He was born in Ohio and spent much of his time in Florida, but George Steinbrenner was, at heart, a New Yorker, and one of the city’s most memorable personalities. His death on July 13, just a week after his 80th birthday, marked the end of a magnificent, turbulent and unforgettable era in American sports history.
He hated to lose-we all knew that. He loved being in charge-we knew that, too. He was passionate and impetuous. He made us cringe, but he also made us cheer.
When Steinbrenner bought the New York Yankees in 1973, he was a relatively obscure shipbuilder who promised to keep his hands off the team’s day-to-day operations. Not a chance. He became, in short order, one of the sports world’s most vocal owners, a man who lashed out at managers, coaches, players-anybody who he viewed as an obstacle to the team’s success. He saw himself as just another guy in the bleachers who lived and died for his team. He ranted on their behalf.
In the early 1970s, the Yankees were mired in lethargy and losing streaks. The glorious years of annual World Series appearances seemed long gone. Across town, the Mets had captured the city’s attention, winning the World Series in 1969 and losing in seven games in 1973. The Mets had Tom Seaver. The Yankees had memories.
That simply wouldn’t do. Steinbrenner took charge, cleaned house and took full advantage of the coming of free agency to sign the best ballplayers available. By 1976, the Yankees were back in the World Series. They lost that year, four straight, to the Reds. But they won the next two titles during an unforgettable run that featured wonderful baseball on the field and high drama off it. Players battled one another; Steinbrenner battled manager Billy Martin (whom he fired five times); and the city itself battled its image as a metropolis in decline and out of control.
In the end, Steinbrenner got what he wanted: World championships. In the late 1990s, the Yankees won four World Series titles in five years-three of them consecutively. Just last year, the Yankees were back on top with their first World Series win since 2000. The team has played in 40 World Series and won 27, both Major League Baseball records.
In demanding so much from his players, Steinbrenner did New York an extraordinary favor. Every Yankee championship was a championship for the city. Today, the Yankees are one of the very few sports teams known across the globe, with a ubiquitous cap sold on every continent, advertising New York to the rest of the world.
He surely was a flawed human being, as many former employees could attest. But his drive for excellence was matched by extraordinary generosity. His charitable giving was low-key and often private-stories abound of his paying for the education of underprivileged or disabled children. And he even showed a soft side on the field, offering a second and even third chance to two talented former Mets, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, whose careers were blighted by drugs and run-ins with the law.
For all his bluster, George Steinbrenner became a beloved figure in New York, and not simply because he was a winner. He bought the city’s premier sports team at a time when the team and the city seemed in decline. With passion and energy, he helped restore the team’s fortunes and the city’s image. For that, we treasure the memory of the Boss.
Follow Michael Gonda via RSS.