Love him or hate him, George Steinbrenner was one of the most influential builders in the history of Major League Baseball. Steinbrenner died today at the age of 80. In January 1973, Steinbrenner and a group of investors purchased the then-pathetic Yankees from CBS. Over the decade prior to the purchase, the Yankees were one of the most non-descript teams in baseball. They stunk. All their big stars of the 1950s and ’60s – Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford (and many others) were long gone. From the final game of the 1964 World Series (which they lost to Bob Gibson’s St. Louis Cardinals) until the World Series in 1976, the Yankees did not play a single postseason game. And George Steinbrenner took that futility and kicked it in the stones.
From the moment he became involved with the Yankees, George Steinbrenner was a s**t disturber. He was never one to simply sit back and let things happen. Steinbrenner watched Charlie O. Finley tear up the baseball world with his Oakland A’s. So, when A’s manager Dick Williams resigned after the 1973 World Series, Steinbrenner tried to hire him. Problem was Williams was still under contract to the A’s and Charlie O. And so it started.
Following the 1975 season, Steinbrenner sent the struggling Yankees on a path to greatness by hiring former Yanks’ second baseman Billy Martin to manage. Battlin’ Billy had a reputation of turning losing teams into winners. Fast. He did it with the Twins, Tigers and Rangers. And now Billy was in the Bronx. Following the 1976 season – a year in which the Yankees were swept by Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in the World Series – Steinbrenner signed former World Series MVP Reggie Jackson. “Mr. October” (as he’d come to be known) became the “straw that stirred the drink” in NYC.
Steinbrenner’s Yankees – Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, Ron “Louisiana Lightning” Guidry, Rich “Goose” Gossage and Sparky Lyle – became the “Bronx Zoo” (the title of Lyle’s autobiography). Under Martin, in 1977, the Yankees won their first World Series since 1962. By this time, Steinbrenner had become a very big, loud part of the show.
He fired Martin and hired Bob Lemon. The Yankees won the Series again in 1978. He fired Lemon and re-hired Martin. If you are old enough to remember the Yankees of the late ’70s, it made last week’s LeBron James fiasco look like a bedtime story. In his first 23 seasons as Yankees’ owner, George changed managers 20 times. George Steinbrenner seemed to never, ever close his mouth.
And he stirred up the game like only Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey before him. Rickey signed Jackie Robinson in 1945 and, at the beginning of the 1947 season, Robinson broke baseball’s unspoken colour barrier. New York breeds innovators. And that’s what Rickey and Steinbrenner were. George Steinbrenner was one of a kind.
Between 1973 and his death, the Yankees won 11 American League pennants and 7 World Series. He would do whatever he felt was required to make things right. In 1974, Steinbrenner was convicted of making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign. Later, he was banned from baseball for three years – for paying a small-time gambler to dig up “dirt” on Dave Winfield – a Yankees’ player! George Steinbrenner was wired like no American before or since.
It figures he was born on July 4th (in 1930) and it’s also fitting that he passed away on a day that all of baseball comes together at the All-Star Game. Love him or hate him – George Steinbrenner was impossible to ignore. He didn’t care what anyone thought. He did what he thought was best for his New York Yankees. Every minute of every day.