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George Steinbrenner's baseball legacy focused on his desire to win

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

"I won't," he said, theoretically with a straight face, 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 on 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 major-league 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 currently have the majors' best record in their pursuit of another.

"It may be a curse," longtime Yankees executive Cedric Tallis once said, "but he really wants to win in the worst way."

And that 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.

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. That belligerent style projected him 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.

"I know he was controversial and all of that, but what he accomplished with that franchise is one of the most remarkable stories in sports," commissioner Bud Selig told the Times in October. "He has created a remarkable legacy, not just in New York but in all of baseball. The great popularity the sport now enjoys is due to people like George Steinbrenner.

"As far as I'm concerned, he is a Hall of Fame owner."

Not everyone, of course, shared that view.

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."

Don Zimmer, the baseball lifer now a Rays senior adviser, was one of many who lived the Steinbrenner experience, and eventually had enough, walking away after eight seasons as a coach.

"I didn't leave the Yankees. I left Steinbrenner, " Zimmer told the Times in 2004. "Steinbrenner made it so miserable for me that I didn't want to take no more of it. He can bully people. He can belittle people, which he does. And it's just a matter of how much do you want to take. And I took all I wanted to."

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 and visited with the team during series at Tropicana Field as recently as the 2009 season.

Though he was home in Tampa when the Yankees clinched their most recent championship, he still cast a major presence— and inspiration — evidenced by the celebratory comments and the words on the centerfield video board during the trophy presentation: "Boss, This Is For You."

"To be able to deliver this to the Boss, the stadium he created and the atmosphere he has created around here, is very gratifying for all of us," manager Joe Girardi said.

Steinbrenner was involved in more than 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 coaching — first at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Columbus, Ohio, then 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 some minor-league basketball franchises, tried to buy the Bucs (losing out to the Glazers), and had a role in the original Lightning negotiations and was very involved in the Olympic effort, serving as a vice president of the USOC.

"George is a totally committed man, 24 hours a day," former Yankees president Al Rosen told the Times in 1995. "He is a man who thrives on excellence. He doesn't ask anyone to do anything he won't do himself. That means his total commitment is such that if you want to be associated with George, you must be totally committed to the excellence of the franchise.

"And excellence, to George, means winning."

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

George Steinbrenner's baseball legacy focused on his desire to win 07/13/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 5:13pm]
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