Hall of an owner
Cooperstown wouldn't be complete without indomitable Steinbrenner
Posted: Tuesday July 6, 2004 6:14PM; Updated: Tuesday July 6, 2004 6:17PM
The Boss turned 74 on Sunday -- July 4 -- and isn't planning to retire anytime soon. Even so, here's an interesting question to ponder: Will George Steinbrenner, one of the most revered and reviled characters in the history of sport, eventually be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame?
Steinbrenner isn't campaigning for the nod, which makes wonderful sense because in his age class -- 65 and over -- owners and executives have to be at least six months removed from the game to be considered by the Hall of Fame Committee on Baseball Veterans. And until he takes his last breath, bank on Steinbrenner lurking around as principal owner of his pride and joy, the New York Yankees.
But should a plaque of the bombastic owner, chest pompously puffed, hang in Cooperstown someday? Damn right.
The Hall of Fame is home to 23 executives/pioneers, a list that includes owners such as Tom Yawkey (Red Sox), Charlie Comiskey (White Sox), Clark Griffith (Senators) and Bill Veeck (Indians, Browns, White Sox). Among today's owners, there isn't a soul who comes close to the influence -- good or bad -- Steinbrenner has had over the game for three decades running.
Other contemporaries who you can rightly argue deserve consideration, for differing reasons, include Walter O'Malley (Dodgers), Charlie Finley (A's) and Augie Busch (Cardinals). And when it comes to front-office types, heck, no one more profoundly influenced the game than union boss Marvin Miller.
But Steinbrenner, who pulled together a group of investors to buy the Yankees from CBS in 1973 for $10 million, is the instantly recognizable name among a growing cast of corporate execs. That is, unless you count conflicted commissioner Bud Selig, absentee owner of the Milwaukee Brewers.
"One of criteria or rules of thumb that baseball writers talk about using is, can you talk about the history of baseball without mentioning this guy?" offers John Odell, the Baseball Hall of Fame's curator of history and research. "And it would seem very hard to talk about the history of baseball for the past 25 years or so and not mention George Steinbrenner. Like him or dislike him, but he has certainly influenced and impacted the game. If you want to talk about baseball from the management side of things and talk about free agents, you can't not talk about George Steinbrenner. And free agency is what is driving the game today."
We're not talking sainthood for Steinbrenner, though. Steinbrenner has been cast as a baseball version of Darth Vader, and perhaps rightly so. He has feuded with rival owners and clubs (see: Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino) and dug into his filthy-rich war chest to buy up the game's best players. And lest we forget, the Boss is a convicted felon (illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's 1972 presidential campaign) and twice suspended from the game (the felony charge and in 1990 for paying gambler Howard Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield).
All that said, his teams win big. And the Yankees are arguably the most attractive name in sports, the baseball franchise that gets the juices flowing, love 'em or hate 'em. The team that writes headlines, puts fannies in the seats on the road and helps carry the game.
Steinbrenner has restored pride to the Yankees, with his club winning 10 American League pennants -- including six of the past eight -- and six World Series championships. The Yankees are on track to play before more than 7 million fans this season, which would make them the most watched team in history.
We ran the Steinbrenner for Cooperstown idea by an old foe of his, 1999 HOF inductee George Brett. A child of the West Coast, Brett was surprised to learn O'Malley, who brought the Dodgers to Los Angeles, isn't in the Hall of Fame. But given the other owners gracing the halls of Cooperstown, he'd definitely cast a vote for Steinbrenner.
That's a huge concession for Brett, who played his entire career in a Kansas City Royals uniform and has a burning hatred for anything Yankees after losing three consecutive American League Championship Series to them from 1976-78. "Even today, if the Royals win six games all year, if they're going to go 6-156, I hope they beat the Yankees six times," says Brett, Royals' vice president for baseball operations.
What separates Steinbrenner from rival owners, other than a payroll approaching $200 million, is a bully-like obsession with coming out on top. He'll do most anything to field a winner, whether throwing a goofy wad of cash at a player or extracting the head of an underling. (That said, he hasn't fired a manager since hiring Joe Torre in 1995.)
Brett caught a glimpse of Steinbrenner's intensity at a small dinner party a few years ago. Though not a close personal friend of his, Brett ended up sitting across the table from the Boss, politely trying to carry on a conversation.
"A flower arrangement was directly in our view, so we were doing the old Caddyshack routine, bending our heads back and forth around the lamp, but we were doing it around the flowers," recalls Brett, laughing at the memory. "So I got up and I moved the flower arrangement over just a little bit and we continued our conversation. And when the conversation was over, he moved the flower thing back. So then we do the Caddyshack deal again, bobbing heads, trying to talk.
"And I said, 'Why did you move the flower pot back?' And he said, 'Well, I don't want to look at you.' I said, 'What are you talking about, you don't want to look at me.' He says, 'You beat the Yankees too many times.' I said, 'George, wait a second, let me ask you a question. You guys won in '76. You guys won in '77. You guys won in '78. We won in 1980. That is one out of four. I think if anybody should have moved them back it should have been me.' And he said, 'No, you beating us one time is one time too many.'
"He was serious. And then that was it. That is the way he is. It is win at all costs."
Sounds like Hall of Fame material.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.