George Steinbrenner dies at 80; Yankees owner built billion-dollar empire

Yankees owner who rebuilt the team into a sports empire with a mix of bluster and big bucks died of a heart attack July 13, 2010.
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; 12:00 AM

George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees, whose pugnacious leadership restored the glory of baseball's most storied franchise, helped secure seven World Series titles and made the Yankees the first billion-dollar baseball franchise, died July 13 at a hospital in Tampa after a heart attack.

Mr. Steinbrenner, who turned 80 on July 4, had handed day-to-day management of the team over to his sons two years ago. The New York Daily News reported that he had been in poor health for several years after a series of strokes.

Mr. Steinbrenner, who was undoubtedly the best known and most contentious owner in professional sports, became the principal owner of the Yankees in 1973. He transformed a team failing at the box office and on the field by investing heavily to bring the game's best players to the Bronx and by demanding nothing less than victory.

"Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing," he once said.

Mr. Steinbrenner was a shipping executive from Cleveland when he led a consortium that bought the team for $10 million.

He promised to keep his hands off the Yankees, saying, "I'll stick to building ships."

That pledge soon vanished. Few team owners in sports were as overbearing or tempestuous as Mr. Steinbrenner, who was universally known as the Boss. Players and staff members were dismissed for the smallest infraction, and Mr. Steinbrenner micromanaged every detail of his franchise, from the length of his players' hair to groundskeeping and press releases. After games, he was known to direct traffic outside Yankee Stadium. Sportscaster Howard Cosell called him "Patton in pinstripes" -- an analogy Mr. Steinbrenner relished.

Mr. Steinbrenner feuded with many of his star players and managers, notoriously hiring and firing manager Billy Martin five times in a 14-year period. If players could not measure up to the pressures of New York and the standards of the Yankees, they were unceremoniously shipped out.

"George is a great guy, unless you have to work for him," Lou Piniella, a two-time Yankee manager, said in 2004.

In 1990, Newsweek magazine pronounced Mr. Steinbrenner "the most hated man in baseball," and in 2003 an executive with the rival Boston Red Sox called the Yankees "the evil empire."

Over time, Mr. Steinbrenner's image softened, and his fame reached beyond baseball and became a part of popular culture. He was portrayed as a loud-mouthed character on "Seinfeld" -- seen only from behind and voiced by Larry David -- and appeared on "Saturday Night Live."

Lavish spending

Mr. Steinbrenner's hardheaded leadership got results. In the 1970s, he was among the first baseball owners to plunge into the free-agent market, forever changing the economics of the game.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company