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“His impact on the game cannot be denied,” Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said.

For that alone, today’s players should worship at the shrine of Steinbrenner. He was the first to open up the checkbook as free agency exploded, and with each succeeding player the contracts seemed to get bigger and bigger.

The average salary in the major leagues was just $36,566 when Steinbrenner parlayed a $186,000 investment into control of the Yankees in 1973. Ten years later it had risen to $289,194 and a decade after that, players were averaging more than $1 million a season.

His fellow owners thought he was mad. They couldn’t imagine risking their investments on high-priced employees and grumbled that Steinbrenner was ruining the good thing they all enjoyed.

Anger soon turned to envy, though, as the Yankees kept winning and Steinbrenner kept restocking the franchise. Baltimore owner Edward Bennett Williams said in 1982 that the Yankees had so many good players they stockpiled outfielders “like nuclear weapons.”

For Steinbrenner, though, it was just good business. The millions he invested in Reggie Jackson early on helped win the Yankees championships and created a legend in “Mr. October.” Fans returned to the ballpark they had deserted in leaner years, and the team he and his partners bought for an $8.7 million net price would become a franchise valued by Forbes at $1.6 billion today.

Signing with the Yankees carried risk as well as reward because “The Boss” expected his workers to earn their money. Dave Winfield was such a disappointment that Steinbrenner called him “Mr. May,” during the 1985 season and the owner wasn’t afraid to let everyone know when his expectations were not being met.

Public humiliation was usually the weapon of choice, and Steinbrenner wielded it sharply. Pitcher Doyle Alexander found that out after signing a four-year, $2.2 million contract in 1982, then getting hit hard almost every time he took the mound.

After an August loss to the Tigers in which Alexander was shellacked, Steinbrenner issued this statement:

“After what happened tonight I’m having Doyle Alexander flown back to New York to undergo a physical. I’m afraid some of our players might get hurt playing behind him.”

Funny stuff, but reliever Goose Gossage, another Steinbrenner nemesis, got in the last laugh.

“Doyle is getting a physical, but George needs a mental,” Gossage said.

Still, the players kept coming. They had no real choice. Steinbrenner was usually first with the checkbook, and his checks always had more zeroes in them than those written by other owners.

The tradition continued even as Steinbrenner grew old and his sons took control of the team. Eight Yankees were on the All-Star team, the team barely lost out last week on a deal to land another starter in Cliff Lee, and the payroll dwarfs everything else in baseball at north of $200 million.

The team’s new home is a towering $1.5 billion monument to Steinbrenner, the Yankee brand is stronger than ever and any hard feelings Steinbrenner had with anyone from Reggie Jackson to Yogi Berra have long since been resolved.

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