least double the value of any other club. That the runner-up, at a mere $870 million, is the Boston Red Sox had to have been deeply satisfying to Steinbrenner.
The revival of that rivalry goes to the core of Steinbrenner’s real legacy: For all the bottom-line accomplishments of his ownership, and Steinbrenner’s unsung charitable contributions, what matters most is that he made the Yankees matter again in the life of the city. Certainly he had help. Gene Michael assembled the key players for the great Yankees teams of the nineties, and Joe Torre managed them. Brian Cashman has spent the boss’s money more wisely than ever, business advisers aided Steinbrenner’s crucial creation of the YES Network, and two mayors pushed to get a new Yankee Stadium built. For more than three decades, however, it was Steinbrenner’s burning drive to win that propelled the entire organization — with fear, with pride, with hunger.
“The first few years I was here, I didn’t thoroughly understand how mentally tough New Yorkers are. It’s a great trait in people,” Steinbrenner told me several years ago. “I used to get greatly hurt by some of the things that were written. But I don’t anymore. You learn to handle it. If the fans don’t think you’re striving to be the best in New York, they’ll gobble you up, and I don’t blame ‘em. An army travels on its stomach, and New York City travels on its heart and its love for the Yankees. We are New York. We are the biggest and the best, and we should be No. 1. And when you reward New York, it reaches out to you. It goes beyond what any other city can do.”
George Steinbrenner’s ego perfectly matched that of his adopted hometown. He earned his place in Monument Park.