Memories of two icons distinct and different

When the Yankees begin their second half on Friday night, two lost icons will take centerstage. To honor the memory of their late owner and Bob Sheppard, the only man more identifiable with the Yankees than George Steinbrenner over the last six decades, the team will don a pair of commemorative patches. It will be but one of the many ways in which the club will honor two icons.

The patches, as shown above, are a change from the Yanks’ usual armband memorials. The microphone of the Voice of Yankee Stadium will be worn on the sleeve while the GMS patch will be worn on the chest of the uniform either above the interlocking NY while in the home pinstripes or the word “York” on the away digs. These two men had not been the same since illnesses felled them both in the mid 2000s, and now they will be remembered by the Yankees throughout the season.

I’ve had both the Boss and Bob Sheppard on my mind over the last few days, and I took Bob’s passing harder than I did George’s. For me, as with millions of other Yankee fans, Bob Sheppard was Yankee Stadium. Nothing signalled summer more so than walking through the tunnels behind the stands while hearing Mr. Sheppard go over the Yankee Stadium ground rules. “During the course of the game,” he would intone in his slow and precise manner, “hard hit baseballs and bats may be hit or thrown into the stands.” Who would fail to heed such a warning?

As I grew up going to baseball games, Bob Sheppard would always be there. He announced Mike Pagliarulo with deliberation and amused the crowd when Shigetoshi Hasegawa joined the Angels. His “Der-ek Jee-tah,” heard again last night on the national stage during the All Star Game broadcast, remains as iconic an announcement as any in sports. Through thick and thin, elementary school, high school, college, 9/11, World Series’ victories and defeats, thrilling playoff comebacks and crushing collapses, Bob Sheppard’s voice — such a booming voice on a slight man — would usher fans in and out of Yankee Stadium. He and longtime organist Eddie Layton were two peas in a nostalgic pod that never grew old.

In no small way, Bob passed with the old Yankee Stadium. He fell ill in late 2007 and missed all of the lasts at Yankee Stadium. He missed the last playoff games, the last Joe Torre appearance, the last All Star Game and the entire last season. As the Yankees counted down the games remaining until their move across the street, Mr. Sheppard never made it back to Yankee Stadium. He made a video appearance during the final game, and while frail, he still had the Voice as he read the lineups one last time. Bob passed away just a few weeks after the final pieces of the House that Ruth Built, and the parallels are too eerie to ignore.

My dad was born the year before Bob Sheppard took over the microphone, and he had, until the recent spate of indistinct public announcers, known no other voice at Yankee Stadium. “Bob Sheppard,” he said in recollection, “That voice is part of my life’s soundtrack and the loss runs deeper by reason of that. For more than 50 years (beginning with my first trip to Yankee Stadium as a 7-year-old) that voice was part of my summers…a powerful, disembodied presence that was woven deep into the fabric of something I dearly loved.”

With the Boss, on the other hand, his lasting legacy is far more complicated than that. In recent years, Yankee fans have celebrated George Steinbrenner. He’s become the patron grandfather of the Yankees. As the club spends his money, he hasn’t been the same hands-on control freak he was in the 1970s and 1980s. Maybe he mellowed with age, and maybe he realized his investments would increase if he allowed his baseball minds to put a more competitive product on the field. Despite some mid-2000s hiccups, though, the Yanks have flourished under his benevolent eye since his return to the game in 1993 from a suspension.

When I myself was a seven-year-old Yankee fan, coming of age with Tim Leary, Andy Hawkins, Lee Gutterman and a cast of offensive offensive characters, I found myself with my dad at Yankee Stadium on a warm night in late July. I have vague recollections of the game on the field, but what I do remember involved a long standing ovation in the middle of a Yankee victory. The fans were reacting not to the play on the field but the drama off the field. George Steinbrenner had just been suspended from baseball by Fay Vincent for hiring Howie Spira to dig up dirt on Mr. May himself, Dave Winfield.

As coverage from the time shows, Yankee fans were none too disappointed about the news. By 1990, many Yankee fans had decided that Steinbrenner’s meddlesome ways were a detriment to the ballclub, and they weren’t afraid to say it. ”I speak for all true Yankee fans when I say that getting rid of Steinbrenner is the best thing that could happen to this team,” Bobby Ricci, a 24-year-old fan from the Bronx, said. ”Now it’s time to get rid of all the guys who Steinbrener calls his baseball people. Obviously, they don’t know much about baseball.”

Another presciently predicted better days ahead. ”This is so sweet. Maybe it’ll save the team. Now they can build a dynasty again,” Mike Nisson said.

In a short paragraph I asked my dad to write about sitting in the stands for that game, he too remembers the joy of the crowd:

“It’s hard to overstate how satisfying it was to have been sitting in the stands at Yankee Stadium as word spread through the crowd that it had just been announced that George Steinbrenner had been suspended. As the news worked its way through the stands, a low murmur graduated into raucous cheers from fans who were jubilant in seeing retribution visited on the man who had spent years spending money on mediocre players, berating professional athletes to the point of public humiliation, repeatedly inflicting the pathological Billy Martin on the players and fans and, finally, spying on Dave Winfield. Punctuating the cheers were some shouts of disapproval from fans who expressed the opinion that a suspension was not adequate and that he should have been banned for life (I, of course, being among that chorus). That display struck me as a bit of the French Revolution coming to the venerable House that Ruth Built–and it felt great.”

That’s the real first impression I had of George Steinbrenner. It wasn’t of the loyal philanthropist or the dedicated owner; rather, it was of the mercurial interloper whose suspension was welcomed by people older and wiser than I. Even as George aged into someone who still wanted to win but could seemingly control this temper, I still wondered about the good and the bad in him. For those who didn’t know him in any personal context, he isn’t an easy man to describe.

Yesterday, as the Yankees in Anaheim gathered to talk about the Boss, Andy Pettitte‘s presence and words struck me as particularly telling. Pettitte and George Steinbrenner were never that close. For years in a row, George wanted his GMs to trade Andy Pettitte. He didn’t like his competitiveness and thought him too soft to succeed in the Bronx. Every year at the trade deadline, Pettitte would be the subject of rumors — to the Phillies for Adam Eaton, to somewhere else but the Bronx. In 2003, when the Yanks had the opportunity to let Pettitte walk, they did. It was a Boss move through and through.

Yet, Number 46 sat at the podium yesterday afternoon and looked as distraught as anyone else there. He had lost a mentor and a boss, the man who, eventually, showed enough faith in him to stick with him. Now, Pettitte has five Yankee World Series rings and forgave the Boss, as so many others have. That’s the man of contradictions that he was: flawed, temperamental, hated and ultimately accepted in New York as the wins rolled in. As he once said, “Winning is first, next to oxygen.”

Major League Baseball remembers the Boss

Just a few days after George Steinbrenner celebrated his 80th birthday, I pondered Cooperstown for the Boss. Despite his temper and problems with baseball’s top authorities, George has been one of the most influential and revolutionary owners in professional sports. He turned a $10-million investment in 1973 into something worth over $1 billion in 2010, and he of course made enemies along the way.

But while baseball history is littered with the names of those fired by Steinbrenner, the Boss had another side that didn’t make headlines. His charitable contributions were immense, and employees past and present say George, even at his worst, was always loyal to those loyal to him and the Yankees organization. He wasn’t all bad; he wasn’t all good; he just was.

For the Yankees, today is a day of mourning. George had been the face of the organization for 37 years, and during that time, the 29 other baseball teams had changed hands 100 times. Yet, the Steinbrenners endured. In George’s first year as owner of the Yankees, there were just 24 Major League teams. Today, they are 30, and the Yankees, winners of seven World Series trophies on his watch, rule the roost, and even as Yankee fans can forget how George’s meddling mired the franchise in 1980s mediocrity, those around baseball remembered the man today.

“This is a very sad day for me and Carmen and all of baseball,” Yogi Berra, who had a 15-year feud with Steinbrenner, said. “My sympathies go out to the Steinbrenner family. George was The Boss, make no mistake. He built the Yankees into champions and that’s something nobody can ever deny. He was a very generous, caring, passionate man. George and I had our differences, but who didn’t? We became great friends over the last decade and I will miss him very much.”

Bud Selig, who banded together with other owners in frequent attempts to rein in Steinbrenner’s spending, spoke: “I have known George ever since he entered the game in 1972. He was my dear friend for nearly four decades. Although we would have disagreements over the years, they never interfered with our friendship and commitment to each other. Our friendship was built on loyalty and trust and it never wavered. We were allies and friends in the truest sense of the words.”

Don Zimmer, another baseball figure who had a falling-out with Steinbrenner, wanted to remember the good times. “I would prefer to remember him just as he was the first time I met him. I was managing the Red Sox and sitting in the dugout several hours before a game at Yankee Stadium. He was on the mound in a white shirt pitching batting practice to his son. A father throwing to his son,” the Rays’ adviser said. “His impact on the game is impossible to measure. If you were a Yankee fan there was no better owner because he would do anything at any cost to put the best team on the field.

The Red Sox will honor George Steinbrenner with a moment of silence before the Thursday game at Fenway Park. “I had the good fortune to call George Steinbrenner both partner and friend,” current Boston owner and former Yankee partner John Henry said. “I had the privilege to watch George as he built a system that ensured his beloved Yankees would have a strong foundation for sustained excellence. And then we fiercely competed in the American League. George Steinbrenner forever changed baseball and hopefully some day we will see him honored in baseball’s Hall of Fame as one of the great figures in the history of sports.”

Echoed Larry Lucchino, who once called George’s Yankees the Evil Empire: “My respect for George went beyond the baseball field because of his sincere and longstanding commitment to charity, and to people in need. He had a giant heart, often well hidden from public view. Part of his legacy here in Boston will be the profound kindness he showed to numerous local philanthropic causes, especially as a regular and generous contributor each year to the Jimmy Fund of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.”

John Sterling, the homerist of Yankee homers, spoke about the Boss’ contradictions. “I’ve heard one million George Steinbrenner stories of things he did for people that would bring a tear to your eye. So he was a combination,” he said. “Was he a tough boss? Boy, you bet he was. But he also had the softest side to him. In my own way, I really loved him. He took care of so many people in so many ways. I’m really very sad today, but he did phenomenal things for the Yankees.”

Joe Torre, the last manager to be kinda, sorta fired by the Boss, added his own comment: “I will always remember George Steinbrenner as a passionate man, a tough boss, a true visionary, a great humanitarian, and a dear friend. I will be forever grateful that he trusted me with his Yankees for 12 years. My heart goes out to his entire family. He will be deeply missed in New York, Tampa and throughout the world of baseball. It’s only fitting that he went out as a world champ.”

It is indeed only fitting that George went out on top. His Yankees are World Series champions with the best record on baseball. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.

After the jump, a video from CNN of George in his own words. [Read more…]

Steinbrenner in video

It’s hard to think about anything other than George Steinbrenner today, so to continue our remembrance, here are some clips of Big Stein over the years. If you have any other embeddable clips, leave them in the comments and we’ll add them.

George and Billy for Miller Lite:

George and Derek for Visa:

The entrance at the 2008 All-Star Game:

Before that, George pulled the lever at the first home game in 2008 to start the countdown:

After the 2009 World Series, Hal talks about what the victory meant to his father:

And who could forget Larry David doing George Steinbrenner on Seinfeld? There are plenty of single clips, but if you click through to these two, you can find a compilation of them all. Here is Part 1 and Part 2.

Of course, there’s the time that Steinbrenner actually appeared on Seinfeld:

I’m kind of disappointed that I couldn’t find his SNL appearance anywhere. Again, if anyone can find it leave it in the comments and we’ll embed. Until then, here’s the transcript.

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.