Yankee legacy

Steinbrenner’s leadership brought Bronx Bombers back to the top

December 03, 2010
George Steinbrenner is one of 12 finalists on the Expansion Era ballot for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Watch a video on the Expansion Era ballot

A recognizable and renowned fixture on the baseball landscape for four decades, George Steinbrenner took over the New York Yankees, a legendary franchise that was in the midst of a downward trend, and made them not only relevant again but a model of success both on and off the field.

Steinbrenner is one of 12 finalists on this year's Expansion Era ballot that will be considered by the committee on managers, umpires, executives and long-retired players at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The 16-person committee will vote on Dec. 5 at baseball's Winter Meetings in Orlando, and the results of the vote will be announced Dec. 6.

The 12 candidates on the ballot are: Vida Blue, Dave Concepcion, Steve Garvey, Pat Gillick, Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Billy Martin, Marvin Miller, Al Oliver, Ted Simmons, Rusty Staub and Steinbrenner. Any candidate who receives at least 75 percent of all ballots cast will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2011.

The committee consists of Hall of Fame members Johnny Bench, Whitey Herzog, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Tony Perez, Frank Robinson, Ryne Sandberg and Ozzie Smith; major league executives Bill Giles (Phillies), David Glass (Royals), Andy MacPhail (Orioles) and Jerry Reinsdorf (White Sox); and veteran media members Bob Elliott (Toronto Sun), Tim Kurkjian (ESPN), Ross Newhan (retired, Los Angeles Times) and Tom Verducci (Sports Illustrated).

The eldest of three children, George Michael Steinbrenner III was born to Henry and Rita on July 4, 1930, in Rocky River, Ohio. Raised in the Cleveland suburb of Bay Village, he favored the powerhouse Yankees over his local Indians.

After attending Indiana's Culver Military Academy in the mid-1940s, where he was a multi-sport athlete, Steinbrenner went to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he graduated with a B.A. in English literature in 1952. After serving two years in the Air Force and as a football and basketball coach at Aquinas High School in Columbus, Ohio, where he spent a year studying for a master's degree in physical education at Ohio State, he accepted assistant football coaching positions at two Big Ten universities: Northwestern in 1955 and Purdue in 1956.

By 1957, at his father's insistence, Steinbrenner returned to join the family's shipping concern, Kinsman Marine Transit, which transported cargo on the Great Lakes.

In 1967, Steinbrenner began to build his fortune by buying stock in the American Shipbuilding Company, which he eventually took over and merged with Kinsman Marine Transit.

It was during these years that Steinbrenner got his first taste of professional sports, first owning the Cleveland Spiders, a minor league basketball team, being a part-owner of the Chicago Bulls and making overtures to purchase the Indians.

On January 3, 1973, a group of investors led by the 42-year-old Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees, a team without a pennant since 1964, from CBS for a net price of $8.7 million. In 1972, the Yankees drew fewer than a million fans for the first time since World War II.

After first stating that he would stay out of the team's day-to-day affairs, it took five years for "The Boss" and his aggressive and often tumultuous leadership to turn the organization back into World Champions.

"We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned," Steinbrenner said at the 1973 press conference announcing his purchase of the team. "We're not going to pretend we're something we aren't. I'll stick to building ships."

Steinbrenner, once critical of free agency when it first arrived on the scene, is often given credit for embracing the high-spending practice when it got its start in the mid-1970s. Beginning with Catfish Hunter in 1974, the list of free agents lured to the Yankees in those early years include Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Rudy May, Bob Watson, Ken Griffey Sr., Tommy John, Dave Winfield, Phil Niekro, Luis Tiant, Don Baylor, Steve Kemp, Jack Clark, John Candelaria, Steve Sax and Andy Hawkins.

By 1976 the Yankees were back in the World Series, appearing in four Fall Classics in six seasons, the "Bronx Zoo" years, and coming away with titles in 1977 and '78. But a fallow period followed with no World Series celebrations throughout the 1980s, the first decade that this had hapended since the 1910s. A 95-loss season in 1990 would be their worst since before World War I.

Steinbrenner's first decades as owner also saw numerous managers and front office personnel hired and fired, exemplified by skipper Billy Martin's five tours of duty in the dugout. In total, over his first 17 years as owner he changed managers 17 times and 20 times in his first 23, as well as seeing 11 general managers come and go in 30 years. Amazingly, three managers, three hitting coaches and five pitching coaches were employed by the Yankees in 1982.

"I'm not proud that I haven't been very patient over the years," Steinbrenner once said. "I guess that will be part of my legacy."

By the mid-1990s, manager Joe Torre and general manager Brian Cashman reigned over a change in philosophy and more than a decade of success, with World Series titles in 1996 and every year from 1998 to 2000. This era included such homegrown talent as Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte.

Steinbrenner's profile took a hit after twice being barred from baseball. The first took place in 1974 when Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him for two years, later reduced to 15 months, after he pleaded guilty to, among other charges, conspiring to make illegal corporate contributions to President Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign. The second suspension, this one a lifetime ban, was handed down by Commissioner Fay Vincent in 1990 and lifted in 1993, was the result of a $40,000 payment Steinbrenner made to gambler Howard Spira in return for damaging information on Yankees star outfielder Dave Winfield.

In can be said that under Steinbrenner's leadership, the Yankees, who Forbes magazine estimated at a $1.6 billion value in April 2010, have become the leading sports franchise and the most highly recognized sports brand in the world.

Steinbrenner, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum's Board of Directors until his death, was the longest-tenured owner in major league baseball when he passed away after several years of failing health at the age of 80 on July 13, 2010. In those first 37 seasons as principal owner of the Yankees, not including the 2010 season, the team compiled a big league-best .565 winning percentage (3,308-2,551-3 record), while capturing 11 American League pennants and seven World Series titles.

Baseball Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig once said, "Without a doubt, George Steinbrenner is one of the most accomplished owners in the history of Major League Baseball."

In addition to the team's on-field success, the Yankees under Steinbrenner consistently shattered franchise and league attendance records at home and on the road. In 2008, they drew an American League-record 4,298,543 fans to Yankee Stadium and became the only franchise in baseball history to draw more than 4 million fans in four consecutive seasons (2005-08). In 2009, in the first season at new $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium, the home attendance of 3,719,358 topped the AL for the seventh straight year.

A road attraction as well, the Yankees drew 6,502,416 combined home and road fans in 2009, which led the AL for the 11th consecutive year. Each season from 2002 to 2008, the Yankees led all big league teams on combined attendance, including the all-time including the all-time single-season record for a professional sports franchise of 7,325,051 fans in 2006.

Steinbrenner brought stability to the Yankees, not only surpassing Jacob Ruppert by more than 10 years as the franchise's longest tenured leader, but since he became principal owner in 1973 the other 29 big league franchises have combined for over 100 owners or ownership groups.

Steinbrenner's business acumen resulted in The Sporting News naming him the No. 1 "Most Powerful Man in Sports" in 2002, while Forbes magazine has numerous times listed the Yankees as the most valuable franchise in all of baseball. After a lucrative cable television deal with MSG Network, the Yankees were involved in a group that formed the YES Network in 2002, currently the nation's leading regional sports network.

Steinbrenner's sons, Hal and Hank, became co-chairman of the Yankees in May 2008, with Hal, later that year, given control of the team. 

Bill Francis is a library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum