When George bought the Yanks for $10 million

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.

* * *

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.

Steinbrenner brothers take the helm

The New York Post reports that Hal and Hank Steinbrenner are now in charge of baseball operations for the New York Yankees.

“There’s always been a succession – and that’s myself and my brother,” Hank told The Post in an exclusive interview.

He said he and Hal will have final say on baseball decisions as well as the running of the YES Network and the construction of the new Yankee Stadium.

“I’ll pay more attention to the baseball part. The stadium, that’s more Hal. But basically everything will be decided jointly.”

This move was foreshadowed late last week when Hank announced that Joba will start in 2008. The NY Post article quotes Hank as saying “That’s something I’ll insist on,” when referring to Joba and Phil starting 2008 in the rotation. I’m beginning to grow fond of Hank Steinbrenner.

“I tend to be more volatile than my brother,” Hank said. “Hal is calmer – and that will probably be a good influence.”

Behind the scenes, the boys have impressed.

“Both Hank and Hal are extraordinarily smart, extraordinarily articulate and, like their father, very genuine people,” said Levine. “And they like each other a lot. I think the Yankees are in very good hands.”

This is starting to sound good. True, this article is probably a PR pitch. But it’s nice to know that 1) we’ll have a fiery guy at the helm in Hank, and 2) he’ll have a counterbalance in Hal. I really do think that the brothers will work well with our front office tandem of Brian Cashman and Damon Oppenheimer.

The best news of all from this is that the Yankees won’t be sold. I know it was a longshot when it was mentioned earlier in the year, but at least we’ve put it to rest.

Yanks face end of an era, but which one?

Everyone likes to point their fingers. (Photo from Newsday/Paul J. Bereswill)

When the dust finally settles in a few days, an era of Yankee baseball will end. How this drama plays out, though, will determine which era ends, and the end result could be something of a surprise.

In one corner, we have George Steinbrenner threatening the end of the Joe Torre Era. If you take the interview with Ian O’Connor at face value, Torre’s gone. The Yanks didn’t make it past the first round of the playoffs for the third year in a row, let alone win a World Series, and King George is not happy.

For now, the going school of belief seems to be that Steinbrenner’s threats were not idle and that Torre is gone. The Yankee skipper spoke of the team not as a “we” but as a “them” during the post-game press conference last night. Peter Abraham noted a few other indications concerning the imminent departure of Joe Torre, and Bill Madden at The Daily News speculates that the Tony La Russa-Dave Duncan team may be Bronx bound.

But what if? What if George Steinbrenner’s interview featured the words of an aging and nearly deposed dictator? What if Brian Cashman enlists the help of the heir-apparent Hal Steinbrenner to push for Torre’s return? What if the rumors of Tony La Russa’s arrival in the Bronx raises too many alarm bells among the Yankee decision-makers?

If the Torre faction within the Yankees can outlast those doubting him, another era will end in the Bronx. The Era of the Boss would officially be over. We know, thanks to Portfolio magazine, that george is not well these days. If Joe Torre keeps his job, Steinbrenner’s public words and Yankee clout are all but gone.

Right now, no one really knows what should happen. Joe Torre made a few bad managing mistakes this week that cost the Yankees at least game two and maybe game four. He has a history of mismanaging the bullpen, but he knows how to handle the Yankees. Furthermore, the players – such as free agents Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada – love him. If he goes, they may go too.

So it becomes a showdown yet again between the Boss and the only man more powerful than the Boss in the eyes of the New York sports media. In a few days or hours or minutes, someone will win and an era will end. Whatever the outcome, it will affect the Yankees for years to come.

Steinbrenner: “They will turn this around quickly.”

No one can say it better than the Boss:

“The season is still very young, but up to now the results are clearly not acceptable to me or to Yankee fans. However, Brian Cashman our general manager, Joe Torre our manager and our players all believe that they will turn this around quickly. I believe in them. I am here to support them in any way to help them accomplish this turnaround. It is time to put excuses and talk away. It is time to see if people are ready to step up and accept their responsibilities. It is time for all of them to show me and the fans what they are made of. Let’s get going. Let’s go out and win and bring a world championship back to New York. That’s what I want.”

Phil Hughes‘s first major league win would be a nice start.

King: Torre’s job in jeopardy

So it looks like seven losses in a row — four of them to the Red Sox — were enough to bring out the ire in George Steinbrenner. George King reports today in The Post that the Boss is considering replacing Torre. Over at ESPN, Buster Olney believes this report to be coming from the mouths of influential higher-ups in the Yankee organization. In other words, the Yanks better start winning of Torre wants to stick around much past April this year.

Changing the line of Yankee succession

So yeah, about that whole line of Yankee succession thing? It’s not looking too good right now.

Once upon a time, Yankee fans could rest easy knowing that the legacy of George Steinbrenner and the ownership of the Yankees would lie in the hands of Steve Swindal, George’s son-in-law. Swindal had all the right qualities. He was devoted to guys who knew about baseball. Now, I’m not talking about George’s “Baseball Guys.” I’m talking about Brian Cashman and Gene Michael; I’m talking about Joe Torre and a front office that has put a playoff-bound team on the field every year since 1995 (or 1994 if you want).

Swindal was everything that George was and more. He exhibited the same win-at-all-monetary-costs attitude that Yankee fans have come to crave, but he also exhibited a whole lot of Baseball Smarts. He knew the value of constructing a Major League team through sound investment and an organization that could develop a steady stream of home-grown players to complement the free agent signings.

But now, everything is up in the air as Swindal and Jennifer Steinbrenner are no more. Really, we should have seen this coming. Swindal landed himself a DUI a few weeks ago during the early days of Spring Training. If that’s not a harbingers of bad things to come, I don’t know what is. By now, the DUI is water under the bridge. Bigger problems loom for the Bronx Bombers.

The general consensus among the Yankee writers, as explained by Tyler Kepner in today’s edition of The New York Times, is that Swindal is out as the Boss’ successor. George, speaking nowadays through his publicist Howard Rubenstein, was cryptic:“I’m the boss. I continue to be the boss, I have no intention of retiring, and my family runs the Yankees with me.”

Kepner had more:

When Swindal leaves the family, he will effectively leave the Yankees. According to an individual with direct knowledge of the matter, Steinbrenner no longer plans to promote him, and he would seem to have no future with the team. But the situation is complicated because Swindal has a small financial interest in the team — among other things, he is listed as the chairman of Yankee Global Enterprises, the umbrella company for the club and the YES network — and the specifics of that interest will have to be untangled. Rubenstein would not say if Swindal still worked for the Yankees.

So that leaves the Yanks in the hands of the Boss and Randy Levine. George’s biological sons Hank and Hal have, according to all reports, shown little interest in running the team, and his other son-in-law Felix Lopez has worked for the team. But little is known about Lopez’s role and fate.

It’s an uncertain time for the Yanks, and with The Boss showing his age, some behind-the-scenes worries can creep up quickly. First, when George passes, if there is no successor to the throne, the family could try to sell some or all of their stake in the team. While it may be hard to find someone who wants spend $1 billion on a baseball team and its associated properties, I’m sure someone is out there with money to burn.

But could this new owner be trusted to do what George has done? Or will, as Steve Lombardi is right to ponder, the Yankees become the MLB version of the New York Giants, a poorly-managed team with a solid financial backing?

I hope someone investing in the Yankees and running the team would be aware of the history and pressure put on the team by its fans to win. But only time will tell if this divorce is a turning point for the Yankees in the 21st Century or just something we can write about before Opening Day.

Reflections on the end of the Steinbrenner era

The Boss and I, we go way back. George probably doesn’t know it, but on July 30, 1990, I was sitting in Yankee Stadium as the crowded cheered his suspension from baseball.

That was, of course, before the glory days of the 1990s when, all of a sudden, Yankee fans got used to winning. We couldn’t criticize Steinbrenner anymore because his money was responsible for the lust we as fans had for winner. And year after year, the players his dollars put on the field fulfilled our basic yearning for World Series titles.

Now here we sit in 2007, and the last time the Yanks won the World Series, I was in high school. But despite years of post-season losses, it’s hard to grow disillusioned. The Yanks have made the playoffs every year since 1995. They’ve lost some close series, won some close series and have provided a generation of Yankee fans with new memories of postseason heroics.

But something else is happening in 2007, something off the field that will shape the Yanks for years to come. The end of the George Steinbrenner Era is upon us. Over at Yanks Fan vs. Sox Fan, Peter Abraham sat down for a virtual interview. During the exchange, Abraham dropped this gem:

I think we are already at the post-Steinbrenner phase. His health is one of the most closely guarded stories in sports and that is obviously because it is fading. I believe that Brian Cashman, Randy Levine and Steve Swindal make 95 percent of the decisions and once George gives up his title or passes away, Swindal will be the man in charge with Cashman at his side. I like Steve a lot, his recent arrest aside. I think he will do what is right. But I don’t believe you’ll see the Yankees with a payroll $50 million higher than any other team.

Of course, Abraham isn’t the only one noting Steinbrenner’s waning power and health. Ken Auletta, in a recent New Yorker piece about Howard Rubenstein, noted that the PR guru has done all he can to shield a frail Steinbrenner from the press and public. Memory loss, old age, it doesn’t matter. It’s clear that Steinbrenner is not the force he once was, and personal feelings toward Steinbrenner aside, his is a fate I would wish on no one.

The end of George’s reign as emperor of the Evil Empire evokes some nostalgia in me and fear for the team’s future. Luckily, the fear has been quickly assuaged, but I’ll get to that shortly. The nostalgia, on the other hand, won’t fade. George has always been part of the Yankees circus. Even as they tore through the leagues in the late 1990s, a George eruption or some backhanded statement-cum-threat was just a long losing streak away.

When the Yankees won in the 1990s, there was George sitting front and center basking in the adulation. Maybe he hogged the spotlight a little too much since it was, after all, Paul O’Neill and Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams and many others who brought the trophies to New York. The Boss just signed the checks. But he was out there grinning just like the rest of us were.

In the 2000s, the Yankees’ performance, their wild spending and Steinbrenner’s declining health seemed to go hand-in-hand. Steinbrenner began to issue vague statements about “true Yankees” (Mike Mussina and Jason Giambi) and “warriors” (Gary Sheffield and Carl Pavano). He made moves to get Raul Mondesi and Randy Johnson. He became baseball’s own Veruca Salt. He wanted to lock the whole world up in his pocket. He wanted it now.

Life even imitated satire. A 2003 article in The Onion read, “Yankees ensure 2003 pennant by signing every player in baseball.” Two years later, with the arrival of Randy Johnson, The Onion seemed strangely prescient.

Steinbrenner’s free spending and wild antics were good for the fans too. We saw a powerhouse team that could score six runs a game take the field every night. We saw some of the game’s best pass through the hallowed halls of Yankee Stadium. We saw four million fans trek up the Bronx for a glimpse at the Yankees. We saw World Championships and bitter, historic defeats. And that’s where the doubt creeps in.

As George Steinbrenner fades from the Bronx and a new management team take over, will the Yankees be as willing to poor their financial resources out on to the field? Will they maintain at win-at-all-costs strategy? I don’t know, but I’m afraid the temptation to pocket some more profit may come into play.

In that interview, Abraham notes that the Yanks’ payroll will come down a bit. When the team outpays their competitors by $50 or $70 million and overpays for marginal talent, it’s okay for the payroll to decrease. But the payroll shouldn’t decrease to the detriment of the team on the field.

So far, Brian Cashman has shown he can built a win-now and win-later team. The Yanks have plenty of young talent climbing through the ranks of their farm system and, pitching doubts aside, have an overabundance of Major League All Stars filling out their 25-man roster.

If Cashman, Levine and Swindal keep it up, the Yanks can leverage their financial power as the number one team in the number one media market in the country. They can leverage their baseball operations knowledge to construct a solid on-field Major League product and a wealthy young farm system spewing out prospects.

But for the fans, as George fades away and the Yanks are left in new hands, we the fans are going to wonder. George Steinbrenner and his wallet provided us with comfort. His spending was our security blanket, and that security blanket is gone. As this era ends and a new one begins, I hope we see smart baseball moves and smart spending. I do after all want that elusive 27th World Championship just as much as the Boss has yearned for it since we were a few outs away in 2001. I want it now.