George M. Steinbrenner: 1930-2010

Winning first, breathing second.
-George M. Steinbrenner III

Exaggerated rumors of NY Yankees principle owner George Steinbrenner’s demise abound. Something he has conspicuously failed to retract, due mostly to a predictably undeniable lust for power and an acute sense of timing to steal the big headline; whether it is from low-rent pikers like LeBron James or senseless mid-summer exhibitions made paramount by the demented gargoyle who runs Major League Baseball. No, The Boss is not dead. He has expanded his business to the afterlife; scouring the bars of hell for Billy Martin, so two of earth’s most demented souls could team up once again to wreak havoc for publicity and profit at the Pearly Gates Pavilion.

Jesus, Steinbrenner cannot die. It would be a dark day for the greatest owner of any business enterprise to exit, especially in these broke times and specifically if it is an enterprise located in my hometown, the elevated borough north of Manhattan, where the Mighty Bronx Nine stomp the terra with a voracious appetite for victory unmatched by competition anywhere.

The Big Bad don’t die or fade away or shuffle off the mortal coil; they buy and trade and berate and haggle, and they do it loudly, like bootleg explosives. Pop! Pow! Bam! Steinbrenner, you know, was the original Big Bad; born on the Fourth of July, a real honest-to-goodness Yankee Doodle Do-Or-Die. He stood as a living symbol of American might; loved by the faithful for doing whatever it takes to win, win, win in the most hard-charging, flag-waving style – pure capitalist grit – and, of course, hated by everyone else. Deep down below the pomp and bluster there remains a soft underbelly of empathetic honor; propping up the needy, bankrolling the downtrodden, all the while enduring the slings and arrows of being On Top.

And that is where The Boss finds himself as he runs amok in the afterlife; his team ensconced in first place with the sport’s best record, defending another title.

This just in on the AP wire; Steinbrenner, with Billy Ball in tow, has managed to gain controlling interest in Purgatory and received Mickey Mantle in return for undisclosed monies, which he plans to parlay into a massive take-over of Nirvana.

And why not? This is how things got done in Yankeeland under King George’s watch for nearly half a century. Along the way Steinbrenner’s presence, his mad, impetuous foresight evolved, nay, transformed the profession of baseball from a gang of silver-spooned dullards herding half-witted jocks through a pastoral mind-numb into a veritable high wire circus act; The Boss as its willing and able ringmaster. His cast of characters ranged far and wide from the fringe of the free agency era, which he single-handedly fueled from a queer oddity mostly shunned by his fellow owners to the status quo in every major sport, not to mention the cash cow, team-run sports network – his brainchild, the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network, now a must for every serious franchise, may be worth twice his world-class team.

King George invented modern sports free agency and its mass marketing. He inspired imitators and riled the competition. You think there would be blabbering meddlers like Jerry Jones or a Mark Cuban without The Boss? You think the NY Mets or the Boston Red Sox would have half the payrolls (the second and third highest in the sport) newly renovated or brand new ballparks and their own networks, if not for the NY Yankees? Oh, and don’t piss off a Bosox fan by reminding him that one of George’s disciples used his methods to buy a half-assed bungling club and finally fell the Curse of the Bambino. Let them think it was all a Beantown thing.

Speaking of Beantown, a mad series of tweets are now reporting that Steinbrenner has abandoned his raid on Nirvana and has decided to trade a frozen Ted Williams for St. Peter, while acquiring the rights to Salvation.

Here’s what you need to know about George M. Steinbrenner III: In 1973, at age 42, he wrangled nine associates representing 49 percent of his 51 percent ownership bid – a poultry 150 grand of which came from his pocket – to purchase a busted, aging, and debt-ridden symbol of early twentieth-century Americana for $10 million. Today it is worth well over a billion dollars.

Upon his arrival from the shipbuilding business in Cleveland, Ohio, the NY Yankees, once the proudest team in sport, dominating for decades with the biggest names – Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra – had not sniffed a stellar season in nearly ten years. Within five seasons it was champion of baseball, boasting the game’s most dazzling stars – Munson, Hunter, Jackson, Lyle.

Before the reign of King George, Yankee Stadium, once the cathedral of the nation’s pastime, was a dilapidated cavern of empty seats. By 1976, it was a renovated jewel of modern sports, and today, filled annually with league-leading attendance, it sits across famed 161st street as a state-of-the-art tribute to the excess of winning.

Steinbrenner, shrewd, hard, and aggressive, with a manic ambition set alight by an unyielding father whose will to win was only outdone by a paralyzing fear of losing, knew so little about the nuances and framework of baseball – a game of patience run in a long-distance style – he drove an entire city, its press, and the sport crazy. “One-hundred and sixty-two game sevens,” is how his most successful manager, Joe Torre once described a season under George Steinbrenner.

The legend of The Boss hiring and firing everyone and anyone in sight on a whim – the first 24 seasons of Steinbrenner rule bore 20 managerial changes – was born on two brilliantly bizarre moves that everyone who had the slightest inkling about baseball thought mad: Spending Thanksgiving waiting out the free agency of star, Reggie Jackson in an O’Hare hotel lobby for seven hours until the slugger agreed to take his millions and the next summer firing an insubordinately violent drunkard manager, his team trailing the division by double-digits, to hire a more subdued boozer. Both decisions brought his Yankees back-to-back titles in 1977 and’78.

Thus was born the Bronx Zoo, so completely ingrained in New York sports lore that over two decades later after the 1999 Yankees pulled off its own repeat, I asked Steinbrenner to compare it. “Oh, now, it’s hard to compare anything to those days,” he said, eyebrows pitched. “Those teams had…well, they had some big things to overcome. Namely me.”

Twenty years between champagne sips for the Yankees is a lifetime; in fact, the longest run of non-dominance in the team’s illustrious history, and most of the wilderness stemmed from Steinbrenner’s belief that his two “big moves”, wooing the high-priced superstar and sacking a manager in mid-stream, would always bring the brass ring. Instead it brought everything imaginable – outrage, embarrassment, tumult, and lunacy – but no titles.

During this time whenever anyone would ask me to write or comment negatively about The Boss’ almost daily asinine behavior, I would pass. Hell, I told them, when it really mattered for me, as a kid, when you really live and die with the game, the guy gave me a collection of crazed banshees who conquered all comers. Sports are a distraction at best when you’re 30, at 14, its pretty much Armageddon.

Apparently it never stops being Armageddon for some, and for King George, it was daily.

Still, it was a much mellower, almost humbled Steinbrenner that emerged from his second suspension from baseball, the first in the early seventies resulting from a fallout from illegal campaign contributions to the same Nixon CREEP fund that eventually sank the 37th president, the second, a series of weird events that drove the most famous owner in sport to employ a slimy New York bookie to sandbag his multi-million dollar all-star.

Soon the aging titan was being parodied on a sitcom and weeping during trophy ceremonies, a raging idiosyncratic caricature of indomitable impatience now the doting patriarch – his team on top, his franchise the richest, and its brand second to none.

So of course he would expand his interests to the unknown quantities of the afterlife, with its infinite eternities and boundless potential to mine for big gains and bigger headlines.


James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of Deep Tank Jersey, Fear No Art, Trailing Jesus, and Midnight For Cinderella.