George Steinbrenner: The Face of the Evil Empire

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Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School. His latest book is The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad (McFarland, 2010).

The baseball world seems divided into two groups:  those who constitute themselves as fans of the New York Yankees (the most successful of any professional sport franchise, wi181th forty American League pennants and twenty-seven World Series championships) and those who perceive the Yankees franchise as the evil empire seeking to monopolize talent and squelch competitive balance in Major League Baseball.  For the last quarter of the twentieth century, the face of the Yankees franchise was their combative owner, George Steinbrenner, who personified for Yankees-haters the dark side of American sport.  Although placing myself firmly in the camp of those who always root for the team playing the Yankees, it is apparent that Steinbrenner, who succumbed to a heart attack at age eighty on July 13 after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease in recent years, exerted an important influence upon the sport, and his legacy deserves serious consideration.  In the 1970s, Steinbrenner assumed ownership of the Yankees and restored the once-proud franchise to a dominant position within the sport—also at a time when New York City was undergoing cultural, political, and economic crisis.  Steinbrenner deserves credit for playing a pivotal role in creating baseball’s lucrative free agent market as well as for the resurgence of New York City and the Yankees, although critics of the free-spending owner will continue to ask at what cost this was achieved to the competitive nature of Major League Baseball.

The bombastic Steinbrenner, referred to as “the boss” for his autocratic management style, was born on the Fourth of July, 1930.  Raised in the affluent Cleveland suburb of Bay Village, Steinbrenner displayed an early interest in sport, playing football and running track at Culver Military Academy in Indiana.  He continued his track career at Williams College, graduating in 1952.  After a two-year hitch in the Air Force, Steinbrenner served as athletic director and basketball/football coach at Aquinas High School in Columbus, Ohio.  He was also employed as an assistant football coach under Lou Saban at Northwestern University in 1955 and Purdue University in 1956.  The following year, he joined his father’s shipping company, Kinsman Marine, and while serving as treasurer helped to turn the business around, eventually purchasing the American Ship Building Company.

Interested in acquiring a professional sport franchise, Steinbrenner joined a group of investors who purchased the Cleveland Pipers of the National Industrial Basketball League in 1960.  The Pipers joined the American Basketball League and won a championship (without LeBron James), but the club eventually went bankrupt.  In 1971, Steinbrenner was thwarted in his efforts to purchase the Cleveland Indians; however, two years later he was the principal investor in a ten million dollar purchase of the New York Yankees from CBS, under whose ownership the once-proud franchise floundered.  Although Steinbrenner initially pledged that he would play little role in the day-to-day operations of the club, his ego and competitive nature negated this promise.  When Mike Burke, a holdover from CBS ownership, resigned as club president, Steinbrenner brought in Gabe Paul from the Cleveland Indians to serve as senior Yankee adviser and represent the voice of the owner.  Manager Ralph Houk resigned after the 1973 season, and Bill Virdon was the first Yankees skipper hired by Steinbrenner.  He would not last long under the impatient owner, who fired twenty managers during his tenure, including Billy Martin on five separate occasions.  Although he insisted that he was opposed to free agency, Steinbrenner paved the way for this lucrative market in 1974 when he signed former Oakland A’s pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter to a four-year contract worth $2.85 million after the pitcher’s Oakland contract was voided.

Steinbrenner’s emerging baseball career was endangered in 1974 when he was indicted on fourteen counts of illegal campaign contributions to the reelection campaign of President Richard Nixon.  Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to two counts of obstructing justice and making illegal contributions, paying a fine of $20,000.  Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended the owner for two years, but the sentence was eventually reduced to nine months.  Steinbrenner resumed control of the club for the 1976 season.

Under the leadership of Billy Martin, the Yankees won the American League pennant in 1976, but they were swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series.  To provide more punch in the Yankees line-up, Steinbrenner signed free-agent outfielder Reggie Jackson to a five-year, $3 million contract, and the Yankees were World Series champions in both 1977 and 1978.  Nevertheless, the personalities of Steinbrenner, Martin, and Jackson often clashed, leading Martin to quip of Jackson and Steinbrenner, respectively, that “one’s a born liar and the other’s convicted.”  The clash of these egos is well told in Jonathan Mahler’s The Bronx is Burning (1977) and the subsequent ESPN mini-series in which Oliver Platt portrayed Steinbrenner as an egotistical dandy, missing somewhat the competitive juices that motivated “the boss.”

Yankees fortunes under Steinbrenner tumbled during the 1980s. Even after signing free agent Dave Winfield to a ten-year $23 million contract, the Yankees failed to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1981 Series. The team failed to win another pennant in the decade, and Steinbrenner fired such popular managers as Lou Piniella and Yogi Berra.  Steinbrenner also quarreled with Winfield.  The outfielder sued the owner for violating his contract by failing to contribute $300,000 to the Winfield Foundation.  In response, Steinbrenner hired gambler Howie Spira to investigate Winfield and provide information that would discredit the ball player’s reputation.  Steinbrenner’s actions led Commissioner Fay Vincent to banish the controversial owner from baseball.  After two years, Vincent relented, and in 1993, Steinbrenner resumed control over the Yankees.

After a 1995 loss to the Seattle Mariners in the play-offs, Steinbrenner tapped Joe Torre to manage the Yankees, and a new dynasty was established.  Under Torre, the Yankees were world champions in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000, before losing a seven-game World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001.  However, Torre was unable to win another World Series, and after the 2007 season he was forced out of his position—although by this time the ailing Steinbrenner’s son Hank was taking more direct control of the club.  And in 2009, the Yankees were again world champions.  Although Steinbrenner provided Torre with more latitude than previous managers, he was still quick to provide criticism of both his players and field general.  Nevertheless, Steinbrenner did display a sense of humor.  After criticizing shortstop Derek Jeter for spending too much time in the night clubs of New York City, he appeared with Jeter in a Visa commercial featuring the two men dancing in a night club.  Steinbrenner was also reportedly amused by the caricature of “the boss” in the popular television series Seinfeld.  And he made free agent Alex Rodriguez the best-paid player in baseball on a team with the highest payroll in the game.

Critics will maintain that Steinbrenner’s spending have made a travesty of competitive balance between large- and small-market ball clubs.  However, such a charge fails to note that the Yankees dominated the sport during the 1920s and the post-war years of 1949-1964 without Steinbrenner’s dollars and the signing of free agents.  He may have resurrected the evil empire, but he certainly did not create the Yankee dynasty.  Steinbrenner was often mean and nasty in his personal dealings, but let us give the devil his due.  He restored pride to the Yankees and the city of New York in the 1970s when it was most needed.  Although he often clashed with players, Steinbrenner’s embracing of free agency has produced a lucrative market for contemporary players never envisioned by previous generations.  And it may be argued that free agency has ushered in a far more competitive baseball market than existed under the reserve clause and the post-World War II Yankee dynasty.  So let there be a moment of silence for George Steinbrenner during the 2010 All-Star Game, and then let’s go back to rooting for the Red Sox or Rays to overtake the evil empire.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Yankees beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1981 World Series and that they lost to the Seattle Mariners in the 1993 AL playoffs. The Yankees lost the World Series to the Dodgers in 1981 and the Mariners defeated the Yankees in 1995, not 1993.

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james joseph butler - 7/15/2010

He played with Mickey and Reggie.

james joseph butler - 7/15/2010

I was a Yankee fan when Horace Clarke was at 2nd base but I certainly loved it when George bought in and recreated the all-american dynasty, but sometime in this century, I think Randy Johnson might've had something to do with it, I said enough already.

Socialism, NFL style, is the best model for professional sports. The Steelers have been as good as the Pirates have been bad because of brains and socialism, or revenue sharing, real revenue sharing not baseball's pity tithe by comparison.

George was an overgrown kid who never stopped trying to win by whatever means necessary. Any professional fan would want him as their dream owner.

Lisa Kazmier - 7/14/2010

How about the fact that Steinbrenner did not sign Alex Rodriguez to his record contact when Alex first became a free agent after the 2000 season. Alex went to the Rangers. He was acquired initially in a trade and re-signed when Alex went around his own agent and personally negotiated with the Yankees. Don't you think the fact that he ripped up a 10 yr $250 million dollar contract means someone has to give him a raise? You made it sound like Texas didn't exist and had broken the bank to sign him before Steinbrenner got involved in aquiring him in 2004.

Steinbrenner did not invent free agency and at first wasn't enthusiastic. He became a fairly early convert though. He used the rules that existed. If fans of other teams cry about competitive balance now, they forget two important items:

1) "The Boss" did not do anything other owners could not do, by putting their profits into their team and building a fan base. There are owners a lot richer than Steinbrenner and his family. He bought the Yankees for under $10 million and now they are worth over a billion. He decided you have to spend money to make money.

2) Other clubs do get money from the Yankees via revenue sharing. Some seem to pocket it, though, rather than invest it. There is no minimum salary for a roster and thus nothing prevents owners from doing that. But to suggest that's Steinbrenner's fault is silly.

Steven A. Levine - 7/14/2010

The Dodgers defeated the Yankees in six games in the 1981 World Series.

Joe Torre did not become manager of the Yankees until 1996 and Seattle defeated the Yankees in 1995, not 1993.