The Boss was a tyrant, but he made Yankees into winners at all costs
George Steinbrenner died Tuesday morning of a heart attack at age 80
Steinbrenner vowed to be an 'absentee owner' upon taking over in 1973
Steinbrenner's Yankees bottomed out in the 1980s before emerging as a dynasty
George M. Steinbrenner III, the most visible, vilified and successful baseball owner of the free-agency era, died on Tuesday morning following a massive heart attack.
In his heyday he was known as many things -- most notably, as a bad loser -- but there is no denying that he made the Yankees into a winner. He was the shipbuilding magnate who bought the ball club for a relative pittance ($10 million in 1973) from CBS and restored the Yankee brand to its former glory. During his reign as owner, Steinbrenner's Yankees won 11 American League pennants and seven world championships, more than any other team in that span. The franchise's value soared into more than a billion as it became the staple product of its own cable network while still leading the big leagues in attendance year after year.
Along the way he exerted his will in an indomitable fashion, displaying legendary impatience and volatility. He bought out his 13 limited partners by the end of his first decade as owner, prompting John McMullen, who later owned the Houston Astros, to say, "Nothing is more limited than being a limited partner of George's." During his first 20 years with the Yankees, Steinbrenner hired and fired 21 managers, including Billy Martin five times. Before the 1982 season, Steinbrenner announced that manager Bob Lemon should feel secure in his job; Lemon was fired 14 games into the season. Two years later, Steinbrenner talked about his manager, Yogi Berra, before the season again and said "Yogi will be the manager the entire season, win or lose." After 16 games, Berra was fired. He would not return to Yankee Stadium for 14 years.
"In every other job I've had with him, he seemed to respect my opinion to some degree," said Gene "Stick" Michael, who was a player for Steinbrenner as well as scout, general manager and field manager. "But when you become his manager, it's like your IQ drops by 50 percent. All of a sudden you don't know anything."
Before firing Michael as manager in 1981, Steinbrenner told him, "Why would you want to stay manager and be second-guessed by me when you can come up into the front office and be one of the second-guessers?"
Yet Steinbrenner domineered his general managers equally as hard. In fact, clubhouse attendants, secretaries, p.r. men, players, anyone who was on his payroll, were hired and fired with regularity. In 1982, Steinbrenner had five different pitching coaches. Two years later, the Yankees lost three of their first four games to start the season. Rookie shortstop Bobby Meacham made an error in the third straight loss and Steinbrenner sent him to the Double A team, skipping Triple A altogether.
"They say I'm tough to work for," Steinbrenner once said, "Well, I am, but I'm not trying to win any popularity contest. I know only one way and that is to work my butt off and demand everybody else do the same."
Steinbrenner had a penchant for calling out rookies -- "He spit the bit," he said of pitcher Jim Beattie once after a bad start. He also loved to embarrass his stars. He publicly feuded with Dave Winfield for years, calling him "Mr. May," in 1985. In 1999, Steinbrenner called pitcher Hideki Irabu a "fat p---- toad" for not covering first base properly in a spring training game.
One former employee of the Yankees told Steinbrenner biographer Dick Schaap, "George Steinbrenner doesn't want to be loved, and he doesn't want to be hated, George Steinbrenner wants to be feared."
"Sometimes," Steinbrenner once told a reporter, "as much as I don't want to -- I have to inflict pain. But I also inflict some joy."
Steinbrenner would harass an employee to no end, humiliating and abusing them at his whim. Then he'd send their kids through college or hire them back with a bonus.
"George is the most charming guy in the world, a real Mr. Nice," said Campbell W. Elliott, former president of American Ship Building Company. "But to work for him? George's attitude is that they're damn lucky to have a job -- and if they don't like the way he treats them, they can just get the hell out."
Umpires, league officials and rival managers were also favorite targets for Steinbrenner when the Yankees didn't win. In 1983, Steinbrenner was suspended for a week after he repeatedly criticized National League umpires during spring training. By the end of the season, he was fined a then-record sum of $250,000 for his behavior following the infamous "Pine-Tar Game."
The Boss was simply an incorrigibly poor loser who personalized the team's failures. "There is always a feeling that the losses come from a defect in character, or spite," wrote Ed Linn in Steinbrenner's Yankees. "He has put together a winning team, and so if they're not wining, it has to be their fault." After the Yankees lost the 1981 World Series to the Dodgers, Steinbrenner publicly apologized to the city of New York.
"You have to understand how I feel," Steinbrenner once said after he was caught cursing by TV cameras during a playoff loss in 1980. "There are 5 million Yankee fans just like me sitting in front of TV sets with beer and hollering the same thing ... I want this team to win. I'm obsessed with winning, with discipline, with achieving. That's what this country's all about, that's what New York's all about -- fighting for everything, a cab in the rain, a table in a restaurant at lunchtime -- and that's what the Yankees are all about."