Over the history of the game, it is the players that deliver the images of the game that are remembered. The home runs, strikeouts and championships that are forever immortalized by film build the legends that last. However, there is always the men behind the scenes that put these legends into play. Among these men, George Steinbrenner sits at the head of the table. He took the most storied franchise in the history of American sports, reshaped them in his image and somehow, made them even greater. He died today in Tampa at the age of 80, but his impact on baseball, and sports at large, will no doubt live on for many more years than he lived.
To understand the impact of what the Yankees mean, you have to understand where they came from. The Yankees were built on the backs of American icons Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in the 1920’s and 1930’s, then Joe Dimaggio and Yogi
Berra carried them through the 1940’s and 1950’s, until Mickey Mantle drove them through the mid 50’s and 1960’s. These are all names that have become so embedded in the American psyche that they go beyond merely telling the story of MLB, they tell the story of America throughout the 20th century, a breeding ground of Legends. However, it would be remiss to leave Steinbrenner’s name out of the lineup of Yankee legends, because his impact on them from his office and luxury box is arguably has big as any player who came before or after him ever made on the field. He took the historic franchise over in 1972 at the cost of $8.8 million and raised it to a $1.1 billion enterprise over 30 years later, which boasts it’s own television network (YES) and has secured the standard of Major League Baseball, with 16 more championships than it’s closest competitor.
Steinbrenner immediately reigned over the Yankees in a way that no other owner had before. His hands on approach crossed over and rubbed many people the wrong way. Long before Jerry Jones or Mark Cuban ever entered the fold, “The Boss” commanded singular control over every area of his team. There was never any doubt, no matter how successful the coach or remarkable the player, who called the shots in the Bronx. Everyone under his reach had a clear mortality compared to his untouchable position. He mixed no words with anyone who came in conflict with his given goal of the moment, even his employed All-Stars and future Hall of Famers.
His rift with Dave Winfield is as legendary as it is dubious, and summarizes Steinbrenner’s entire span within one relationship. Winfield was A-Rod before A-Rod and when he signed a 10 year, $23 million contract with the Yankees he began a 10 year battle with Steinbrenner that extended from Steinbrenner being suspended from baseball, all the way to when Winfield declined the enter the Hall of Fame as a Yankee, which further embittered Steinbrenner. He also changed managers 20 times in the first 23 years of his ownership, including famously firing and rehiring manager Billy Martin five times. It could be disputed that the potential drawbacks of George’s wrath could outweigh the benefits of joining his empire in the Bronx.
What cannot be disputed is the results of what he produced at the helm of the Yankees. His seven World Series titles, 3,364 wins, 11 AL pennants tell the story of what he produced. He restored the once great Yankees, who had began to flounder before he took control, into the premier organization in baseball. Later, he even expanded this larger and made the Yankees into the premier name in all of sports again. He made the Yankees the measuring stick of the mid 1990’s all the way into the current scope of sports. The Bronx Bombers became “The Evil Empire”, due to his constant willingness and ability to outbid (or overbid as many will say) for whatever talent becomes available.
His free spending approach revolutionized player acquisition in sports, and Steinbrenner’s aggressive acquisition approach changed the entire competition model from the moment he took over. In the 1970’s in ushered in this era, starting with gaining future HOFers Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson, which led to World Series titles in 1977 and 1978. While the Yankees did not win a World Series again until 1996, in the 80’s he went after Winfield, Rickey Henderson and Steve Sax amongst others, to add to the core of Don Mattingly and Ron Guidry, but they never got over the hump. However, it showed that The Boss never relented, and that was a staple of his constant approach. The 1990’s forward proved this better than any other stretch in his history.
Steinbrenner blew open to doors of “pay to win” in the 90’s, and brought the Yankees back to prominence for the next 15 years. From 1996 to his departure from day-to-day operations Czar in 2007, the teams he fielded brought home four World Series titles and won the AL East 10 times. To add to the constant base of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera, the Yankees ruthlessly pursued every talent that could further the Empire. This list reads like a Who’s Who of recent baseball icons, including Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, David Wells, David Cone, Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Wade Boggs, Gary Sheffield, Paul O’Neill, Jason Giambi and many more. While all of these moves didn’t work out as he planned (and were dismissed accordingly), Steinbrenner’s presence loomed over essentially every big name player in baseball’s ability to land in the Bronx. Arguably, his presence overwhelmed the results of a team that dominated the sport, and that’s saying a lot.
The Boss’ legacy is a dominant one. For as controversial and uncompromising of personality he was, he was also pivotal in shaping the way the game is competed off the field. He took the greatest of all franchises, and made them greater. At the core of what he embodied was being at the head of all competition, and that is what sports in all about. He was is a once in a lifetime blend of justifying the means to the ends. Association with him guaranteed a chance at greatness, and his method as landed, and will land, many players in the position to sit amongst the immortals in the history of the game in Cooperstown (where he should be honored as well). He demanded high results for his high investments. George Steinbrenner embodied what sport’s ultimate goal is, winning. At any cost…..which he was usually willing to write the check for.