July 4 is noteworthy for not only being Independence Day and America’s birthday, but also for being the birthday of the greatest owner in sports. George Steinbrenner, known affectionately as the Boss (and on Seinfeld, Big Stein) is 80 today, and while his health has largely forced him out of the public eye, his legacy as a dedicated, hands-on owner in an era of absentee billionaires will live on. In this post, I am going to go over some of the more memorable moments in the career of George Steinbrenner as the Yankee owner, as well as some of his more famous (and infamous) quotes.
- Steinbrenner (who made his fortune in the shipping business) and a group of investors purchase the New York Yankees from the struggling CBS ownership group for $10 million. When asked about how he intended to run the team, Steinbrenner responded “We plan absent ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned…We’re not going to pretend we’re something we’re not. I’ll stick to building ships.”
- Steinbrenner’s ownership got off to a rocky start when in 1974 he was suspended for two years by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, after being indicted on April 5 for making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon’s campaign. Steinbrenner would return to the Yankees in 1976.
- Despite famously saying that “I am dead set against free agency. It can ruin baseball.”, Steinbrenner began to establish his reputation as a big spender in the free agent market. The signing of Catfish Hunter to a 5-year $3.75 million contract in 1974, and Reggie Jackson in 1976 to a 5-year $2.96 million contract greatly exceeded the contracts given out to past free agents, setting the market higher.
- Steinbrenner’s signing of Dave Winfield in 1980 to a 10-year $23 million contract also was also a market-shattering move, though Steinbrenner later criticized Winfield’s playoff performance by famously saying: “Where is Reggie Jackson? We need a Mr. October or a Mr. September. Winfield is Mr. May. My big guys are not coming through.” Steinbrenner’s feud with Winfield eventually got him in trouble after the Boss paid Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on Winfield. Steinbrenner was banned for life by Fay Vincent in 1990 for this scandal, though he was reinstated in 1993.
- Steinbrenner’s hands-on ownership and sometimes abrasive personality led to frequent feuds with his managers. As a result, the Yankees changed managers 20 times in Steinbrenner’s first 23 years as owner. Billy Martin was famously fired on five separate occasions.
- “Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing. Breathing first, winning next.” Steinbrenner’s commitment to winning and dedication to his team was evident early in his tenure as an owner. In 1981, the Boss made a public apology to the City of New York after the Yankees lost to the LA Dodgers in the World Series. Winning continued to be the highest priority during Steinbrenner’s ownership of the Yankees, as the Yankees have won 7 World Series titles and 11 penants in his 36 years as owner.
- Steinbrenner revolutionized baseball by becoming the first owner to sell TV rights to a cable network. He sold the rights to MSG Network in 1988, and cable deals became a significant moneymaker for the Yankees until the debut of the YES Network. Since buying the team for $10 million in 1974, the value of the franchise has been measured as well over $1 billion.
- In 2006, Steinbrenner turned day-to-day operations of the franchise over to his sons, Hal and Hank. His health has prevented him from being actively involved in baseball operations, but certainly his sons know that Big Stein is keeping an eye on them.
Additional Steinbrenner quotes:
- “I will never have a heart attack. I give them.”
- “Owning the Yankees is like owning the Mona Lisa.”
- “I’m really 95 percent Mr. Rogers, and only 5 percent Oscar the Grouch.”
- “Fat pussy toad” (Steinbrenner’s description of unsuccessful Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu).
Given Steinbrenner’s extraordinary success in his long tenure as an owner, his widespread use of the free agent market, and the innovative selling of cable rights, I believe that the Boss deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame. His dedication to the team is responsible for restoring a proud franchise to glory, and today, through the ownership of his sons, his legacy lives on, as the Yankees year in and year out are in competition for the World Series title. Steinbrenner’s controversial past and less than diplomatic personality may prevent him from being inducted in his lifetime, but I can think of no other owner who has been as devoted to his franchise and to winning for so long. It would be a travesty if Steinbrenner is kept out of the Hall, and given his reportedly poor health, I think he should be inducted sooner rather than later.
To leave this post on a lighter note, below is the classic portrayal of the Boss by Larry David in Seinfeld. The Boss has been portrayed in popular culture as a larger-than-life figure with a strong personality and a massive ego (such as Oliver Platt’s portrayal in ESPN’s The Bronx is Burning). David’s Steinbrenner, however, is less abrasive and more eccentric, and may be the enduring pop culture portrayal of one of baseball’s great personalities.