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George Steinbrenner Dead at 80

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.

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Peter Golenbock
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Tuesday, July 13, 2010; 2:00 PM

Peter Golenbock, author of the biography George: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built the Yankee Empire, was online Tuesday, July 13 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the life and legacy of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who died Tuesday at the age of 80.

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Washington, D.C.: I grew up in NY and am a lifelong Yankees fan. I was born into the worst period in Yankees history -- my formative years were some of the worst teams in the history of baseball, let alone the Yankees. We despised George as we watched him trade away prospects like Drabek, McGriff, and Buhner. Yet, in the last 15 years or so, Yankee fans softened to George. Maybe it was because George softened. Maybe it was the winning. Maybe it was because he had aged. Maybe it was his changed philosophy. Maybe it was the reverence that guys like Torre and Jeter showed for "Mr. Steinbrenner." I'll admit--when I saw him wheeled out at the opening of the new Yankee stadium, a tear hit my eye. Why did we change?

One thing is sure -- no owner in any sport has or will have the effect on his (and other) sports the way George did in my life time. Who's for renaming E. 161st Street in front of the Stadium, "Steinbrenner Way?"

Peter Golenbock: Two things happened to make it seem that George had softened. The first was the hiring of Joe Torre. Joe was the first manager who really knew how to handle George. Joe's father was abusive, and it took Joe his entire childhood to get a handle on how to avoid his wrath. With Steinbrenner Joe figured out one hard and fast rule of dealing with his boss: never argue with George in public. If Joe had a beef, he and George would go into a room alone, and they would hash it out, where other managers would blow their stack and blasty George in the newspaper. To George, this was treason, and more than once a manager got fired for arguing with him in public.
The other event that softened George's image was his "appearances" on the Seinfeld show. Show after show, Larry David would savage George. The story line of how George Castanza wanted to get fired so he could take a job with the Mets was as funny as anything on television. No matter what outlandish thing Costanza did, "George" wouldn't fire him.
Only toward the end, when Alzheimers and dementia ate at his brain did George Steinbrenner lose his penchant for second guessing and criticizing his managers and general managers. When that happened, George really did soften.

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The Boss is in a better place, in deep, deep center field: Steinbrenner ruined small market major league baseball for decades to come.

The Pirates will have completed their 18th successive losing season later this summer. Clubs like Cleveland, Kansas City, Oakland, Baltimore and others don't have the resources to field competitive teams. While Oakland has spunk and is always a contender, just think how awesome their teams would be if they could afford just one more great player.

He never cared about the overall prosperity, competitiveness and popularity of MLB, just that his Yankees win World Series.

Peter Golenbock: George all his life was a monopolist. Fairness was not a term he was familiar with. When he ran American Ship, he did everything in his power to put his competitors out of business. He monopolized the docks in Cleveland with the help of his rich and powerful friends.
He didn't care at all how his lavish spending affected the other ballclubs. He had a tremendous financial advantage, and the only person to blame for the Yankees not winning more pennants was George's insistence on making trades himself. He hired general managers who feared confronting him, and for eighteen years, between 1981 and 1996, George went pennantless because of his stupid decisions to trade away talented prospects for over the hill bigger names.
The one thing George did do which I believe improved the overall game of baseball was to push for the three-tiered playoff system we have today. A lot more teams became eligible for the playoffs as the days of September dwindled down.
I live in St. Petersburg, where we root for the Rays. Our owners say they can't afford the players they have, and their budget is $72,000. The Yankee budget this year is three times that. Of course, the Yankees make $300,000 from the YES network, so there is another built-in advantage that the Yankees will have until eternity.

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Arlington,Va: As a long-time, diehard Yanks fan,I have enjoyed your many books on the team. I think the baseball legacy (as opposed to sports business legacy) of The Boss is mixed. Clearly, during the late 70's, his aggressive pursuit of free agents and the astute trading of Gabe Paul brought the WS crowns of '77 and '78. But, thereafter, it seems that the team succeeded more despite he Boss's efforts rather than as a result of them.

Who knows ... if he hadn't been banned from baseball in 1993, maybe he would've traded the Core Four + Bernie Williams. His willingness to sign/trade for O'Neill, Martinez, Brosius, Cone, Key, Wells and Clemens contributed greatly to the four World Series wins in the late 90s and 2000. Long Live The Boss and Bob Sheppard!!

Peter Golenbock: It embarrasses me to shill my own book, but in researching George: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built the Yankee Empire, I discovered that the pennants the Yankees won while George owned the team came after the two times George was suspended from baseball. The first time came after the Watergate scandal, when he was convicted of making illegal contributions to the re-elect-Nixon campaign. He had wanted to trade Ron Guidry, but after his suspension, Gabe Paul kept Guidry and made a series of brillant trades that helped the Yankees win four pennants -- 1976, 1977, 1978, 1981.
In 1990, George was suspended for two years by Fay Vincent for paying Howie Spira $40,000 for dirt on Dave Winfield, and it was during that period -- as you correctly pointed out -- that the Yankees kept their five prize prospects: Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Derek Jeter. George particularly wanted to get rid of Rivera (too wild), Bernie (He played the guitar and George thought him too weak; and Posada. (I don't know why.) But after George was suspended, all those rookies stayed Yankees, and they led the team to four more pennants.

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Hernando, Fla.: Are there any plans to cryogenically preserve part of George, like Ted Williams? Note: This question is not a joke (at least I don't think it is)

Peter Golenbock: After what happened to poor Ted, I can't imagine anyone wanting such a fate. I honestly have no idea.

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Native Berkeleyan: What was the real reason behind the love-hate relationship between George Steinbrenner and my fellow native-Berkeleyan Billy Martin?

Peter Golenbock: It wasn't really love-hate. It was envy-hate. Billy envied George's wealth. George envied Billy's ability to manage. They needed each other. On a personal level, George was contempuous of Billy as an individual, and Billy felt the same way. George felt that Billy was a thug, and Billy felt George was a spoiled rich kid who didn't know the first thing about baseball but who had the nerve to tell him how to manage his team. It was a totally destructive combination. After Billy was fired the first time, he never should have come back to New York. But Billy had a sickness -- he loved being a Yankee -- and it ended up killing him.

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Sad?: I feel the same way about George dying as I did when Nixon died. I'm sorry for the people who loved him, but I will not miss him. He ushered in an era of greed and I'm not talking about the players. The YES Network legacy is one I would never want to live with. My mother is still angry she has to pay more for her cable just to support a network she never watches.

Peter Golenbock: Nixon and George both were brilliant men who were deeply flawed. Nixon had an enemies list. Steinbrenner was a narcissist who had no respect for anyone else. Say hi to your mother for me.

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Budget Dollars: Mr. Golenbeck, I believe you need to add at least three zero's to those budget figures.

Peter Golenbock: The Yankee budget this year was about $200 million. The Rays budget is $72,000.

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Bethesda, Md.: How impactful was Steinbrenner's experience at Williams College?

Peter Golenbock: George was very active at Williams. He was a track star. He was the co-sports editor of the student newspaper. He was involved in his Deke fraternity. He was friends with many of the jocks, and his senior year he was inducted into the special secret society the big shots got inducted into. George also was in ROTC at Williams. After his graduation, the Korean War was being fought. Many of his ROTC jock friends went to Korea. George went to Columbus, Ohio, where he became the athletic director of Lockbourne Air Force Base. He was in no danger of going to Korea. The airmen at Lockbourne, if they left the base, went to Germany.

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Harrisburg, Penn.: One of my all-time favorite "Saturday Night Live" sketches was the one where George Steinbrenner portrayed an employer who explains how it would be foolish to fire people on whims. This shows George Steinbrenner can take a joke.

Yet, what was it about George Steinbrenner that seems to have made him act rather impulsively on firing managers, signing free agents, and acting as boss without seeking and taking advice from employees willing to challenge his thinking?

Peter Golenbock: George had a personality disorder. He was a narcissist. Narcissists love publicity, good or bad. Who else would have allowed himself to be lampooned so mercilessly in Seinfeld? Another trait of narcissism is believing oneself to be the smartest person in the room. Another trait is being unable to take criticism. Another trait is overreacting to criticism. It's why George felt he had to ruin Dave Winfield's life because Winfield had outsmarted him in his contract and refused to back down when attacked.

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Arlington, Va.: I do see his legacy as being both the winning he did and the fact that baseball right now is broken. As you point out, the YES network makes the Yankees more money than any other team could hope to get. It is NOT a free enterprise system, if so then Kansas City could move to Brooklyn right now, so why not impose a real salary cap and make it actually competitive instead of who does best among the rich teams?

And I'm a Red Sox fan so that would hurt my team also.

Peter Golenbock: The Red Sox are fortunate that John Henry and his other owners have deep pockets, NESN, and the love of New England. If any time will be able to compete with the Yankees it will be the Red Sox.
A salary cap would be wise, if only to limit the ability of the Yankees to spend, but whenever such a plan is mentioned, the players threaten to go on strike. If anyone should lionize Mr. Steinbrenner, it should be the players. He has helped make them all rich. The alternative has been the luxury tax, with the Yankees and Red Sox paying the less-wealthy clubs. But for years Vince Namoli, the owner of the Devil Rays, would take the $10 million, and instead of buying players, he'd put the money is his pocket. Namoli should have been thrown in jail.

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Philadelphia: How much did George Steinbrenner pay for the Yankees and what is their estimated worth today? I think that tells a lot about the empire George Steinbrenner built.

Peter Golenbock: George paid $10 million for the team, and received a rebate from the deal with the city for rebuilding the stadium of about $1.3 million. So his cost was $8.7 million, and of that he paid less than a million in cash out of his own pocket.
In part because of the YES network, the Yankees today are valued at $1.6 BILLION. And ironically, no stockholders have ever been paid a dime. George blew all these dividents on often less-than-stellar free agents. Carl Pavano and a number of others are still getting paid by the Yankees.

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New York, N.Y.: Have you ever heard the story Kenny Kramer tells about how Larry David pranked George Steinbrenner? Supposedly Larry David got George Steinbrenner to film a "Seinfeld" episode and then arranged for the shooting to conflict with Opening Day at Yankee Stadium? Then Larry David had the scene cut. In fact, Larry David wound up portraying Steinbrenner on the show.

Peter Golenbock: I heard that story just as you tell it, only I didn't know it was a practical joke. I just know that he did appear live for a segment and it didn't run on TV. In fact, the photo of the real George in the Seinfeld episode is in my George book.

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Bronx, N.Y.: Will the Yankees still be the team that gets their man?

Peter Golenbock: The Yankees in the future will be far more successful with sons Hank and Hal running the team. Hank and Hal are not people who think they are smarter than the experts. They trust Brian Cashman to make the decisions, and Brian seems to make good ones. I look for the Yankees to win 110 games this year, and as Jeter, Arod, and company get older, I am confident that the Yankee farm team will replenish the team with young players. Hughes and Gardner are just two who are doing just that right now.

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Arlington, Va.: On how awful the lack of parity has been in baseball - over the last nine years, eight teams (including the skinflint Florida Marlins) have won the World Series. Only the Red Sox won twice.

I enjoyed hating Steinbrenner because he was so good at what he did. If your favorite team took down the Yankees, you beat the Evil Empire.

Peter Golenbock: It just goes to show that money doesn't necessarily buy championships. Some teams have great front offices -- Minnesota is one. Texas now is another. The Tampa Bay rays is another. Other front offices are horrible -- Baltimore. Pittsburgh. A smart general manager can win. It's been proven.

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Clifton, Va.: George Steinbrenner was a legend and the greatest sports team owner ever. Tough for me to say as old Senators fan.

He also learned from his mistakes.

Dan Snyder could learn a lot from George. Snyder is the worst team owner ever in professional sports because of what he hasn't adapted to yet; he DOESN'T learn from his mistakes.

Peter Golenbock: In the Washington DC area are Dan Snyder and Peter Angelos. The only owner who is worse is Al Davis.

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Fairfax, Va.: Isn't part of George Steinbrenner's legacy the huge gulf between the haves and the have nots in baseball?

Peter Golenbock: It certainly is. George wanted to bury the less-well off teams. Playing fair was not part of his legacy.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Not really a question, more of a blessing.

George Steinbrenner is the "Mikhail Gorbachev" of the Yankees as "Evil Empire", because he presided over the dismantling of the greatest sports dynasty in history.

Consider: from 1923 through 1972 (50 seasons), the Yankees won 20 World Series Championships, Steinbrenner's own oft-repeated standard of success. So for Steinbrenner's predecessors, that's a 40 percent success rate, or in whole numbers, two World Series Championships every five years.

In the 36 World Series since Steinbrenner's ownership (remember WS canceled in 1994), the Yankees have won only seven times, for a success rate of 19.4 percent, or in whole number terms, nearly one WS title every five years.

May he rest in peace. He will be missed by fans of Yankees' opponents everywhere, for the hope he brought to them: thanks to Steinbrenner, the Yankees now win the WS less than half as often as they used to.

-Note: I had this epiphany when I was watching Steinbrenner riding the golf cart to the mound just before the 2008 All-Star game, the Yankees' obvious attempt to liken that moment to Ted Williams' similar appearance at the 1999 All-Star Game when he was surrounded by other Hall of Famers from every ball club, living members of the All-Century Team, and by the 1999 All-Stars, several of whom were tearing up at the drama of the moment.

The only one crying when Steinbrenner arrived at the mound and was surrounded only by Yankee Hall of Famers and All-Stars, was Steinbrenner himself. Leave it to the Yankees to come up with such a ridiculous, Yankee-centric spectacle on a day designed to celebrate all of baseball and not just the Yankee franchise.

Peter Golenbock: I don't know who you are, but you should have your own column in the Washington Post. That was a heck of an analysis.

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Philadelphia: I grew up a Red Sox fan in Connecticut, always detested the Yankees (still do), but have always enjoyed the long-term impacts that George had on the game (had to like Reggie, the "ture" Yankee fans hated him). One only needs to go back to any Michael Burke press statement before George took over, what an embarrassment.

On HBO's series with the baseball color home movies, they talk about the decline of the team in the 60s and then (cruelly) show a closeup of Horace Clarke. That's really how bad it was. Baseball is much the better for George being a big part of it.

Peter Golenbock: Horace Clarke and George Steinbrenner really do represent the difference between the CBS era and the Steinbrenner era. But don't forget, free agency didn't come into the game until 1977. The Yankees played Horace Clarke because there was no one better in the farm system, and no free agents were available.

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Indianapolis Indiana : Who will own the Yankees now?

Peter Golenbock: The Yankees will be owned by his sons and daughters. Did George take steps to pay the inheritence tax on the Yankees? Tune in.

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Washington DC: Should the All Star game tonight be canceled in honor of George? Because with his ego, he would have been upset if they didn't cancel the whole rest of the season in his honor.

Peter Golenbock: Only George could have figured out a way to upstage the All Star game! He would not have wanted the game cancelled, because if that had happened, then the announcers would not have been able to talk about him.

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Washington, DC: Hello --

What happens to the ownership of the Yankees now? Will the team have to be sold, as the Redskins were after the death of Jack Kent Cooke? Or has the family taken steps to make sure the team can stay within the family? Thanks.

Peter Golenbock: I would bet George took care of this, but I don't really know. We'll see.

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Indian Rocks Beach, Florida: I am interested in George's collegiate career at Williams College.

Can you share with me some information about Georges experience at college and how much George enjoyed his college years? I know you said he was active, but how much of college did he see as "business" and how much was the kind of "fun" that most have at college?

Peter Golenbock: George wasn't a great student. The college experience was more important to him than his studies. George loved his college experience. He was very close to the football coach, and he roomed with Chuck Salmon, the star football player. It was an all-boys school, and he dated a little, but had no serious relationships. He wasn't much of a drinker, either. Often he was the designated driver on road trips.
A lot of his time he spent practicing track. He ran the hurdles. His senior year he was captain of the track team.

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Washington, DC: I'd just like to note that while George Steinbrenner was certainly controversial, as a native of NJ and die hard Yankee fan, I can't tell you have sad I am today that The Boss is no longer with us. Not to mention the Voice of God, Bob Sheppard passing this weekend. While both have been ill for the last few years and not around that much, if at all, it is definitely a sad time for all Yankee fans, especially those of us who grew up going to games frequently.

Peter Golenbock: No question, George will be missed. He's been missed all these past couple of years as well. There was a time when you couldn't open up a newspaper without seeing his picture on the back page.

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Reston, Va.: Peter, I've always enjoyed your books and met you (and your Great Dane, if I remember correctly) years ago.

What did Steinbrenner learn in the '90s that turned the Yankees into consistent winners? How was he able to finally keep his hands off enough to let the manager manage, the coaches coach, and the players play?

(There's an NFL owner around here who needs to learn that lesson)

Peter Golenbock: He kept his hands off because he had to. Fay Vincent suspended him for two years for paying Howard Spira $40,00 for "dirt" on Dave Winfield, and during those two years the young Yankee players developed and went on to become stars with the team. If the Redskins or Orioles ever expect to win again, you're going to have to find a way to suspend those two guys for a couple of years.

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. G: While Mr. S did apparently have the ability to laugh at himself - there was "Seinfeld," plus his appearance on "Saturday Night Live" in a skit in which he was a store manager trying to force himself to fire a horrible employee - let's not forget he was notoriously tough on anyone who worked for him and, could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a nice guy.

Peter Golenbock: George was the farthest from "a nice guy" that one could imagine. Working for him was a nightmare. He was constantly critical. You could never do anything right. He never gave praise. And if you made the slightest mistake (not bringing him his sandwich fast enough) you could be fired.

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Pittsburgh: What will YOU remember most about Steinbrenner?

Peter Golenbock: In 1980 I interviewed him for George: The Poor Little Rich Boy Who Built the Yankee Empire. He was as charming as he could be. He let me know that I wasn't at fault for all the nasty things Billy wrote about him in Number 1. And he let me know if I wrote anything about him he didn't like, I would be sorry. More than anything, I will remember his ability to manipulate my emotions.

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Washington, DC: Maybe with his passing and the whole LeBron James show making players pseudo owners, we can move on from "owners as thugs". Hope so.

Peter Golenbock: Owners as thugs. Players as thugs. We shouldn't tolerate either.

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washingtonpost.com: Peter had to leave, but wanted to tell everyone to enjoy tonight's game in the meantime: Peter Golenblock: Thank you everyone. Enjoy the all star game.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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