He joined baseball under an immediate cloud of controversy. He leaves with a legacy of winning and a history of personal blood feuds that generated so much ill-tempered ink, it turned proud Yankee Stadium into “The Bronx Zoo.” We’re talking, of course, about George Steinbrenner, the longtime Yankees owner who passed away Tuesday at the age of 80.
His nickname was The Boss. But those who worked for him had plenty of other names, most of them unprintable.
For Yankees fans who benefitted from George Steinbrenner’s generosity, it’s easy to look back on his reign as the King of New York Baseball with totally rosy, heart-tugging nostalgia. The truth, as usual, is a lot more complicated.
When the Cleveland shipbuilder bought the Yankees in 1973 for just million, the Yankees were in the worst tailspin in their storied history. Less than 40 years later, the Bronx Bombers are worth more than .5 billion, and they won 11 pennants and 7 World Series titles.
But during that same time period, Steinbrenner was suspended twice from baseball and almost was banned forever. The first suspension came shortly after he joined the league — his one-year punishment was for being convicted of a felony of illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon. Steinbrenner’s second temporary ban from MLB came in 1990 for paying ,000 to a low-level gambler named Howie Spira to spy on Yankee superstar Dave Winfield.
Ugly stuff. So was the falling out that Steinbrenner had with Yogi Berra after firing him in the ‘80s. But those weren’t even the worst feuds that Steinbrenner waged. That dubious honor would belong to Billy Martin, the Yankee manager whom Steinbrenner hired and fired a total of 5(!) times. The peak of their dysfunctional relationship came in 1977, when first-year Yankee Reggie Jackson joined the fray and fought bitterly with both Steinbrenner and Martin on their way to winning the Pinstripes’ first World Series title in 15 years.
In between firing Martin, Steinbrenner hired and fired too many managers to list here. But he also proved he could learn from his mistakes. When he returned from his second suspension in 1992 that The Boss finally learned to stay in the background and avoid the spotlight, providing some much-needed stability to the organization. It’s no accident that soon thereafter, Joe Torre and Derek Jeter led the Yankees back to the top of baseball in ’96 and added four more titles to create yet another Yankee dynasty. Under a new Steinbrenner, these new Yankees were the darlings of the Big Apple and they gave America’s best city something to root for as it grieved and recovered after 9/11.
The news of Steinbrenner’s passing Tuesday wasn’t a total shock, it was an open secret that his health had been fading for nearly a decade. It’s cliché to say it’s the end of an era, but it’s undeniably true. Steinbrenner was a colorful, controversial baseball icon. We’ll never see the likes of him again.