(George M. Steinbrenner III: 1930-2010)
Ask any baseball fan from anywhere in the country what he or she thinks of George Steinbrenner and you are bound to get a multitude of responses ranging from people acknowledging his greatness and desire to win to people just flat out calling him an asshole. And regardless of what each person said, there would be bits of truth in each of their responses. George M. Steinbrenner III was many things to many different people. But two things that he always was and should always be remembered as are a winner and a Yankee.
When Steinbrenner took over as owner of the Yankees in 1973, they had fallen from being the gold standard of baseball to a borderline laughingstock. After vowing to stay out of the way of baseball operations and "stick to building ships," Steinbrenner dove headfirst into rebuilding the organization as he saw fit in order for it to re-assume its rightful place atop the baseball world. Perhaps partially due to his intense desire to appeal to his father (something that any man can relate to), or perhaps partially due to his own natural intensity and desire to be the best, or perhaps due to a combination of both, Steinbrenner was relentless in his pursuit of excellence and desire to restore the Yankee tradition. And it was that drive and that determination that helped bring the Yankees to where they are today.
Of course there were some bumps in the road along the way; the early tyrannical approach which with Mr. Steinbrenner ran the team, the almost constant hiring and firing of managers, the public spats with Billy Martin and Dave Winnfield, the 2 suspensions. But along the way, Steinbrenner never lost focus on his ultimate goal for the team and never stopped working towards that goal. Certainly one can argue that the means used by Steinbrenner to achieve the end were questionable at times, but it cannot be argued that Steinbrenner did what he did out of love for his team and his never-ending desire to see it succeed.
As an owner, he was more committed to the success of his organization than anybody in sports history, and when you look around the professional sports landscape today there are many owners that you simply cannot say that about. Some are in it for the money, some are in it for the recognition, and some are just in it for the hell of it because they're already so filthy rich that they have nothing better to spend their money on. Steinbrenner was in it for the winning. He understood that with winning came money. With winning came recognition. Even in his later years, before giving up control of the Yankees to Hank and Hal, Steinbrenner was still one of the last few owners who truly "got it."
But George Steinbrenner was more than just a great owner. He was a revolutionary. His dogged pursuit of the biggest and best free agents and his willingness to pay them exorbitant amounts of money to come play in New York not only changed baseball, but changed the way contracts and free agency were handled across the spectrum of major professional American sports. Teams took notice of what Steinbrenner was doing and had no choice but to adapt and offer players more money if they hoped to keep them and hoped to compete with the Yankees. And while not all of his moves worked out to the Yankees' benefit (see: the mid-2000s), they still resounded throughout the sport by constantly setting the bar that other teams had to achieve to remain competitive and relevant. You could argue that George Steinbrenner is single-handedly responsible for every major, big-money contract that a professional athlete has received since the 1970s or 1980s. Without Steinbrenner upping the ante in the world of free agency, there likely would have been no ESPN special for LeBron James' "Decision" last week.
Steinbrenner became such a major figure in the baseball and sports world that he was able to expand his own star outside of that realm. He became a national celebrity for being nothing more than who and what he was. He appeared in commercials with Billy Martin and Derek Jeter. He has hosted "Saturday Night Live." He was spoofed on "Seinfeld." And eventually his reputation, fair or not, became so widely known that he was called simply "The Boss" and people knew who was being referred to.
At his core, though, George Steinbrenner was just a hard-working business man with an unquenchable desire to win and succeed. It's fitting that a man so driven to achieve his goals was born on the 4th of July. Amongst Yankee legends like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Munson, and Jeter, George Steinbrenner stands on par with all of them, perhaps the truest representation of the Yankee tradition and what it means to be a Yankee. He took a modest $8.7 million investment in a scrambling franchise and turned it into a multi-billion dollar empire that has achieved not only national, but international prominence and recognition and he did it his way.
Those who truly know Steinbrenner, either personally or professionally, would probably tell you that many of the horror stories you hear about him were not a true representation of who he was as a person. And there are many stories of his loyalty and generosity to those around him and to charitable organizations. Steinbrenner was no cartoon villain, he was a human being, with flesh and blood and a heart as big as anyone's. And he put every ounce of energy into building the Yankee organization back up into what it is today. The Yankees organization and every Yankee fan and player since 1973 owes a great deal of gratitude to George Steinbrenner for what he did and what he brought to them. He was and is one of the greatest Yankees of all time and he will be greatly missed.