George M. Steinbrenner III passes away at 80

Updated by Benjamin Kabak and Mike Axisa (11:05 a.m.): Longtime New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner III passed away at the age of 80, his family said today. According to reports out of Tampa, George was rushed to the hospital late Monday night after suffering a massive heart attack, and the Boss died at 6:30 a.m. this morning.

“It is with profound sadness that the family of George M. Steinbrenner III announces his passing,” the Steinbrenner family in a statement said. “He passed away this morning in Tampa, Fla., at age 80. He was an incredible and charitable man. First and foremost he was devoted to his entire family – his beloved wife, Joan; his sisters, Susan Norpell and Judy Kamm, his children, Hank, Jennifer, Jessica and Hal; and all of his grandchildren. He was a visionary and a giant in the world of sports. He took a great but struggling franchise and turned it into a champion again.”

Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees in 1973, when he and a group of investors acquired the team from CBS for $10 million. On his watch, the Yanks won 11 American League pennants and captured seven World Series titles. He took the team from an AL has-been to a billion-dollar global enterprise, revolutionizing baseball economics along the way. For better or worse, the sport hasn’t been the same since Steinbrenner took over. This, too, despite one of the most understated introductions in baseball history. “We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned,” George said nearly 40 years ago. “We’re not going to pretend we’re something we aren’t. I’ll stick to building ships.”

Just a few months later, the Yankees’ Front Office was in turmoil as the people George brought in to run the team had departed. “Nothing,” Yankees limited partner John McMullen said, “is as limited as being a limited partner of George’s.”

In recent years, as his health began to deteriorate, Steinbrenner, famous for his temper and tirades, wasn’t involved in the day-to-day operations of the club. He relinquished control of the organization to his sons Hank and Hal in 2007, and the two have continue to run the team in his image. He is credited with changing the image of the franchise, instilling the famed no facial hair policy and requiring players to wear suits during travel.

Best known for his brash and often overbearing style, George was no stranger to controversy during his time with the Yankees. He was indicted on 14 criminal counts for making illegal contributions to President Richard Nixon’s campaign in the early 1970’s, and was suspended from baseball in the early 1990’s after paying Howie Spira to dig up information intended to smear his own player Dave Winfield. His win-at-all-costs mantra quickly infected fans and the entire New York region.

As an owner, George was temperamental to the max. He criticized his own players in the press and fired managers at whim. He had a particularly contentious relationship with Billy Martin and alienated Yogi Berra to such a degree that the Yankee great refused to set foot in Yankee Stadium for nearly 15 years. Throughout the 1980s, the team suffered under his leadership as George thought he could throw money at the team’s problems without developing an adequate farm system, and it was only upon his suspension in the early 1990s that the Yanks’ baseball minds were allowed to go to work.

Once Steinbrenner reemerged from his suspension, he became a period of nearly unprecedented success for the Yankee organization. He forged the way with a $95 million sponsorship deal with Adidas and formed the YES Network in 2002. In 1988, as the Yanks stumbled through the 1980s, the MSG Network had entered into a 12-year, $500-million deal with the Yankees for their broadcast rights, and the team wanted to capture that revenue for itself. It took the cable upstart just three years to surpass the MSG Network as the nation’s most lucrative regional sports channel, and estimates today peg the value of the YES Network — a River Ave. Blues partner — at a few billion dollars.

On the field, George’s mantra was “spend, spend, spend.” In late 1976, he made waves when he inked superstar Reggie Jackson to a five-year, $3 million, and from there, baseball salaries had nowhere to go but up. Over the years, Steinbrenner has courted the game’s best superstars even as personalities clashed in the Bronx Zoo years of the late 1970s and money didn’t translate into postseason appearances in the 1980s or early 1990s. Over the past 15 years, Steinbrenner hasn’t scaled back his spending; as Yankee attendance reached past the 4-million mark, the team’s payroll ballooned to over $200 million.

One of Steinbrenner’s lasting acts as owner will be the construction of a new billion-dollar Yankee Stadium. Since the early 1990s, the Boss had been clamoring for a new palace for the Yankees in the Bronx. Although the historic House that Ruth Built could have been renovated, George wanted to see if he could maximize his revenue stream by building a state-of-the-art facility, and the new stadium opened last year to a World Series championship. It will forever be the House that George Built.

Despite his glaring shortcomings, George was also an extremely loyal and extremely generous man. He donated millions to charity and often carried longtime players and executives on the payroll long after their time with the team came to an end. A Tampa area high school now bears his name.

It’s a terribly sad day in baseball, and especially in a Yankeeland still mourning the loss of Bob Sheppard. George went out on top, presiding over one last World Championship before he passed. He will undoubtedly go down as the one of the greatest and most controversial owners in the history of American sports.

RIP, Boss.

Credit: The photo above of Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner and Yogi Berra comes via The Daily News. Sports Illustrated has just published a slideshow of rare photos of the Boss that are well worth checking out. The Times has a full obituary.

On his 80th birthday, the Boss and Cooperstown

George Steinbrenner turned 80 this past Sunday, and the New York media took the time to fete the Boss. Harvey Araton talked with current Yankees who remembered the fiercely competitive owner. Filip Bondy found fans players alike who were thanks for the Boss’ World Series obsession. MLB.com’s Barry Bloom waxed poetic, and ESPN’s Wallace Matthews calls for enshrinement. What a lovefest.

For Yankee fans of any age, it’s hard to distill Steinbrenner’s reign as Yankee owner into anything resembling a narrative. A carpetbagger from Cleveland, he purchased the team at its darkest moment after CBS ownership had decimated the once-proud franchise. With a newly renovated stadium as a backdrop, George built up a championship team and a reputation for micromanaging. “We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned,” the Boss infamously said upon purchasing the team. “We’re not going to pretend we’re something we aren’t. I’ll stick to building ships.”

Yet, building ships was not in the cards for the Yankees. Steinbrenner wanted to win, and he wanted to win on his own terms. He hired, fired, rehired and refired Billy Martin more times than anyone could count. He threw money at problems, landing Reggie Jackson amidst clubhouse dissent and then signing Goose Gossage with Sparky Lyle already around to close. Winning once wasn’t good enough, and he put more and more pressure on the team to win and win at all costs.

After success in the late 1970s, George became too much for the team in the 1980s. He ordered trades that left the farm system barren, paid more than top dollar for free agents who weren’t worth the money they earned and obsessed over the drive and devotion of stars such as Dave Winfield. He pushed away Yogi Berra and Lou Piniella, and he continued to run through managers as though they were tissues.

In the 1990s, the Boss finally seemed to realize that the Yanks weren’t going to win 162 games a year. He allowed the farm to grow, and he sat back satisfied as the Yanks won four World Series in five years and spent the 2000s raking in the dough. Still, he meddled when he shouldn’t have, acquiring Randy Johnson years too late, establishing a Tampa faction to challenge Brian Cashman needlessly. The Yanks racked up the wins, but the team was flawed.

When George’s health started to slip away, the tributes came out in full. Matthews, who doesn’t want to limit the Hall of Fame to only those who were “exemplary human beings,” says Steinbrenner should be in Cooperstown because of his contributions to the game. The Yankees, through their spending, have radically changed baseball economics, and even when the game off the field shakes down to 29 clubs facing off against George’s dollars, Steinbrenner’s clubs have kept on winning. TV deals are more lucrative because of him, and record-breaking crowds flock to see the Yanks both at home and on the road. What’s good for baseball is, after all, good for baseball.

But George isn’t an easy man to pigeonhole. He violated campaign finance laws and was suspended after he sent a private investigatory to spy on Winfield. He was a cranky and temperamental owner whose need to have his finger stirring the pot probably cost the Yankees more championships during his reign than they won. Some would say he ruined the game with his spending.

So George the octogenarian trudges forward. His sons run the team, and he serves as the aging patriarch. The media loves him because he made for great headlines. Wallace Matthews and Filip Bondy are fond fans of the boss because he made their jobs easier. With an eruption from Mount George or a firing, the daily articles practically wrote themselves. Whether he belongs in the Hall though, enshrined forever in Cooperstown, is open-ended indeed.

Tampa area high school named after The Boss

Although his appearances at Yankee games are limited mostly to Spring Training and the World Series these days, George Steinbrenner was on hand this weekend for the dedication of George M. Steinbrenner High School. Although he didn’t speak at the ceremony, he sat front row with his wife Joan and sons Hank and Hal, and received standing ovations from the crowd and school officials. Most know him as the brash owner of the Yanks, but The Boss pumps thousands of dollars into the community each year through donations and what not, often with zero fanfare. I’m happy to see him recognized for it.

Steinbrenners in talks to sell Yanks to Dolans

James Dolan may be the next Yankee owner. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen, file)

When Hank and Hal Steinbrenner took over control of the Yanks from their ailing father George, many fans feared the the family would try to cash in on their billion-dollar asset. Although Yankee fans knew the destructive tendencies wrought by King George during his team, they also came to love George’s singular focus on winning and knew that any other potential ownership group brought with it fears of a heavy hand and bad baseball minds.

Today, multiple New York media outlets confirm what we were dreading: The Steinbrenners are in talks with the Dolan family concerning the Yanks. Although neither side would confirm the talks, a source close to the Yanks said that a deal could be reached before the All Star Break. At that point, the other owners would have to vote to approve the deal.

“Ever since Hal and Hank were appointed co-chairs of the team,” the source said, “the family has been pressuring them to sale. With the Knicks and Rangers in their pockets, the Dolans seemed to be a logical choice, and James has been chomping at the bit to run a baseball team.”

Early reports indicate that the Dolans will pay upwards of $1 billion for a controlling share of the team and the final price could top $1.2 billion. Yankee Global Enterprises, the holding company controlled by the Steinbrenners that owns both the Yankees and YES Network, will hold onto the TV station for now. Considering that George paid $10 million to buy the Yankees in 1973, the family is certainly turning a pretty penny from their 36 years of ownership.

This isn’t the first time that the Dolans, owners of the lucrative Cablevision empire, have expressed interest in buying the Yankees. In late 1998, Steinbrenner and the Dolans were rumored to be close to a sale of the team. George would have gotten $600 million while retaining control over the Yankees, but the deal fell through in March of 1999 over George’s continued involvement with the Yanks. Ownership, it seems, won by winning since that sale didn’t happen.

As the Steinbrenners get rich, though, the franchise and its fans are in for a bumpy ride full of uncertainty. James Dolan, the chair of both Cablevision and Madison Square Garden, has developed a reputation as a hands-on owner who isn’t very good at installing top player managers. On his watch, the Rangers missed the playoffs every year from 1998-2005 despite leading the NHL in payroll. They still aren’t a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference.

The Knicks, meanwhile, have been a walking disaster since the early 2000s. They haven’t finished a season above .500 in nearly a decade and haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990s. On Dolan’s watch, they suffered through the Isiah Thomas Era and spent millions on just one season of Larry Brown. The team has overpaid for overrated and old players, and Dolan was rated one of the worst owners in the league by Sports Illustrated.

Maybe this will work out for the best. Maybe the Yankees have too many good baseball minds in charge for the Dolans to ruin things. Maybe Cablevision will take a hands-off approach for its $1 billion investment. I can’t help but think though that we’ll miss the Steinbrenners more than we realize. [Read more…]

Meet the new Boss, not nearly the same as the old Boss

In what has become something of a Yankee Spring Training rite of passage these days, Hall Steinbrenner met with manager Joe Girardi yesterday, and the meeting was a very quite and cordial one. As Bryan Hoch reports, Hal didn’t stop to say much to the media and simply stopped by to talk to his manager. Then, he left. “When Hal comes down, the conversations are very meaningful. They’re right to the point and we talk a lot of baseball. It’s great,” Girardi said. “I feel like we’re always on the same page. He’s very open. The conversations are usually very constructive.”

The media still picks up these stories because, even though George has been out of the picture for a while now, it’s such a radical change from the way the Yanks operated from the early 1970s through the mid-2000s. Hal lets his baseball people run baseball ops and his business people run the business side of the franchise. He doesn’t overstep his bounds, and his employees don’t manage or play with the threat of the Boss looming over them. It is no coincidence that the team has improved as George has ceded power. The Yankee U, meanwhile, today pondered whether or not the Steinbrenner family would sell the team after George passes and if it would matter — interesting questions, indeed.

The Boss stops by

So here’s an interesting if typical late January story: George Steinbrenner stopped by Steinbrenner Field late last week and spent four hours in the office. He said he is “feeling good” and is excited for the upcoming season. It’s a typical story because this seems to be the extent of the media’s exposure to George. It’s interesting because this is the first we’ve heard from Steinbrenner since the season ended. Clearly, the Boss is not at full strength anymore. His days of roaring are over.