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

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.

He spent millions of dollars for such star players as Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson and, in later years, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia, escalating salaries across baseball and earning the enmity of clubs with fewer resources.

During his 37 years at the helm, the Yankees won more games than any other team in baseball and won 11 American League pennants. Their 2008 home attendance of 4.3 million is the highest in major-league history.

The Yankees' spending skyrocketed as well, as Mr. Steinbrenner paid millions to baseball's biggest names. His free spending made the Yankees an industry-wide attraction but also the most hated team in sports.

Attendance jumped at stadiums across the country whenever the Yankees came to town, but fans and sportswriters often condemned Mr. Steinbrenner for grabbing up other teams' star players in an effort to "buy championships."

As a result, Major League Baseball installed a so-called luxury tax in 2002, requiring wealthy teams whose payrolls crossed a certain threshold to pay a subsidy into a general fund to support poorer franchises. Mr. Steinbrenner complained of creeping communism in baseball but in a seven-year period contributed an estimated $175 million to the coffers of other teams through the tax.

In 1973, Mr. Steinbrenner invested only $168,000 of his money when he led a consortium that bought the team from CBS for $10 million. In April 2010, Forbes magazine estimated the team's value at $1.6 billion.

Beyond the playing field, Mr. Steinbrenner's franchising arrangements helped make the Yankees a recognized name around the world, as the team's caps and merchandise became global symbols of America. The club's regional cable network, Yankees Entertainment & Sports, became even more valuable than the team itself.

In 2009, the Yankees moved from their longtime stadium in the Bronx across the street to a new billion-dollar stadium that was considered something of a monument to Mr. Steinbrenner.

"George has been a very charismatic, controversial owner," baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said in 2005. "But look, he did what he set out to do -- he restored the New York Yankees franchise."

Inside the 'Bronx Zoo'

Whenever a new player came to the Yankees, he knew he would have to conform to Mr. Steinbrenner's strict standards of behavior and grooming. No one was allowed to wear long hair or a beard, and some players quaked upon entering the hallowed ground of Yankee Stadium, where Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle once played. Part of the stadium's aura came from the resounding voice of public address announcer Bob Sheppard, who died two days before Mr. Steinbrenner at age 99.

Behind the slugging of Jackson and the pitching efforts of Hunter, Ron Guidry and Goose Gossage, the Yankees won World Series championships in 1977 and 1978, seemingly justifying Mr. Steinbrenner's demanding approach.

When the team lost the 1981 series to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Mr. Steinbrenner ordered an apology to be read to the fans at Yankee Stadium. He further antagonized star outfielder Dave Winfield by calling him "Mr. May," in contrast to Jackson, whose postseason heroics earned him the title of "Mr. October."

In 1990, Mr. Steinbrenner paid a gambler, Howard Spira, $40,000 to look for scandalous information about Winfield, who was a constant target of Mr. Steinbrenner's scorn. For consorting with a gambler, baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent suspended Mr. Steinbrenner from any involvement with the Yankees for more than two years.

In 1974, Mr. Steinbrenner had been suspended after being convicted of a felony for making illegal contributions to President Richard M. Nixon's reelection campaign. During the turbulent 1978 season, manager Martin lost his job after ripping both his boss and Jackson, his star player.

"The two of them deserve each other," Martin said. "One's a born liar [Jackson], the other's convicted."

The continual turmoil surrounding the Yankees led the team to be known as "the Bronx Zoo." Mr. Steinbrenner proved to be as cantankerous as some of his players and once claimed to have broken his hand in a fistfight with opposing fans in a hotel elevator.

"When I was a boy, I always wanted to join the circus and play for the Yankees," Graig Nettles, a third baseman and team captain in the 1970s and 1980s, once said. "I got to do both."

After a long drought in the 1980s, the Yankees again became baseball's most dominant dynasty in the 1990s, winning four World Series titles under Manager Joe Torre from 1996 to 2000.

Last year, with Manager Joe Girardi leading the team, the Yankees won their seventh world title for an ailing Mr. Steinbrenner and the 27th in their history -- more than any other franchise.

Although Mr. Steinbrenner paid the highest salaries in the sport, he also had the highest expectations. In 1985, he fired his manager, Yankee Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, only 16 games into the season. He had an intermediary do the dirty work, prompting Berra to say he would never return to Yankee Stadium as long as Mr. Steinbrenner controlled the team.

Finally, in 1999, Mr. Steinbrenner apologized in person, saying the manner in which he fired Berra was "the worst mistake I ever made in baseball."

Even Torre, who led the team to four World Series titles in five years, wasn't immune from the Boss's ire. He was let go in 2007, when the Yankees failed to reach the World Series.

"Winning means everything," Mr. Steinbrenner said in 1990. "You show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser."

Rise as shipping executive

George Michael Steinbrenner III, who was born July 4, 1930, in Rocky River, Ohio, grew up under a stern father who refused to give his son an allowance, making him peddle eggs door to door instead. After attending a military school in Indiana, Mr. Steinbrenner graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts, where he excelled in track and football.

He spent two years in the Air Force in Ohio, where he set up a food service business that ultimately served 16,000 people on the base. Mr. Steinbrenner was an assistant football coach at Northwestern and Purdue universities in the 1950s before entering his family's Great Lakes shipping business, Kinsman Marine Transit.

He took over the business in his 30s, bought out rival companies and became the chairman of American Ship Building, which he led until the company went bankrupt in 1993.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Steinbrenner owned a professional basketball team in Cleveland and invested in horse racing. For years, he had a horse farm in Ocala, Fla., and six of his horses ran in the Kentucky Derby. He also invested in several successful Broadway plays and had interests in banking and real estate.

In addition to his sons Hal and Hank Steinbrenner, who now run the Yankees, survivors include his wife of 54 years, Joan Zeig Steinbrenner; two daughters, Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal and Jessica Steinbrenner; and 13 grandchildren.

Mr. Steinbrenner lived in Tampa for the most of the past 30 years and, in spite of his long ownership of the Yankees, never had a home in New York.

Only after his bid to buy the Cleveland Indians was rejected in 1972 did Mr. Steinbrenner turn his attention to the Yankees, finding a thrill in sports that mere business could not provide.

"When you're a shipbuilder, nobody pays attention to you," he once said. "But when you own the Yankees, they do."

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