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Before George Steinbrenner built the Yankees, shipping built him.
Published Jul. 14, 2010

Before George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees, there was Steinbrenner, the shipbuilder.

Ships built his fortune, and brought him from the Great Lakes to Tampa. They funded his purchase of the Yankees. And even as American shipbuilding waned, Steinbrenner fought to keep his Tampa port businesses afloat - in his bombastic, controversial and sometimes soft-hearted way.

As ships made him rich, the Yankees made him famous. He found he enjoyed both - though as a new baseball team owner he had promised to "stick to building ships."

"When you're a shipbuilder, nobody pays any attention to you," he said later. "But when you own the New York Yankees ... they do, and I love it."

Still, for years he would resuscitate the shipping companies that made up an ever-shrinking part of his portfolio, calling them "a labor of love."

The family shipping empire started in the 19th century, hauling goods across the Great Lakes. In 1963, Steinbrenner bought a fleet of lake ore carriers from his family. Four years later, he took advantage of federal subsidies and joined an investor group that took over American Ship Building Co. and moved it to Lorain, Ohio. It reinvigorated the company, tripling annual revenues.

The subsidies were intended to help reverse an ebbing tide in the U.S. share of world shipping. Steinbrenner had offices in Washington, D.C., for nearly a decade. He moved to Tampa in 1976 after pleading guilty to making $100,000 in illegal corporate contributions to President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign. President Ronald Reagan later pardoned him. Steinbrenner wouldn't hesitate to ask for more federal help in decades to come.

Cost-cutting also helped. In 1972, a year before he and 13 partners bought the Yankees, Steinbrenner's American Ship bought the Tampa Ship Repair and Dry Dock Co. A little more than a decade later, he would shut down his Ohio shipyard to move the work to Tampa, where the company could save 30 percent on labor.

Shipping was still big business. In the early '80s, the Associated Press valued American Ship at $200 million. The New York Yankees? A mere $30 million.

After moving to Tampa, Steinbrenner helped revive Tampa Bay Downs. By 1990, he had stakes in the largest towing company at the Port of Tampa, a Broadway productions company, a 750-acre Ocala horse farm called Kinsman Studs, and the Steinbrenner's Ramada Yankee Inn in Ocala. He also had sold the Radisson Bay Harbour Inn to the New York Yankees Partnership.

He had a local reputation.

George Levy, former co-owner of Levy Awards in Tampa, got to know Steinbrenner in the late '70s at that Radisson bar chaperoning a Gasparilla party. They became tennis regulars until Steinbrenner's detached retina sidelined him in the '90s.

"He could be a tough man to work for, very competitive," Levy said Tuesday. "But on the other hand he was incredibly generous."

Meanwhile, through the 1980s, the number of major U.S. shipbuilders fell from 22 to eight. Steinbrenner's American Ship hadn't turned an annual profit since 1986. By the early '90s, he told the St. Petersburg Times he estimated his stake in American Ship at less than 2 percent of his net worth. And the company, including its Tampa Shipyards subsidiary, faced trouble.

Emmett Lee, director of the Tampa Port Authority for 10 years ending in 1990, remembers butting heads with Tampa Shipyards executives. The shipyard was a demanding tenant, and Lee knew Steinbrenner was making the demands. "He was tough like he was running the Yankees,'' Lee said. "You knew who was driving the decisions.''

In 1992, the Times reported that while the company employed more than 900 people and was the biggest tenant at the Port of Tampa near downtown, it was counting on defense dollars to survive.

American had tried to diversify over the years, at one time experimenting with a process that made imitation crabmeat called surimi. It later tried unsuccessfully to win contracts to build cruise ships.

It was losing millions.

In 1992, Congress kicked in $58 million for extra costs on two overdue Navy oil tankers - money the Navy didn't think was necessary.

"I thought he was being mistreated by the Navy," Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores said. "They were trying to take away his tankers."

The company was saved. It wasn't a "bailout," Steinbrenner would later bluster.

"The 'bailout.' I don't like that term. The 'bailout,' " he told a Senate lawyer. "And I'm sure you don't like it, either."

The Navy got its way in 1993, canceling the tanker contract, which had reached $450 million after repeated financial problems and delays. American Ship and Tampa Shipyards filed for federal bankruptcy protection. Infusions from Steinbrenner helped get them out. But in 1995, after two more rocky years, the company was sold.

After the bankruptcy of American Ship, Steinbrenner's only remaining maritime business was tugboat operator Bay Transportation Corp. at Tampa's port. He sold that to Hvide Marine of Fort Lauderdale in 1997.

Last year, shipbuilding no longer part of his world, Steinbrenner was No. 341 on the Forbes list of richest Americans, with a net worth of $1.2 billion.

Donald Trump, a friend of Steinbrenner's since the late '70s, says he was an exceptional businessman. The Boss answered Trump's call as he put together the first episode of his NBC reality show, The Apprentice. Other CEO friends had turned him down. But Steinbrenner, the week of the World Series, spent an hour and a half with show contestants.

"He understood star power, and he was fiercely loyal," Trump said. "He was the type of guy that many people will not fully appreciate until he's gone."

Staff writers Mark Albright and Steve Huettel contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press. Becky Bowers can be reached at