The King is dead. Long live the King.
In Tampa, Fl. this morning, a legendary sports figure passed away. George M. Steinbrenner III, the principal owner of the New York Yankees since 1973, died at St. Joseph’s Hospital. He was 80 years old.
Steinbrenner suffered a heart attack earlier today and had been in declining health for a number of years. His two sons, Hank and Hal, have been running the Yankee organization since late 2007 while Steinbrenner oversaw all of the decisions made within the team.
When he took the reigns as Yankee owner from CBS, he brought the struggling Yankees back from mediocrity. Four years after he took over the organization, the Yankees won their first World Title in 15 years. Under Steinbrenner, the Yankees captured 16 Division Titles, 11 American League Pennants, and seven World Series Championships.
A strong body of successful work brought on by a strong man.
In 1952, Steinbrenner received his Bachelor’s Degree from Williams College in Massachusetts. While he attended Williams, he was involved with several extracurricular activities, including the track team and the football team.
One of his activities in college that struck me was his position as sports editor of the college newspaper. As a recent college graduate, the sports editor of my school’s newspaper was a position I held. It’s nice to know Steinbrenner and I had something in common.
After he graduated college, Steinbrenner went on to serve in United States Air Force, where he became a second lieutenant. He was honorably discharged in 1954 and went on to attend The Ohio State University where he got his Master’s in Physical Education.
Talk about a hard-working individual.
At OSU, he helped Buckeyes’ head coach Woody Hayes, serving as his assistant for a season. The Buckeyes were undefeated that year and went on to win the Rose Bowl. He also helped coach at Northwestern University and Purdue University, as he was always an avid sports fan.
As owner of the Yankees, Steinbrenner was known as a hard man. He maintained strict policies, such as the famous “no facial hair, no long hair” rule. He felt that the Yankees needed to look as professional as they possibly could, and ordered that all of his players be clean shaven with their hair cut short.
This edict was put to the test when Lou Piniella, a player and one of the 22 Yankee managers that served under Steinbrenner, once called him on it in Spring Training.
“Jesus Christ had long hair and a beard,” Piniella told Steinbrenner. “Why can’t we have beards and long hair?”
The Yankee owner showed him a small pond beyond the outfield fence.
“You see that pond?” Steinbrenner asked. “Walk across that pond and you can have a beard and long hair.”
He was able to show up his players with his wit and intelligence.
Along with being able to hold power, Steinbrenner was often at the center of controversy and attention. When free agency first became available in Major League Baseball, he signed huge free agents such as Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield. Many fans of other teams criticized Steinbrenner for “buying championships and big name players.”
Not only that, but Steinbrenner was known for making questionable remarks about his players and even acting on those feelings. Winfield was an example of that. In 1980, he called out Winfield claiming that he wasn’t producing. He was removed by Fay Vincent, the commissioner of baseball at the time, for paying a gambler to “dig up dirt” on Winfield.
And that wasn’t the first time King George was involved with controversy.
Prior to the Winfield situation, Steinbrenner was suspended by Bowie Kuhn in 1974 for pleading guilty to making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. But in lieu of all the controversy, Steinbrenner always made his way back to baseball and the Yanks.
Forgive and forget.
Although he was sometimes a difficult person, his sense of humor was apparent in his personality. He was featured on the television show Seinfeld, portrayed as a funny, eccentric man and the boss of George Costanza on the show. In reality, Steinbrenner loved it. He once said about the character, “You have to laugh at yourself, sometimes.”
His eccentric nature was evidenced during the 2000 World Series. A water pipe had burst in the visitors’ clubhouse at Shea Stadium, and Steinbrenner bent over the help clean up the mess. He said the Mets were probably responsible.
Along with that, he thought the Mets were spying on the Yankees with monitors, trying to figure out their game plan in order to win the title. David Cone played into the Boss’s speculation when he noticed a microphone under one of the tables in the clubhouse.
“Boss, there’s the microphone!” Cone joked.
Steinbrenner screamed to have the mic removed and the wire cut.
Buster Olney, former Yankee beat writer and author of “The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty” described Steinbrenner as an owner who “Would never entrust his team to God. It would mean giving up too much control.”
According to Olney, Steinbrenner could be both gracious and ruthless; both happy and scared. One executive (whom Olney did not name in his book) said, “He would pull over on the side of the road and give money to someone, then hours later he would cut the benefits of his employees. It made no sense.”
When the Yanks played in the World Series all the years Steinbrenner was owner, he was always convinced disaster was looming. The times the Yanks did win it all, his euphoria would never last. The day after the team won, he would be on the phones and in meetings, trying to figure out how to win the next year.
Winning was Steinbrenner’s number one priority. He was even quoted as saying, “Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing. Breathing first, and then winning.”
In a 2002 interview, Steinbrenner said he wanted this inscribed on his tombstone:
“He never stopped trying.”
And looking at his accolades and his body of work, Steinbrenner never did stop trying; he put forth his best effort in everything he did and usually triumphed in the end. The Boss put the Yankees back on the map and at the front of the marquee. He may have been loved by few and hated by many, but the bottom line is, he was respected by all.