Posted: Tuesday July 13, 2010 10:49AM ; Updated: Wednesday July 14, 2010 3:31PM
Alex Belth
Alex Belth>INSIDE BASEBALL

The Boss will be remembered for making the Yankees winners (cont.)

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'Absentee ownership'

Steinbrenner's impact was felt immediately after he bought the team, even though he told reporters, "We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned. We're not going to pretend to be something we aren't. I'll stick to building ships."

The secretaries no longer had flowers delivered daily to their desks. The players were ordered to cut their hair, and manager Ralph Houk suddenly started receiving calls constantly from the new owner. (Houk quit at the end of the season.) Steinbrenner also liked to address his team and give them rah-rah pep talks as if they were a college football team. His Knute Rockne routine left the Yankee players rolling their eyes.

The following year -- as the Yankees played the first of two seasons at Shea Stadium in Queens while Yankee Stadium was being remodeled -- Steinbrenner was indicted for making illegal campaign contributions to the committee to re-elect President Nixon. He pleaded guilty in August and shortly thereafter was suspended by commissioner Bowie Kuhn for two seasons. As the Yankees found themselves in a late-season pennant race, Steinbrenner taped a speech and had manager Bill Virdon play it for the team in the locker room. "You've got to have balls," Steinbrenner implored.

Few believed that the suspension had any teeth to it, however, especially when the Yankees signed Jim "Catfish" Hunter, the game's first free-agent (via a loophole), that winter to a then-unheard of five-year, $3 million deal.

The Yankees won the American League pennant in 1976 for the first time in 12 years but were swept in the World Series by the Cincinnati Reds. The following year, the first year of free agency, Steinbrenner signed pitcher Don Gullet and outfielder Reggie Jackson. Steinbrenner's Yankees, run expertly by general manager Gabe Paul, were called "The Best Team Money Can Buy," and the arrival of Jackson began the Bronx Zoo years in New York, the most written about era since the days of Babe Ruth.

When the Yankees won back-to-back championships in '77 and '78, Steinbrenner was at the height of his popularity in New York. He was a darling of the tabloid media, naturally charming, and a master at getting the headlines. Steinbrenner regularly "leaked" stories to the papers. "A high-placed source" was often Steinbrenner himself. It took him just five years to win his first World Series and, suddenly, he was as popular and as visible as any of his players. He was the talk of the town. Playgirl listed him as one of the sexiest men in America.

"In New York," Steinbrenner once told former New York Times baseball writer Murray Chass, "athletics is more than a game. You're in the Big Apple. The game is important, but so is the showmanship involved with the game important. You have to have a blend of capable, proficient players, but you have to have another ingredient in New York and that's color."

But there was an underside to the success. Steinbrenner would not tolerate failure and he "fooled himself that he could arrange for success," according to the baseball writer Roger Angell in Ken Burns' Baseball. "He didn't really want to let his ballplayers play the games. He didn't want to put them out on the field and wait to see what happens, which is what you have to do in the end. He wanted to impose his will and in doing that he got between us and the players. I always had the feeling at Yankee Stadium when he was there that he was standing up in front of me and I was looking at George Steinbrenner and I want to see the Yankees, instead."

The 1980s

In the '80s, the Yankees imploded. Steinbrenner bought talent -- after the 1980 season, he made Dave Winfield the richest man in sports with a 10-year, $23 million deal -- and traded away promising prospects such as Jose Rijo, Willie McGee and Fred McGriff. The Yankees had the best cumulative regular-season record in baseball during the decade with only the '81 Series loss to show for it.

"The problem with the Yankees," wrote Bill James in 1988, "is that they never want to pay the real price of success. The real price of success in baseball is not the dollars you come up with for a Jack Clark, or a Dave Winfield or and Ed Whitson. ... It is the patience to work with young players and help them develop. So long as the Yankees are unwilling to pay that price, don't bet on them to win anything."

From 1989-1992, the Yankees were 288-359, never placing higher than fourth. In 1990, they bottomed-out, finishing dead last, 21 games out.

"Steinbrenner did something no one thought possible," added George F. Will, in Baseball, "wreck the Yankee franchise. It's astonishing. They have a wonderful tradition, terrific farm system, the largest market, a cash flow that you would think would finance excellence even if you weren't real smart."

It was the end of the line for Steinbrenner, too. In January 1990, he paid $40,000 to Howie Spira, a small-time hustler who had previously worked for Winfield's foundation. Steinbrenner had long resented Winfield for not delivering a championship and used information Spira had given him in an arbitration case with the Winfield Foundation a year earlier.

When Steinbrenner was busted, Commissioner Fay Vincent suspended him for two years. This suspension was enforced more vigorously than the first, and Steinbrenner was in fact in the background as "Stick" Michael rebuilt the Yankees in the early '90s. By this point, Steinbrenner had become a living caricature; the most air play he got during this period was as a character, played by Larry David, on Seinfeld.

 
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