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George Steinbrenner dies at 80; owner of New York Yankees

Steinbrenner, whose outsized personality and win-at-all-costs mentality earned him the nickname "The Boss," reestablished the Yankees as baseball's premier franchise and changed the economics of the sport.

July 13, 2010|By Bill Shaikin

The purchase price: $10 million. CBS, the seller, had bought the team for $13.2 million in November 1964, with the Yankees coming off their fifth consecutive World Series appearance and 14th in 16 seasons.

In 1965, the first season under CBS ownership, the Yankees posted their first losing record in 40 years. In 1972, the final season of a CBS reign in which they made no World Series appearances, they drew fewer than one million fans for the first time since World War II.

The Yankees rebounded to two million by 1976 and set a club record with 2.5 million in 1979. They hit four million in 2005 and 4.3 million in 2007, setting a club record for the seventh consecutive season.

And, by 2006, Forbes estimated the franchise value at $1 billion, the first baseball team valued at that level. By 2010 the Yankees' value had increased to $1.6 billion.

Steinbrenner, who owned a controlling share of 57% of the team, said he never considered selling the Yankees at any time, despite what would have been an enormous return on his initial investment of $168,000.

"Athletics are in my blood," he told the Tampa Tribune in 2002, "and being a successful owner gives you prestige you can't get anywhere else."

On Jan. 3, 1973, Steinbrenner introduced himself to New York as an absentee general partner, promising that he would remain in Cleveland and "stick to building ships."

Said Steinbrenner: "I won't be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all."

That statement turned out to be nonsense. To his credit, Steinbrenner put his money where his mouth was, making good on his promise to deliver a winner by buying one. He came into baseball at about the same time free agency did, with arbitrators and judges ruling that owners could not control players indefinitely.

The baseball establishment, including many longtime owners, howled that open bidding for even a fraction of players would herald the demise of the sport. Steinbrenner hauled out his checkbook, starting in 1974, signing pitcher Catfish Hunter for five years at a record $3.35 million.

Steinbrenner continued to bring in some of the sport's biggest stars, including outfielders Reggie Jackson and Ken Griffey Sr. and pitchers Rich Gossage and Tommy John. In 1980, he stunned admirers and detractors by signing outfielder Dave Winfield for 10 years and $23 million.

The Yankees vaulted back to prominence, winning the American League championship in 1976 and World Series titles in 1977 and 1978.

Yet the hard-driving Steinbrenner appeared reluctant to accept even a single defeat, berating players and other detractors in the clubhouse and in the newspapers, the old football coach in a turtleneck and blazer.

In 1981, as the Yankees played the Dodgers in the World Series, Steinbrenner called a late-night news conference to announce that he had injured his left hand in a brawl with two Dodgers fans in an elevator at the Hyatt Wilshire Hotel. The fans never surfaced publicly, prompting skeptics to wonder if Steinbrenner was so frustrated in defeat that he punched a wall so hard he hurt himself.

Said Edward Bennett Williams, then owner of the Baltimore Orioles: "I've heard of phantom punches, but never phantom victims."

In 1982, after a series of poor performances by pitcher Doyle Alexander, Steinbrenner issued a statement ordering him to take a physical examination. "I'm afraid some of my players might get hurt playing behind him," Steinbrenner said.

Said Gossage: "George says Doyle needs a physical? Well, George needs a mental."

Martin told The Times in 1981 that Steinbrenner's clubhouse tirades did nothing to fire up the team.

"When he used to do those things, it would take me two weeks to unwind the club," Martin said. "Motivation comes from within."

The "Bronx Zoo" atmosphere extended to executives, managers and coaches, all more easily disposable than millionaire players. In his first year running the Yankees, he replaced the manager, general manager and team president.

In his first 20 years, he changed managers 20 times. In 1982 alone, he employed three managers, three hitting coaches and five pitching coaches.

Bob Lemon started that season as the Yankees' manager. "I swear on my heart, he'll be the manager all season," Steinbrenner had said. He fired Lemon after 14 games.

In 1985, he fired another manager, Yankees great Yogi Berra, by telephone, except that he ordered General Manager Clyde King to make the call. Berra did not reconcile with Steinbrenner or set foot in Yankee Stadium for 14 years.

"George was 'The Boss,' make no mistake," Berra said Tuesday. "He built the Yankees into champions, and that's something nobody can ever deny. He was a very generous, caring, passionate man. George and I had our differences, but who didn't? We became great friends over the last decade and I will miss him very much."

"It was poor judgment," Steinbrenner told the New Yorker in 2002. "You could sit and write a huge volume about the mistakes I've made."

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