He grew up in Cleveland, made his name in New York, and made his home in Tampa. Above all, though, he was intensely American, in what he wanted and how he went about getting it. George M. Steinbrenner III, owner of the New York Yankees, resident of Palma Ceia, was a military history buff with a thing for bald eagles, fighter-jet flyovers and Sun Tzu's The Art of War. He was a demanding, often demeaning terror to his employees, but also a quiet, private philanthropist when it came to kids who needed treatment for cancer or money for college. He was liked by some, disliked by more, but respected by a significant number in between. He mattered, always, and he got results: 11 American League championships, seven World Series championships, and when he died, at 80, on Tuesday in Tampa, his team was the champion from last year with the best record so far this year. He was complicated, but his priorities were not. "Breathing first, winning next."
The narrative that has been peddled over and over in newspaper features, magazine profiles and book-length biographies is that Steinbrenner forever was chasing the elusive approval of a stern, unloving father who ran the family's successful shipping business.
In 1973, when he bought the Yankees, the father told a reporter in Cleveland it was the first smart thing his son had ever done.
But Steinbrenner's drive went beyond that common effort to please a father. His pursuit of perfection, however imperfect, was guided by a uniquely American belief: Things always can get better, and should.
The Yankees when he bought them were baseball's most venerable name but not much more than that. Over the next three-plus decades, though, Steinbrenner turned them into the biggest brand in American sports, and an unmatched money machine.
He paid lavishly for free agents.
I want Catfish Hunter. I want Reggie Jackson. I want Alex Rodriguez.
Other owners who didn't have that kind of money or didn't want to spend it hated him for it. So did the fans of their teams.
He fired managers 14 times in his first 14 years. He fired one of them after he won 103 games but not the World Series. He would tell the press his players "spit the bit."
His wasn't an ownership. It was a reign.
The old football coach turned baseball team owner, the Patton devotee, his 200 pounds of chest-puffed confidence, his maniacal desire to win, and win now (not satisfied, never satisfied) — all of it changed the business of sports.
The average player's salary when he bought the Yankees was less than $40,000 a year. It is now almost $4 million.
He launched the YES Network in 2002. The Yankees' own television station is the biggest, most lucrative regional sports network in the country, and a powerful in-house marketing tool to milk Yankee mythology for all it's worth. Which is a lot.
He lorded over the planning, funding and building of the new $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium, which opened last year. This palace houses a 25-man team with a payroll of $206 million. It perhaps calls into question our priorities but certainly not his.
These two new pillars of his legacy aren't just byproducts of some writ of everlasting Yankee dominance.
They're the results of decisions. Decisions made by a man called the Boss.
He bought the Yankees for less than $9 million, only $186,000 actually came from his pocket, and they're now worth an estimated $1.6 billion. His death was as big a story on Forbes.com as it was on ESPN.com.
But his checkbook did more than buy ballplayers and redefine the financial realities of a sport.
I want that boy to have braces. I want that Little League field to have lights. I want that orchestra to keep playing beautiful music.
He was a man of contradictions, his outsized bluster in the Bronx coupled uncomfortably with his kindhearted philanthropy in Tampa. The constant in this massively American man?
Be better. Get better. Make things better.
The Yankees are the Yankees. They're unlike any other franchise in sports in this country. The biggest names in their history aren't only baseball players. They're cultural touchstones. Mickey Mantle. Joe DiMaggio. Lou Gehrig. Babe Ruth. For almost the last 40 years, though, Steinbrenner was the face of the franchise and its singular force of personality.
When he traveled from Tampa and showed up at the Stadium in the Bronx, even in his later years as he started to weaken and slow, staffers scurried in the corridors, reporters clustered in the clubhouse, and it felt on those days as if the actual players on the team, guys like future Hall of Famers Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, were hardly even there.
It felt as if there were just one man in the room.
Michael Kruse covered the Yankees in 2003 and 2004 for the Times Herald-Record of New York's Hudson Valley. He can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751.