George Steinbrenner (born 1930), the Cleveland shipbuilding magnate who purchased the New York Yankees in 1973, has been one of professional sports most controversial and quotable figures. Twice suspended by baseball for legal and ethical violations, Steinbrenner nevertheless earned the respect of his fellow owners for his record of success on the field. The Yankees won multiple championships under Steinbrenner's aggressive style of leadership.
George Steinbrenner was born on July 4, 1930, in Rocky River, Ohio. His father, Henry Steinbrenner, owned a Great Lakes shipping company. His mother, Rita, managed their home in Bay Village, the suburb of Cleveland where Steinbrenner spent his formative years. As a child, Steinbrenner delivered eggs to earn spending money. His father, a former collegiate track and field star, instructed him to work hard and urged him to try competitive athletics.
At age twelve, Steinbrenner took up hurdling. Whenever he finished second in a track meet, his father appeared instantly at his side, demanding to know: "What the hell happened? How'd you let that guy beat you?" These scoldings instilled a perfectionist streak in the young Steinbrenner that he often cited as the key to his later success.
Education and Early Career
Steinbrenner was educated at the Culver Military Academy in Indiana. He then went on to Williams College in Massachusetts where he continued to run track and edited the sports section of the campus newspaper. In the glee club, he stood directly behind future Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim and-by his own account-outsang him. After earning his bachelor's degree in 1952, Steinbrenner joined the United States Air Force. There he took charge of a succession of successful projects that showed his emerging leadership skills. He established a sports program and set up his own food service business on the base.
After three years in the military, Steinbrenner got a job coaching high school football in Columbus, Ohio. He later moved on to the college level, becoming an assistant at Northwestern and then at Purdue, but his Big Ten coaching career was to be short-lived. In 1957, at the request of his father, Steinbrenner returned to the shipyard, where he was put to work counting rivets in crawl spaces. He married the former Elizabeth Zweig on May 12, 1956, and seemed set to take over his father's business. The lure of big-time sports proved too powerful, however, and Steinbrenner invested a considerable sum of money into his first pro franchise, basketball's Cleveland Pipers. The team failed, and Steinbrenner lost all his savings.
Urged to file for bankruptcy, Steinbrenner instead worked to pay off his debt. When his father retired in 1963, he took control of the family shipping business and helped turn around its sagging fortunes. With the money he made, he formed a partnership with a group of investors and bought into the American Ship Building Company. Elected to the company's presidency in 1967, Steinbrenner fetched his father out of retirement to help him run the operation. American Shipbuilding flourished under Steinbrenner's leadership and made him a multimillionaire.
In the late 1960s, Steinbrenner began to exert his new-found influence on the national level. He used his political connections to become the chief fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, raising nearly $2 million over a two-year period. The election of Republican Richard Nixon to the presidency in 1968 made Steinbrenner fear reprisals against himself or his business. In order to hedge his bets, the shipbuilder contributed to Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign. Unfortunately for Steinbrenner, his donations violated several campaign finance laws. He eventually pleaded guilty to all counts and was fined a total of $35,000.
These charges came just as Steinbrenner was embarking on a new career as a major league baseball owner. In January 1973, Steinbrenner joined with a group of investors to purchase the New York Yankees for $10 million. Once baseball's hallmark franchise, the Yankees had slipped to second-division status in recent years under the ownership of CBS, and a management team headed by Mike Burke. Steinbrenner, who at first announced he would "stick to building ships" and let others run the team, promptly forced Burke out and hired Cleveland Indians' general manager Gabe Paul to supervise the rebuilding process.
In November 1974, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn did briefly return Steinbrenner to the shipyards when he issued him a two-year suspension for his campaign finance transgressions. In Steinbrenner's absence, Paul made a series of shrewd trades and personnel decisions that laid the groundwork for the Yankees return to prominence. By the time Steinbrenner returned from exile in 1976, the Yankees had a top-flight club poised to contend for a world title. The team won its division going away that season, then relied on a clutch ninth-inning, game-winning home run by Chris Chambliss to secure the American League pennant in a five-game playoff against the Kansas City Royals. Only a four-game sweep at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series dampened the spirit of rejuvenation surrounding the Yankees.
In 1977, Steinbrenner opened his checkbook to bring in free agent slugger Reggie Jackson, the former star of the Oakland Athletics. Jackson added considerable star power and clutch hitting to the team, but also heightened dissension in the clubhouse. He had a stormy relationship with manager Billy Martin and was considered selfish by his teammates. Nevertheless, the talented, if volatile, team survived these distractions to make it to the World Series for a second year in a row. This time they were victorious, ousting the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games. Steinbrenner had fulfilled his promise to bring a championship to New York.
He brought a second world title in 1978, though again at a high cost in terms of hostility. The simmering Martin-Jackson feud bubbled over in mid-season, prompting Steinbrenner to fire his manager. On his way out the door, Martin took a few parting shots at both Jackson and the team's owner. "One's a born liar, the other's convicted," Martin observed-an apparent reference to Steinbrenner's campaign finance activity. Relations between the two men would forever be colored by this ugly incident.
Over the next few years, the Yankees continued to contend for the American League pennant. Steinbrenner's increasingly meddlesome management style was blamed for a lack of stability that doomed the team's best efforts. He hired Billy Martin back as manager again in 1979-only to fire him at season's end. It was the first of four instances in which the erratic Martin was invited back to take control of the club, only to be let go with assurances that he would never be hired again. In 1980, the Yankees won 103 games under manager Dick Howser, but Steinbrenner fired him after the team was beaten in the playoffs.
In 1981, the Yankees returned to the World Series. However, after beating the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first two games, the Yankees dropped the next three. Following Game Five, Steinbrenner called a late-night press conference to hold up a flimsily bandaged hand and announce that he had defended the Yankee honor by beating up two Dodger fans in an elevator. The Yankees failed to take a "get tough" cue from their owner and lost the sixth and deciding game. Before the game was even completed, Steinbrenner ordered the Yankee publicity department to issue an apology to the people of New York City for the club's lackluster performance.
Decline and Exile
The rest of the 1980s proved to be a bleak period for the Yankees and their fans. Steinbrenner signed many high-priced players, but with seemingly little regard for their adaptability to the pressures of playing in New York. Managers were put under intense pressure to succeed, subject to dismissal at any time according to the owner's whims. Three men were hired and fired during the 1982 season alone. Steinbrenner engaged in protracted contract squabbles with one star player, Don Mattingly, and publicly belittled another, Dave Winfield, by comparing him unfavorably to the departed Reggie Jackson. By 1990, the Yankees were one of the worst teams in baseball-thanks in large part to the instability wrought on the club by its owner.
By that time, Steinbrenner's relationship with Winfield had deteriorated to the point where he reportedly hired a known gambler to dig up information that would destroy the slugger's reputation. Acting on evidence of this plot, baseball commissioner Fay Vincent suspended Steinbrenner from baseball on July 30, 1990. Control of the Yankees was handed over to limited partner Robert Nederlander for an indefinite period. Yankee management used this period of "exile" to rebuild the team's shattered minor league system and make a few judicious trades. When Steinbrenner was allowed to regain control of the team in 1994, it was once again ready to contend for a world championship.
Many observers expected Steinbrenner to return to his imperious ways and jeopardize the club's progress, but banishment seemed to have mellowed Steinbrenner. He changed his management style, showing a renewed willingness to let his "baseball people" run the team. Other than ousting manager Buck Showalter after the 1995 season, he made few personnel changes and largely avoided making the kind of public comments that had generated controversy in the past. Under new manager Joe Torre, the team capped a stellar 1996 season with a come-from-behind upset victory over the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. Two years later, the Yankees posted the best record in American League history, going 114-48. They then completed an impressive playoff run by sweeping the San Diego Padres in four games in the World Series.
During this period of success, Steinbrenner turned his attention more frequently toward the future of the Yankees. He lobbied city and state officials in New York for the construction of a new stadium, or at least the refurbishing of the old one. He engaged in negotiations to sell the team to a local cable company, but the talks broke down when the potential buyers would not agree to let him continue to run the team. In early 1999, Steinbrenner did reach a deal with the National Basketball Association's New Jersey Nets to merge business operations with the Yankees. The agreement would allow Steinbrenner to investigate the possibility of creating his own regional sports programming network, something that could generate the revenues necessary to keep meeting the Yankees' high payroll. Steinbrenner has repeatedly said that, no matter what ownership arrangement is struck, he will continue running baseball's premier franchise into the foreseeable future.
Further Reading on George Steinbrenner
Frommer, Harvey, The New York Yankee Encyclopedia, Macmillan, 1997.
Gallagher, Mark, The Yankee Encyclopedia, Sagamore Publishing, 1996.
Madden, Bill, Damned Yankees, Warner, 1991.
Schapp, Dick, Steinbrenner! Putnam, 1982.