George Steinbrenner was a pinstriped pioneer

The first thing George Steinbrenner did as owner of the Yankees, in retrospect, may have been his most outrageous.

"I won't," he said during his January 1973 introductory news conference, "be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all."

That quickly proved to be anything but the case as Steinbrenner, who died Tuesday at age 80, became so involved — meddling, criticizing, hiring and firing, bullying and buying his way to success — he not only altered the role of a pro sports team owner but the game itself.

"Because he was willing to spend whatever it took to acquire the players he sought to make the Yankees winners, George changed the face of baseball," Peter Golenbock, author of the biography GEORGE, told the St. Petersburg Times. "He will be remembered for his bluster, his second-guessing, his suspensions and his feuds, but more than anything his legacy will focus on his desire to win."

As it should.

In their first 37 seasons under Steinbrenner's ownership, the Yankees won more than any other team, compiling a baseball-best .565 winning percentage (3,308-2,551) while capturing a major-league-most 11 American League pennants and seven World Series championships. And they now have the majors' best record in their pursuit of another.

"He expected a lot," Yankees veteran pitcher Andy Pettitte said Tuesday in Anaheim. "He demanded a lot. He raised, I believe, the level of not only the Yankees organization and what they want to do as far as winning and winning championships, but I feel like he's raised the bar around baseball for other teams to try to keep up and to compete with what he was trying to put on this field every year."

"His vision, passion and commitment to winning recharged the New York Yankees and revolutionized the game," said longtime Yankee Don Mattingly, now Dodgers hitting coach. "I remember a man driven to succeed. He was the owner, The Boss and No. 1 fan of the Yankees."

That drive to be the best sometimes brought out the worst in Steinbrenner — well beyond the 20 times he changed managers (including five stints for Billy Martin) in his first 23 seasons.

"George was The Boss," Yankees Hall of Famer Yogi Berra said, "make no mistake."

Steinbrenner constantly created controversy, spending at will, running his empire as a petty tyrant, ruling by fear and bluster, ripping even his own players, and firing anyone who crossed his path the wrong way.

"Steinbrenner made it so miserable for me that I didn't want to take no more of it," Don Zimmer told the Times in 2004, explaining why he walked away after eight seasons as a Yankees coach. "He can bully people. He can belittle people, which he does."

That belligerent style projected Steinbrenner regularly into the spotlight, characterized as The Boss on the back pages of the New York tabloids and caricatured on national TV shows such as Seinfeld and Saturday Night Live, and he seemed to relish his larger-than-life status.

He also got into trouble, fined often and suspended three times — in 1974-76 for making illegal campaign contributions, for a week in 1983 for questioning the integrity of an umpire, and in 1990-92 for his dealings with admitted gambler Howard Spira.

And that wasn't all the bad.

Former Yankees minority owner John McMullen noted, "There's nothing quite so limited as being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner's." And White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf once said, "How do you know when George Steinbrenner is lying? When his lips are moving."

Steinbrenner's role was reduced in recent years due to his health, and he spent much of his time at his Tampa home and office at what in 2008 was renamed Steinbrenner Field.

He appeared on the field at the 2008 All-Star Game in New York, saw the Yankees twice at Tropicana Field during the 2009 season and attended Game 1 of the 2009 World Series at the new Yankee Stadium. Though at home in Tampa during the clinching win, he had a huge presence including a centerfield video board tribute, "Boss, This Is For You." And he returned on opening day this year and was presented his championship ring, the last time many of the Yankees saw him.

"It's only fitting," Joe Torre, the former Yankees and current Dodgers manager, said, "that he went out as a world champ."

Commissioner Bud Selig, who in October told the Times he considered Steinbrenner "a Hall of Fame owner," on Tuesday called him "a giant of the game." Players union boss Michael Weiner credited Steinbrenner for ushering in "the modern era of baseball business operations." And former union boss Don Fehr said Steinbrenner "shared the players' competitive drive: His goal was for his team to win."

"His impact on the game is impossible to measure," Zimmer said Tuesday. "If you were a Yankee fan, there was no better owner because he would do anything at any cost to put the best team on the field."

Steinbrenner's reach extended beyond baseball. He grew up in football — which many think accounted for his "warrior" mentality and "Win Now" approach — playing at Culver (Ind.) Military Academy and his senior year at Williams College, then moving into high school and college coaching, serving as an assistant at Northwestern (for Lou Saban) and Purdue.

He was an avid horseman as well, operating out of Ocala's Kinsman Farms stable and making several runs at the Kentucky Derby. He was involved in minor-league basketball franchises, tried to buy the Bucs (losing out to the Glazers), had a role in the original Lightning negotiations and was a key member of the Olympic effort, serving as a vice president of the USOC.

Derek Jeter told a story Tuesday in Anaheim that may have summed Steinbrenner up best.

"The thing with The Boss, he's an old football coach. In his way, he sort of looked at the baseball season like we played 12 games and we had to win every single day," Jeter said.

"My first, second year, I was on third base, got doubled off on a line drive in the infield and we won the game, and after the game he was yelling at me for, 'Don't ever get doubled off again.' "

"We won the game, but he expected perfection, and that rubbed off, and whether it was the players, the front office, the people working at the stadium, didn't make a difference. He expected perfection."

And demanded success.

Information from Times files was used in this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

George Steinbrenner was a pinstriped pioneer 07/14/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 14, 2010 10:05am]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...