George Steinbrenner has died of a heart attack a few days after his 80th birthday. He was born on the Fourth of July, just like another great American, Calvin Coolidge. The only other thing the two had in common was that both were quintessentially American types.
Steinbrenner, of course, was the celebrity sports mogul par excellence, elevating the role to heights that will likely never be surpassed. Charlie Finley, among others, performed in the role before he did, but Finley and others played small houses out on the American road. Steinbrenner took his act to Broadway — and it ran for years and years.
Owners are like athletes in many ways. Some of them don’t owner so good: They kick around in the bigs for a while, like a journeyman second baseman, never winning championships; nobody who isn’t counting on them for a paycheck even knows their names. Then there are the studs who owner good, so serious fans know who they are; in football, the Rooney family in Pittsburgh is one of these. And, finally, there are the stars. They don’t just owner good, they devour attention and thrive on publicity, becoming such huge figures that the people they hire play in their shadows. Think Ted Turner when he owned the Atlanta Braves, or Jack Kent Cooke and the Washington Redskins.
None of them were a patch on Steinbrenner. At his height, he even played a character on the most highly rated television sit-com of the day. Something called Steinville, I believe. The names of old TV shows are far more forgettable than that of the man known to the tabloids as “the Boss.”
For them, he was the gift that kept on giving…and giving. His relationship with Yankee manager and former player Billy Martin was as tempestuous as the one between Dick and Liz — and even they didn’t get divorced as often as the Boss and Martin, who did it five times.
The boss also fired Yogi Berra, which is sort of like mugging Peter Pan. But, then, Steinbrenner would have done that too, if the little pixie wasn’t winning. And for Steinbrenner that didn’t just mean putting up more W’s than L’s. Winning meant…well, winning it all.
Championships. The Yankees had gone a long time without winning any when he took over. (Actually, he was one of several limited partners who bought the Yankees from CBS in 1973. But, as someone said at the time, “You don’t know the real meaning of ‘limited’ until you’ve been a limited partner with George.”) He ownered the Yankees to eleven penants and seven World Series championships. So he ownered pretty good.
He spent buckets of money doing it. But he made tubs of money along the way. And he was “unconventional,” to say the very least. He actually hired someone to do some sleuthing around to find dirt on one of his most expensive free-agent hires. That cost him a suspension, as did a conviction for making illegal campaign donations back in the Watergate era.
There are purists who believe he was ultimately harmful to the game. And it doesn’t, in fact, seem right that an owner should be more famous than his players. But that recalls the story of how Babe Ruth, in 1930, was told by a reporter that he was being paid more than Herbert Hoover, the president of the United States.
Babe didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah,” he said, “but I had a better year than he did.”
A lot of great players worked for George Steinbrenner. But the Boss had a longer and more colorful career than any of them.