George Michael Steinbrenner III (born July 4, 1930 in Rocky River, Ohio), often known as "The Boss," is the principal owner of the New York Yankees. He used to own an interest in the New Jersey Nets and the New Jersey Devils. His outspokenness and role in driving up player salaries have made him one of baseball's more controversial figures, though his willingness to spend to build the club (and its postseason success since 1976) have earned him grudging respect from some baseball executives.
Steinbrenner grew up in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. He ran track and played football at Culver Military Academy in Indiana and ran track at Williams College in Massachusetts, where he graduated in 1952.
After two years in the United States Air Force, Steinbrenner coached high school basketball and football at Aquinas High School (Columbus, Ohio), semi-pro football (Pope's Inn) under Ohio State University All-American Victor Marino, and attended Ohio State University. On March 1, 1955, he was named an assistant football coach at Northwestern University, but was dismissed along with Wildcat head coach Lou Saban on December 13 of that year, three days after the arrival of new athletic director Stu Holcomb. Saban soon resurfaced at Purdue University and took Steinbrenner along. After marrying Joan Zieg on May 12, 1956, Steinbrenner spent one season with the Boilermakers before joining his father's struggling company, the American Shipbuilding Company, the following year.
In 1960, he bought the Cleveland Pipers of the National Industrial Basketball League. The team joined the American Basketball League the next year, with Steinbrenner making history by hiring John McClendon as the first African-American head coach in professional sports. The team went on to win a championship, then pulled off a public relations coup during the offseason by signing Ohio State All-American Jerry Lucas. The signing led to the National Basketball Association admitting the team as its 10th team on July 10, 1962. However, since he was unable to raise $250,000 and the American Basketball League was threatening to sue the NBA because of the shift, the deal collapsed on July 30.
The Pipers soon went bankrupt, with Steinbrenner returning to the relative anonymity of the American Shipbuilding Company, before eventually buying the company. During much of the next decade, Steinbrenner invested in Broadway plays and later gained a small piece of ownership with an NBA team, the Chicago Bulls.
In 1971, Steinbrenner offered $9 million to buy the Cleveland Indians, but after agreeing in principle with Indians owner Vernon Stouffer, saw the deal fall apart at the last minute. Indians General Manager Gabe Paul had played a major role in brokering the deal, and when the New York Yankees became available the following year, he helped Steinbrenner achieve his dream of owning a baseball club. In gratitude, Steinbrenner offered him the opportunity to direct baseball operations for the Bronx Bombers.
Buying the Yankees
The Yankees had been floundering during their years under CBS ownership, a regime that started in 1965. In 1972, CBS Chairman William S. Paley told team president Michael Burke the media company intended to sell the club. As Burke later told writer Roger Kahn, Paley offered to sell the franchise to Burke if he could find financial backing. Burke ran across Steinbrenner's name, and Paul, a Cleveland-area acquaintance of Steinbrenner, helped bring the two men together.
On January 3, 1973, a group of investors led by Steinbrenner and minority partner Burke bought the Yankees from CBS for $8.7 million ($45.6 Mil. in 2005 dollars). "We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned," said Steinbrenner, according to an article in The New York Times reporting on the sale. "We're not going to pretend we're something we aren't. I'll stick to building ships."
The message was that Burke would continue to run the team as club president. But Burke later became angry when he found out that Paul had been brought in as a senior Yankee executive, crowding his authority, quitting the team presidency on April 29, 1973, but remaining a minority owner of the club into the following decade. It would be the first of many high-profile departures with employees who crossed paths with "The Boss." At the conclusion of the 1973 season, two more prominent names departed: manager Ralph Houk, who resigned and then signed to manage the Detroit Tigers; and general manager Lee MacPhail, who became president of the American League.
The 1973 offseason would prove to be controversial when Steinbrenner and Paul sought to hire former Oakland Athletics manager Dick Williams, who had resigned immediately after leading the team to its second straight World Series title. However, because Williams was still under contract to Oakland, the subsequent legal wrangling prevented the Yankees from hiring him. On the first anniversary of the team's ownership change, the Yankees hired former Pittsburgh Pirates manager Bill Virdon to lead the team on the field.
During Steinbrenner's ownership, the longest in Yankee history, the club has won 10 pennants and 6 World Series titles.
A controversial Boss
Steinbrenner is famous for both his pursuit of high-priced free agents and, in some cases, infamous for feuding with them. In his first 23 seasons, he changed managers 20 times (including dismissing Billy Martin on five separate occasions) and general managers 11 times in 30 years. In July 1978, Martin said of Steinbrenner and his $3 million outfielder Reggie Jackson, "One's a born liar and the other's convicted." The comment resulted in Martin's first departure, though technically Martin resigned (tearfully) before Yankees President Al Rosen followed through on Steinbrenner's dictum to release the manager.
Campaign contributions to Nixon
The "convicted" part of Martin's comment referred to Steinbrenner's connection to U.S. President Richard Nixon: he was indicted on 14 criminal counts on April 5, 1974, then pled guilty to making illegal contributions to Nixon's re-election campaign and obstruction of justice on August 23. Steinbrenner was personally fined $15,000, while his firm was assessed $20,000 for the offense. On November 27, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him for two years, but later reduced that amount to nine months, with Steinbrenner returning to the Yankees in 1976. It would take more than a decade, but U.S. President Ronald Reagan eventually pardoned Steinbrenner on January 19, 1989 in one of the final acts of his presidency.
On July 30, 1990, commissioner Fay Vincent banned Steinbrenner from baseball for life after he paid Howie Spira, a small-time gambler, $40,000 for "dirt" on his outfielder Dave Winfield after Winfield sued him for failing to pay his foundation the $300,000 guaranteed in his contract. At Yankee Stadium, where a ballgame was being played, word of Steinbrenner's banishment filtering over the transistor radios resulted in a standing ovation from title-starved fans.
Steinbrenner was reinstated in 1993, the same time the Yankees regained momentum as a quality sports franchise -- helped by Steinbrenner's willingness to delegate authority to executives such as Gene Michael, and to let promising farm-system players such as Bernie Williams develop instead of trading them for free agents. Steinbrenner's having "got religion" (in the words of New York Daily News reporter Bill Madden) paid off. After contending briefly two years earlier, the '93 Yankees were in the American League East race with the eventual champion Toronto Blue Jays until September.
Off the field
In addition to being an intense Boss to his on-field employees, Steinbrenner is also known for pressuring and changing off-field employees (including various publicity directors), sometimes chewing them out in public. Former sportscaster Hank Greenwald, who called Yankee games on WABC radio for two years, once said he knew when Steinbrenner was in town by how tense the office staff was.
Ironically, the Yankee owner usually kept his complaints about the team broadcasters he approves (who, except for the YES Network crew have generally not been his direct employees) out of the newspapers. However, he's been known to be upset with the sometimes blunt commentary of current broadcaster Jim Kaat and former analyst (and ex-Yankee) Tony Kubek.
Steinbrenner's one publicly-aired gripe with a team announcer came when he accused respected Yankee broadcaster Bill White of low-keying his WMCA radio call of Chris Chambliss's pennant-winning home run in the 1976 American League Championship Series. The actual aircheck of the live broadcast (on the Major League Baseball website) finds an unusually emotional White calling the homerun and its aftermath -- so excited as the ball was in flight that his voice broke.
The 1994 Yanks were the American League East leaders when a strike wiped out the rest of the season. The team returned to the playoffs in 1995 (their first visit since 1981) and won the World Series in 1996. The modern Yankee Dynasty was born during the 1996 World Series. The Yankees went on to win the World Series in 1998, 1999 and 2000. The Yankees lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001, ending their dynasty. Since 2002, Steinbrenner ordered several free agent signings of older players and trading young players for better/older talents. After the 2005 season, general manager Brian Cashman mostly took control of signings, which kept the good younger players.
The Boss in the media
Despite Steinbrenner's controversial status (or perhaps, because of it) he does appear to poke fun at himself in the media. He hosted Saturday Night Live on October 20, 1990 at the same time his former outfielder and Yankee manager, Lou Piniella, led the Cincinnati Reds to a world championship. In the opening sketch, he dreamt of a Yankees team managed, coached, and entirely played by himself. In other sketches, "he" chews out the SNL "writing staff" (notably including Al Franken) for featuring him in a mock Slim Fast commercial with pariahs such as Saddam Hussein, and plays a folksy convenience store manager whose business ethic is comically divergant from that of Steinbrenner.
He appeared as himself in the Albert Brooks comedy The Scout.
After a public chastising of Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter for "partying too much," the two appeared in a recent Visa commercial club-hopping. A 2004 Visa commercial depicted an injured Steinbrenner unable to sign any checks, including that of his current manager Joe Torre.
Steinbrenner was caricatured in the comedy Seinfeld, when George Costanza worked with the Yankees for several seasons. Larry David voiced the character, who talked nonstop, regardless of whether anyone was listening, and sometimes referred to himself as "Big Stein." His face was never seen. He was always viewed from the back whenever Costanza entered his office at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees logo always appeared in the hall behind the office doorway. The Seinfeld Steinbrenner was known for bad decisions, such as cooking jerseys, threatening to move the team to New Jersey "just to shake heads", wore Lou Gehrig's uniform pants (and panicked about his nerve problems in the leg) and trading several players much to Frank Costanza's dismay (see the quotes about him below). Steinbrenner had filmed a scene for the Seinfeld season 7 finale, "The Invitations", but demanded to be edited out after finding out that George's fiance, Susan, would be killed off during the episode. Nevertheless, he maintains that he is a fan of the show and that "Costanza is always welcome back." In one episode ("The Wink"), Steinbrenner mentions all of the people he fired, with him saying Billy Martin four times. He also mentions then-current manager Buck Showalter, then quickly clams up about it. Though the show meant it as a joke, it turned out to be prophetic: just weeks after the episode aired, the real life Steinbrenner fired Showalter as Yankees manager.
Steinbrenner also has a soft spot for professional wrestling. He wrote the foreword of the 2005 Dusty Rhodes autobiography and was a regular at old Tampa Armory cards in the 1970s and 1980s.
At the funeral of his long time friend Otto Graham in December 2003, Steinbrenner fainted, leading to extensive media speculation that he was in ill health.
Quotes by Steinbrenner
- "Owning the Yankees is like owning the Mona Lisa."
- "I will never have a heart attack. I give them."
- "I am dead set against free agency. It can ruin baseball."
- "Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing. Breathing first, winning next."
- "I won't be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all. I can't spread myself so thin. I've got enough headaches with my shipping company." -- after becoming principal owner of the Yankees.
Quotes about Steinbrenner
- "There's nothing more limited than a limited partner in the Yankees."
- "What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for!?"
- — Seinfeld character Frank Costanza, George's father, when he learns that his son might be dead. (Buhner was traded to the Seattle Mariners for Ken Phelps.)
- "He fires people like it's a bodily function."
- — Seinfeld character George Costanza while working for the Yankees.