Bye, Boss.

I can’t believe I’m actually writing this post.  I will miss George Steinbrenner, the inimitable owner of the New York Yankees from 1973 to 2010.  He was hated by many, loved by few, and often seemed to be his own worse enemy.  But, he strove for excellence every single day that he owned the most successful franchise in sports history.

His father Henry was also a striver.  He was a world-class track and field hurdler and finished first in his class at M.I.T. (not exactly your local community college).  He became a wealthy shipping magnate.  His family firm owned “lakers” — large ships which hauled ore and grain on the Great Lakes.  Henry instilled in his only son, George, the desire to reach for the best.

Woody Hayes

Young George followed in his father’s footsteps, also becoming an accomplished hurdler.  He graduated from a military academy, and served as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.  Following his discharge, George went on for graduate studies at The Ohio State University in 1954.  While there, George became the assistant to another sports icon, The Old Coach, Woody Hayes, OSU’s long-time football coach.  Hayes was also known as a man for whom there was no substitute for winning.  Some of you may recall that Woody’s über-competitive streak was what did him in.  In his later years, he took to physically attacking his players, opposing players and even a cameraman out of frustration with his team’s efforts.

During his year with Hayes, Steinbrenner experienced the thrill of an undefeated football season and a national championship title.  He went on to become an assistant football coach at Northwestern University and Purdue University.

Afterward, he went to work in his family’s shipping business.  George worked to revitalize the struggling company.  Eventually, he took it over.  Within a decade in the industry, he was part of a group that purchased the American Shipbuilding Company, becoming its President and CEO.  By 1972, the company was grossing over $100 million.

On the side, Steinbrenner pursued other interests.  He purchased a basketball team in the fledgling American Basketball Team (ABL).  His team, The Cleveland Pipers was coached by the first African American coach in professional basketball.  Unfortunately, the league folded within a short period of time.  George also became a Broadway producer, to mixed success.

Apparently, while dabbling in the bright lights of New York, another star caught Steinbrenner’s eye.  The New York Yankees during this time were but a shadow of their former glory.  Their owners, CBS, had allowed the team to deteriorate.  The aging and retirement of the franchise’s marquee player, Mickey Mantle, was emblematic of the team’s decline.

George and Mike Burke

George Steinbrenner put together a group of investors, including Michael Burke, John DeLorean (think of the stainless steel, gull-wing car that bore his name) and others.  Their net purchase cost for the greatest sports franchise of all times was a mere $8.8 million.  A steal.

The Steinbrenner effect was felt almost immediately.  The team’s kindly and trusted field manager, Ralph Houk (a lifelong Yankee) was let go in favor of the more stern, Bill Virdon.  Steinbrenned had sought Oakland A’s manager, Dick Williams for the post.  Williams was in the midst of winning three consecutive World Series championships for the A’s.  He couldn’t get out of his contract.  Steinbrenner learned from this defeat: he would not let desired personnel get away again.  He would play for keeps.

Also made gone by The Boss was respected baseball executive, Lee McPhail.  Lee was the son of baseball legend, Larry McPhail, who was instrumental in putting together the great Yankee dynasty of 1949-1964.  During that stretch, the team won nine world titles and the American League title every year except 1954 and 1959.  Lee went on to become president of the AL.

George & Gabe

McPhail’s replacement was the genial baseball veteran executive, Gabe Paul.  During these early years, Paul tempered The Boss’s tendency toward somewhat rash and possibly hot-tempered decisions, while assisting Steinbrenner in making sound decision that allow the club to build a team that won four AL pennants and two world series during the 1976-1981 period.

Almost everyone knows the story of the soap opera that took place between Steinbrenner and Yankee manager Billy Martin.  The Boss hired and fired Martin five times.  As a child growing up in Metro New York, I was swept up in the drama of the situation.  I was fed what to believe by newspapers who had vested interests in feeding off of this constructed script: impulsive and impatient George versus passionate, crowd-favorite Billy.  The Boss was made to wear the black hat while Martin assumed the role of victim.  The tumultuous 1977 season was chronicled in the book and ESPN mini-series, The Bronx is Burning.

George & Billy in happy times.

In hindsight, history has shown Billy Martin to be a victim of his own misdoing.  The man was incapable of subduing his demons.  He frequently engaged in fisticuffs, both on and off the field.  His firings from managerial gigs with Detroit, Minnesota, Texas and Oakland had nothing to do with Steinbrenner’s impulsiveness.  Billy Martin’s death on Christmas Day 1989 at the young age of 61 when his truck flipped over was emblemic of the man’s personal difficulties.  Alcohol played a significant role in the misfortune Martin experienced in life.

Nevertheless, The Boss’s impulsive decision-making style must also be examined.  He changed field managers 20 times in his first 23 seasons, and changed general managers 11 times over 30 years.  Impatient? Absolutely.  However, at each step in this progression, it cannot be questioned that George Steinbrenner was acting at all times in an attempt to ensure that his team was the very best of its kind.

Perhaps the most frequent charge leveled against the Steinbrenner Yankees is the cry: the Yankees buy the World Series.  This allegation is simplistic and not accurate.

It is true that George Steinbrenner was among the first owners to truly take advantage of baseball’s free agency blossoming in the mid-1970s.  Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Tommy John, Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia are a few of the names that immediately come to mind.  However, I firmly believe that most of NYY’s success over the past 34 years has come from continued development and maintenance of baseball’s best farm system, as well as shrewd trading.

The Yankees’ scouting and minor league baseball program is a model for all sports.  Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Ron Guidry, Thurman Munson and Don Mattingly are all sterling examples of this organization.  Additionally, the “core four” of the Yankees’ 1995 – 2010 successful drive were farm products: Andy Pettite, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and team captain Derek Jeter.

That is not to ignore the fantastic failures that the club paid millions for during the Steinbrenner era.  Certain names come to mind: Don Gullett; Kenny Rogers; Bobby Bonds; Mike Mussina; Danny Tartabull.  Notwithstanding these colossal turkeys, by and large, the club has done well with their acquisitions during the Steinbrenner era.  Hence, the reputation of the Yanks as a team which buys its pennants.

I chalk this talk up to pure envy.  After all, the same rules are applicable for each team.  Theoretically, the other clubs all have access to the same talent.  The Yankees are a large market team with a big pocketbook.  If other owners were incensed enough at Steinbrenner’s pursuit of the cream of the crop, then they should have gotten together to enact a salary cap as some of the other leagues have done.  At present, there is not even a discussion of this in baseball.

As I stated before, growing up in downstate New York, I was programmed to hate The Boss.  However, now I have come to realize that George Steinbrenner represented reaching for excellence.  Isn’t this what we try to instill in our children and in young athletes and scholars?

Now I live in Buffalo.  Unfortunately, our two major league sports teams are in serious decline.  Owners like Ralph Wilson of the Bills and Tom Golisano of the Sabres have permitted this to happen.  This does not occur through a single season of neglect.  I truly wish these gentlemen were a little bit more like George.

George & Joe

In his later years, George mellowed.  Undeniably, some of it had to do with his declining health.  Heck, he let Joe Torre manage the club without serious interference from 1996 to 2007.

In the final years, Steinbrenner enjoyed a degree of sentimental support from the fans of New York, among the most cynical and toughest to please in the nation.  His passing earlier this year was marked by genuine sadness by most New Yorkers.  It is the end of a memorable era.

George & George

I will always wonder what The Boss thought of the send-up given him by the “Big Stein” character voiced by Larry David on Seinfeld.  We may never know.

When George was officially honored at his new Yankee Stadium this past season, commentator Frank DeFord of NPR quipped:

Now there are three man-made objects visible from space: the Great Wall of China; the Pyramids; and the monument to George Steinbrenner in Yankee Stadium center field.

So long, Boss.  Thanks for making my team the best it could be.

— The Major

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3 responses to this post.

  1. What about George and Nixon

    Reply

  2. Hip Hip Horray!! I’m a die hard Yankee fan and proud of it. Frankly, I simply DON’T CARE if people say they “buy” their team. At least they spend the money wisley by picking the right free agents for the right positions that can handle the pressure of playing not only for George, but for the toughest fans in the country. Then, picking the right manager and supporting cast to make the team mold together and play like champions almost EVERY year is an incredible feat. Say what you want. I love the Bills and Sabres, but I’ve watched them mire in sub-mediocre oblivion for too many years. I happen to LOVE rooting for a team that rewards you very nicely by making the playoffs and winning more titles than any other professional team in U.S. sports. Why WOULDN”T you embrace a team that rewards you with excellence so often? Smarten up Yankee haters and join the bandwagon. Even you deserve to feel good more often.

    Reply

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