There will be an outpouring of love affection for George Steinbrenner today following the news that he died of a heart attack early this morning at 80. He would have liked that. Truth is, he lived for that, even more than he lived to win. For all the attention-getting rants, the mean-spirited attacks on his players, and humiliating firings of his managers, Steinbrenner was always driven by his need to be loved.
The Boss spent decades as the man everyone loved to hate. That began to change over the last half dozen years as his image softened while his health deteriorated. And sadly, it was it was hard to know just how much he was able to enjoy to affection that finally came his way.
Steinbrenner had long ago grown accustomed to being hated. Even by Yankees fans. Who can forget the night New York fans serenaded him with choruses of “Steinbrenner Sucks” as George sat fuming in his luxury box? Sure, he’d restored a moribund franchise, mastering free agency ahead of his peers and winning back-to-back titles in 1977-78. But success went to his head, and the ’80s were a constant stream of fired managers and awful trades.
Yankees players, managers, and coaches hated George. Stars like Goose Gossage couldn’t wait for their contracts to run out so they could bolt. Top free agents like Greg Maddux used his offers to up the ante before signing elsewhere. Players around the league felt George cost his team at least 10 games a season with all his distractions, especially late in the season when the emotional toll of his abuse became too much to bear.
A lot of sports writers hated George, who gave them as many headaches as he did headlines. Steinbrenner turned his team into a 24/7 beat, and in the days before cell phones writers were bound to their hotel room, waiting for a call from George that often never came. It drove them crazy. I know—I ran two sports sections that covered the Yankees, and always felt like a psychologist talking writers off the ledge.
Sometimes, even finding someone who wanted to cover the Yankees was a challenge. And for good reason. In spring training, writers waited late into the night in the parking lot outside the team’s trailer. Why? Because George was reaming out team officials after a meaningless spring training loss and threatening to trade away yet another player. In the regular season, a three-game losing streak often meant someone—often a pitching coach—could be gone by the next morning. In the fall, it was all but certain George would upstage the World Series when his team wasn’t playing and fire another manager. No other owner in baseball history went through 20 managers in 24 years.
His manipulative relationship with Billy Martin was anything but healthy. Yogi Berra swore he’d never return after George humiliated him by firing him as manager 14 games into a season. His eight-year war of words—and worse—with Dave Winfield was the excuse to hand George his second suspension from baseball. I’m convinced his association with Spira—which was well known inside baseball for years—was merely an excuse to rid the game of a man who had embarrassed the game for years.
But there was the other side of Steinbrenner that few ever got to see. I found out first hand when the brother of my Yankees writer was killed in a car accident just as the writer was flying down for spring training. Steinbrenner had never met my writer, who had just taken over the beat. But when George learned about what happened, he set up a college fund for the writer’s suddenly fatherless nephews.
Steinbrenner did things like this all the time, and kept them all under the radar. When his football coach at Williams fell ill with Alzheimer’s, George set up a fund to take care the coach and his wife, and personally made the calls each year to make sure Williams alums wrote their checks. He paid for the college education for scores of players and their kids, set up friends and players in business, would read about a stranger’s misfortunes and send money to help. He wrote a personal check for $1 million for the rescue efforts in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
He believed in second chances. Sure, Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden helped the Yankees on the field. But few people in baseball were willing to give them an opportunity after all their problems with cocaine. George opened the door. And he’s sit for hours down in Tampa trying to get his friend Pete Rose to quit his gambling habit.
But he could also be incredibly mean. He would publicly humiliate his players in the media. Some of his rants are part of Yankees lore. When Japanese import Hideki Irabu disappointed, George called him “a fat toad.” When Dartmouth grad Jim Beattie had a few rocky outings, Steinbrenner challenged his manhood, saying he “spit the bit.” He would berate his executives in the media and in front of their staffs.
Amateur psychologists point to the father George could never please. Henry Steinbrenner was a championship hurdler at MIT and built a successful shipbuilding business. He demanded excellence from his only son, and no matter what George did, it was never good enough. Ever. When George bought the Yankees after turning his father’s shipbuilding company into one of the most successful on the country, Henry said, “Well, he finally did something right.”
George did a lot of things right. First he turned the Yankees into a successful baseball team. Then he turned them into the centerpiece of a global entertainment business. His YES cable network is the most successful regional sports network all of sports, and has been valued at $3 billion. Yankees merchandise is recognized worldwide and the team is already well established in the growing Asian market. They’ve formed a stadium hospitality service company with the Cowboys that in two years is already valued at almost a $1 billion. Ticket revenue last season was $397 million and the team is on pace to fly past that mark this year.
All told, the business of the Yankees is worth somewhere between $5-6 billion. Not bad for an $8.5 million investment in 1973.
Many credit the McGwire-Sosa home run chase for bringing back baseball after its disastrous strike in 1994. But that was a one-time deal. The real credit goes to the rebirth of the Yankees dynasty—the four titles in six years—that captured the imagination of both fans and TV networks alike. “George Steinbrenner’s passion for the game of baseball helped revive one of the game’s most storied franchises, and in the process ushered in the modern era of baseball business operations,” is the way baseball union executive director Michael Weiner put it today.
Much of this came to fruition in the early 2000s just as Steinbrenner’s image started to soften and his health began to fail. In 2003, he suffered a stroke and collapsed while attending the funeral of his friend Otto Graham. In 2006, he collapsed again at a recital for his granddaughter on the campus of the University of North Carolina. His doctor told the family that he had suffered another stroke. His ability to walk, talk, and remember, the doctor said, would never be the same.
That was apparent when he made a rare public appearance in the pre-game ceremonies for the 2008 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. It was a frail Steinbrenner, eyes covered by large sunglasses, who sat in a golf cart and waved to a politely applauding crowd as he was driven around the warning track of the old stadium. This was clearly not The Boss, the larger than life man who dominated the New York sports scene like no one else for more than four decades.
He returned to the infield when the tour was done. One by one, Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, and Yogi Berra walked over to the golf cart and handed George a signed baseball. They had all feuded with the man over the years, but on this night, they each kissed him on the cheek. Tears rolled down from behind George’s dark glasses.
A week later, Gossage was in Cooperstown, where he was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame—wearing a Yankees hat. Goose was asked if Steinbrenner should be in the Hall of Fame. The pitcher, who left New York for San Diego because he couldn’t stand playing for “the fat man,” never hesitated. “No question,” Goose said, “George Steinbrenner belongs here. He is a Hall of Famer.”
After all these years, people learned to love George Steinbrenner.
Hopefully, he was able to appreciate the change of heart.