Tuesday, July 13, 2010

George M. Steinbrenner III, 1930-2010; Remembering "The Boss"

A couple of weeks ago I commented on a friend's blog about how often we improperly use the term "icon", sometimes using the word to define a flavor of the month personality or "This Year's Blond". ICONS should personify an era, be larger than life....John Wayne, Elvis Presley, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe or the Beatles; or Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Jim Brown, Michael Jordan, Micky Mantle......or George Michael Steinbrenner III.

Steinbrenner, who died this morning of a massive heart attack, was the personification of an icon. The longtime 80 year old principal owner of the New York Yankees, who bought the team in 1973 for $8.8 million and turned the Yankees into an empire worth an estimated $3 billion.....and has been said to have laid out $200,000 of his own cash to complete the purchase from CBS.

It's hard to believe when looking at the Yankees now to think of where the team was in 1973. They were the #2 team in New York to the exciting young upstart Mets- New York, despite all of the Yankee championships was a National League town at heart, first with the Giants and Dodgers, and from 1962 the Mets. Attendancewise the Yankees peaked in 1948 with almost 2.8 million fans flocking to old Yankee Stadium. But attendance began a a slow decline, down 1.3 million in 1964, the year the Yankees lost to St Louis Cardinals in seven games in the World Series. The Yankees would not return to the Series until 1976....the Dynasty crumbled, and within two years the Yankees were a last place team. It was an era defined by the unfortunate ownership of CBS (who purchased the team from Dan Topping and Del Webb in 1964), sometimes called "The Horace Clarke Era", named after the mediocre second basemen during those years.

In 1973, the year Steinbrenner bought the Yankees, attendance was about 1.3 million after failing to top one million in 1972; their average of 15, 552 was fifth out of a twelve team American League. Steinbrenner, who once claimed he would be a "hands off" owner, soon started to turn things upside down. No facial beards and haircuts were mandatory; manager Ralph Houk left, soon followed by Bill Virdon and by 1976 it was time for Billy Martin (Act One). Billy would serve five terms as Yankees manager altogether.

But the thing that turned the Yankees around relatively quickly was free agency, recently won by Major League baseball's players....Catfish Hunter came over from the Athletics, and soon "The Straw That Stirs The Drink", Reggie Jackson, took the money and came to the Bronx. Through trades and the farm system the Yankees had Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, Thurman Munson, and Sparky Lyle, among others, and the nucleus for what became known as "The Bronx Zoo". There were for World Series appearances and two World Championships from 1976-81, and clubhouse drama, and Billy Martin being fired, Bob Lemon hired, Billy returning and being fired a second time.

The 1980's was the Era of Mattingly and Winfield on the Yankees.....and it was also the era defined by the impetuous nature of Steinbrenner. As WFAN radio personality Mike FRancesa has said, George changed managers in the decade the way most people change shirts. Eight different men managed the team in the 1980's; Billy Martin three more times, Gene Michael and Lou Pinella has two separate terms, Bob Lemon, Dick Howser, Clyde King, Dallas Green, and Yogi Berra all had time at the helm. Yogi was fired 16 games into the 1985 season- he didn't speak to Steinbrenner for more than a decade.

And in 1982 I returned home from a Yankee-Tigers Sunday afternoon game in April, a tough loss for the Yanks, to find out that Bob Lemon had been fired AGAIN as Yankee manager;it was 14 games into the season. He was replaced by Gene Michael, and "Stick" was bounced for Clyde king before season's end....three managers, a fifth place finish, and a 79-83 record.

Yes it was crazy...and it was Steinbrenner at his worst. He reacted like a fan and bounced leadership at every turn. it was a circus, and an embarrassment as a fan to watch. And of course, there was the case of Steinbrenner hiring gambler Howie Spira to dig up dirt on outfielder Dave Winfield, an action that got Steinbrenner a suspension from Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent in 1990. It was the second suspension for Steinbrenner, who got two yaers in the early 1970's for illegal campaign contributions to the Nixon campaign....but there was alot of that going on.

Steinbrenner returned from his 1990 suspension in 1993, a changed and more mellow man. Much of the bombast of his early years was gone. In 1995 he let manager Buck Showalter go after the Yankees first postseason appearance since 1981, and replaced him with veteran manager Joe Torre. What followed was an era that came to define the later Steinbrenner years, and the rebirth of a dynasty. There was The Core Four- Andy Petitte, Mariano Rivaera, Jorge Posada, and Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neil, Tino Martinez....and ex Mets David Cone, Daryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden. There were World Championships in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000, as well as American League pennants in 2001 and 2003. Torre led the Yankees to the post season in every one of his 12 seasons as manager. And the Yankees became the hottest ticket in town, topping 3 million in attendance from each yearfrom 1999 on, and 4 million from 2005-08, last four years of old Yankee Stadium.

George Steinbrenner was responsible for the jewel that is the new Yankee Stadium; it was built with Steinbrenner's own money. And it was Steinbrenner who saw the changing economics of the game and became the first baseball owner to start a cable TV network for his team; today the YES network is the most successful regional network in the United States.

Just about every former player says the same thing about George Steinbrenner....he was a tough and demanding boss, but when he became a Yankee you were a Yankee for life. Many times former players down on their luck, or players needing a second or third chance, had George Steinbrenner in their corner. His charitable donations sometimes flew below the radar, because he wanted it that way. And he became a pop culture figure, with commercials for VISA and MILLER LITE, an appearance on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, and his " non-appearance appearance" on Seinfeld as himself (as portrayed by Larry David) was done because his grandchildren loved the show. Steinbrenner had script approval of any episode he "appeared".

You can say many things about George Steinbrenner, and the chances are you were right....he could be loud, a bully, impetuous, bombastic. Or charitable, kind, loyal, and sentimental. Or an amazing business man, an visionary, and a man who helped to revive baseball not only in New York, but nationally. He changed sports and our culture, and became the dominant sports figure in the media capital of the world.

Before Bruce and Tony Soprano, there was already one Boss in these parts.

And today he left us.

Thanks, George.

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