Steinbrenner Casts Huge Shadow

DENVER—What may be the most telling statement of the regard in which the late George Steinbrenner was held is that hours after his death, the Red Sox announced there would be a moment of silence at Fenway Park in his honor.

Yes, those Red Sox, whose president, Larry Lucchino, was so incensed with the antics of Steinbrenner in his never-ending efforts to make the Yankees the best team in baseball that he labeled the Yankees “The Evil Empire,” adding to a rivalry that extended back to the Jan. 3, 1920, sale of Babe Ruth from Boston to the Bronx.

“He was and always will be as much of a New York Yankee as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and all of the other Yankee legends,” commissioner Bud Selig said.

Ruth made the Yankees a national treasure. Steinbrenner returned the Yankees to their place in the minds of the sporting public.

Just six true owners are enshrined in the Hall of Fame: Tom Yawkey, Bill Veeck, Walter O’Malley, Clark Griffith, Charles Comiskey and Barney Dreyfuss.

It’s time to add a seventh.

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Love the Yankees or hate the Yankees, fans are never indifferent toward the team.

Ditto Steinbrenner.

Steinbrenner was almost an afterthought when CBS sold the Yankees in January 1973 to a group headed by Michael Burke, who had been the team president during the CBS days. But before the first pitch was thrown in 1973, Steinbrenner gave the first sign of his emergence when he brought in longtime baseball man Gabe Paul as a senior team executive.

And right after the end of the 1973 season, Ralph Houk became the first of 20 managerial departures that marked the Steinbrenner era. The search for his replacement gave a glimpse of Steinbrenner’s willingness to step on baseball’s traditions when he tried to hire Dick Williams, even though Williams was still under contract to the Athletics.

It was Steinbrenner who prompted Major League Baseball to issue an edict banning major announcements during key events, such as the World Series or All-Star Game. When his Yankees weren’t the center of attention on the field, Steinbrenner had a way of grabbing the headlines. So it was only fitting that he died on the morning of this year’s All-Star Game, turning the game into a footnote in the baseball world.

For all the complaints about Steinbrenner, and his free-spending ways, the bottom line is that The Boss was driven to win. He expected excellence from his employees and he was willing to pay for excellence. And more often than not, he attained excellence, which added to the frustrations of his competitors. He spent 371⁄2 years as the head of the Yankees ownership group, the longest tenure of any owner in the history of the franchise. And for all the accusations of fiscal irresponsibility, his team had the highest payroll in the game in just three of his first 26 seasons of ownership.

When he bought the Yankees, they were in the midst of a decade of decline. They hadn’t won a World Series since 1962 and hadn’t been to one since 1964, with five losing seasons in the eight prior to Steinbrenner’s arrival. After going 80-82 in 1973, New York had a losing record just four more times in the Steinbrenner era, while winning seven World Series, 11 American League pennants and 16 American League East titles.

The Yankees developed their own television network and their own ballpark food business, innovative ideas that other sports teams have copied. He replaced the House that Ruth Built with a new $1.5 billion stadium. They went from a franchise that Steinbrenner and his partners bought for $8.7 million to a franchise that Forbes valued at $1.6 billion last winter. And while he was driving up the value of the Yankees, Steinbrenner boosted the value of every other baseball franchise, too.

Itchy Trigger Finger

Yet Steinbrenner may be most remembered for his managerial revolving door. Dick Howser is the only manager who actually walked away from Steinbrenner, who went on one of his well-documented tirades when Howser’s 1980 Yankees won 103 regular season games but were swept in the AL Championship Series by the Royals. After being read the riot act and given a set of guidelines for how to handle the team, Howser told Steinbrenner he didn’t need the job and walked out of the owner’s Yankee Stadium office.

Twice Steinbrenner tried to lure Howser back without success. “We are much better friends when I don’t work for him,” Howser once explained. “We both have a burning desire to win. Let’s leave it at that.”

Time and health did mellow Steinbrenner.Eighteen of his managerial changes came in his first 23 years in charge. Current Yankees manager Joe Girardi is in his third season on the job, second-longest of any Steinbrenner manager to the 10-year run of his immediate predecessor, Joe Torre.

“George was The Boss, make no mistake,” Yogi Berra said. “He built the Yankees into champions and that’s something nobody can ever deny.”

Berra and Steinbrenner rebuilt their relationship after a 19-year feud when Berra refused to set foot in Yankee Stadium. He was fired as manager 16 games into the 1985 season and was given the word not by Steinbrenner, but rather a front office aide.

It was the Steinbrenner way, but the eventual repair of the relationship showed how the man was more than just bluster.

“He was a very generous, caring, passionate man,” Berra said. “George and I had our differences, but who didn’t? We became great friends over the last decade and I will miss him very much.”

Majors | #2010 #Column

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