Talk about a good investment.
Thirty-five years ago, George Steinbrenner and a group of businessmen bought the then-struggling New York Yankees. They paid a pittance to CBS for the team. Each investor had to shell out $833,000 to own a piece of the Yankees.
Today, of course, no one’s buying anything from the Yanks for a mere $10 million. The team is building a $1.3-billion stadium, and with a successful team and TV station, the entire franchise operation is valued somewhere around $1 billion.
For the Yanks and Steinbrenner, it’s been a tumultuous 35 years that seems to be coming to a close. While George isn’t planning on selling the team, due to his advancing age and seemingly declining health, the men behind the scenes are now Hal and Hank, his songs who were just 4 and 15 respectively when he bought the team. The thirty-five year run is marked by intense micromanaging, scandals and an eventual return to greatness in the 1990s that has carried through to today’s team in one way or another.
But going into the 1973 season, with a new and complicated ownership group in place, no one in New York really knew what to expect. No one would guess what the next 35 years would bring.
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It starts with a quote from a largely unknown Cleveland shipping magnate in 1973.
It’s January 4, 1973, and CBS has mercifully sold the Yankees to a group of interested buyers. Under CBS, as Joseph Durso fo The Times detailed, the Yanks finished no higher than third and saw their attendance dip below one million in 1972 for the first time since World War II. The Mets, meanwhile, were the darlings of New York. They drew over 2 million fans, leading the league.
But the quote. Back to the quote. At the press conference introducing the new owners, George Steinbrenner, largely unknown in New York, took the stage. “We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned. We’re not going to pretend we’re something we aren’t. I’ll stick to building ships,” he said.
Famous first words if I ever I heard any, and at the time no one had any reason to doubt Steinbrenner. Head of what was generally assumed to be the largest ownership syndicate in baseball, Steinbrenner was a Cleveland native and lifelong Yankee fan.
In fact, George had a man back in New York, and this man — Michael Burke — knew New York. Burke had been at the helm of the Yanks for a while. A nine-year veteran of CBS when they bought the team, Burke, a fan of the game, slid seamlessly into his new role and toiled for the better part of the 1960s under CBS’ inept leadership. When the opportunity arose to buy the team, Burke put together a group of investors, and everyone assumed he would be the public figurehead of the team.
And who wouldn’t believe Steinbrenner? Involved in the NBA, Broadway and his own company, George kept saying the same thing. “I won’t be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all,” he told a young Murray Chass. “I can’t spread myself so thin. I’ve got enough headaches with my shipping company.”
Of course, we know how that story ended. Burke left the team presidency in April when Gabe Paul’s involvement deepened. And George, well, we know what happened to George. He never really stayed true to his word and did become heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the club both on the field and off for the next three decades.
As Steinbrenner’s reign nears its ends, it is very hard to imagine the Yankees without George Steinbrenner. But for a fleeting minute in 1973, imagine if George Steinbrenner had stayed true to his word. New York just wouldn’t be the same.