- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 13, 2010

To the legions of New York Yankees fans, George Steinbrenner was “The Boss” — the innovative and stalwart owner of baseball’s most successful franchise, a man who built the best team possible by spending the big bucks to get the best players and by freely hiring and firing managers and general managers.

To the legions of Yankees haters, George Steinbrenner was the villainous ruler of the “Evil Empire,” hellbent on monopolizing America’s pastime with his Machiavellian tactics and polarizing turtlenecks.

Regardless of one’s perspective on the Yankees‘ fiery owner, baseball fans across the nation tipped their caps Tuesday in tribute to the passing of one of sports’ foremost icons. The man who once said, “I will never have a heart attack — I give them,” died Tuesday morning of a massive heart attack.

“He was an incredible and charitable man,” his family said in a statement. “He was a visionary and a giant in the world of sports. He took a great but struggling franchise and turned it into a champion again.”

Mr. Steinbrenner had the heart attack Monday night in Tampa, Fla., home of the Yankees‘ spring-training complex, and was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital by emergency crews.

Mr. Steinbrenner had just celebrated his 80th birthday on July 4. Just two days before his death, the team’s longtime public-address announcer Bob Sheppard died at age 99.

Seemingly fitting, Mr. Steinbrenner died on the day of baseball’s 81st All-Star Game in Anaheim, Calif., and tributes poured in from rival teams, former players and managers, and every manner of public figure.

“The passing of George Steinbrenner marks the end of an era in New York City baseball history,” said Fred and Jeff Wilpon and Saul Katz, owners of the rival New York Mets. “George was a larger than life figure and a force in the industry. The rise and success of his teams on the field and in the business marketplace under his leadership are a testament to his skill, drive, and determination.”

At the All-Star Game Tuesday evening, Mr. Steinbrenner was honored with a video tribute narrated by commentator Joe Buck. It ended with a image of the smiling “Boss,” with a message that read, “Once a Yankee, always a Yankee.” The video was followed by a moment of silence.

Tuesday was the day for everyone to set aside their differences with Mr. Steinbrenner and remember his contribution to the game and its most successful team.

George was The Boss, make no mistake,” said Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra, who had a 14-year spat with Mr. Steinbrenner after being fired as manager of the Yankees in 1985 after one season. “He built the Yankees into champions and that’s something nobody can ever deny. He was a very generous, caring, passionate man. George and I had our differences, but who didn’t? We became great friends over the last decade and I will miss him very much.”

Yankees captain Derek Jeter echoed Mr. Berra’s sentiments.

“You know what the thing is, I have a great relationship with ‘The Boss,’” Mr. Jeter said Tuesday afternoon. “I’d go visit him in the offseason because we both live in Tampa. … It’s tough, because he’s more than just an owner to me. He’s a friend of mine. He will be deeply missed.”

Beginning with Friday’s game at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees will wear commemorative uniform patches for the rest of the season to remember Mr. Steinbrenner and Mr. Sheppard, according to the team’s website.

After years of mediocrity in the late 1960s and early 1970s that stood in contrast to the decades of “Damn Yankees” domination, the Steinbrenner-era Yankees have won 16 division titles, 11 American League pennants and seven World Series championships.

“I think George Steinbrenner represented the best and worst of the game during his tumultuous reign of the Yankees,” said Chris Epting, baseball historian and author. “Despite the controversies surrounding his being banned from the game, he understood the business of baseball as well as anyone and was still enough of a fan that he tried to truly enhance the baseball experience for people.

“He was bigger than life but could still poke fun at himself, and his ferocious will to win is what I believe he will be most remembered for. He was truly historic.”

During his rule as Yankees boss, Mr. Steinbrenner proved himself to be a pioneer of modern sports ownership. Although initially against the advent of free agency, he would come to embrace the concept of signing big names on the open market at salaries that many other teams couldn’t match.

Indeed, he would be the driving force behind some of the best-rewarded transactions in baseball’s history, including the landmark signings of pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter and slugger Reggie Jackson. Mr. Steinbrenner soon became notorious for manipulating the free-agent market like a finely tuned instrument.

Other high-profile free-agent signings included a then-record deal for outfielder Dave Winfield, the capture of former Boston Red Sox star Johnny Damon, and the addition of Oakland Athletics slugger Jason Giambi. He also acquired stars Roger Clemens from the Toronto Blue Jays and Alex Rodriguez from the Texas Rangers in separate trades.

In contrast to previous sports owners, who tended to stay behind the spotlight and let general managers and managers be the faces of the team, Mr. Steinbrenner cultivated a larger-than-life public profile, proudly boasting “The Boss” moniker. When the Yankees won their 27th World Series last year, the team hoisted the trophy under a banner that read, “This one’s for you, Boss.”

A feisty and mercurial owner, he was infamous for public feuds with his managers. Mr. Steinbrenner set a Major League Baseball record with 17 managerial changes in his first 17 seasons, highlighted by the saga of his relationship with Billy Martin, whom he hired and fired five times. Because of this personnel revolving door and some public fights between Mr. Martin and some of his players, the Yankees of the late 1970s and ‘80s were dubbed the “Bronx Zoo.”

Mr. Steinbrenner’s star so transcended sports fans and Yankees fans that tributes came in Tuesday from current and former New York mayors, the mayor of Tampa, the governor of Florida, and the Obama administration.

His death was the overall lead story for much of Tuesday at such news and aggregation sites as CNN, Yahoo and Google News. By 5 p.m., less than eight hours after his death was first reported, the MLB.com obituary had drawn more than 1,200 comments, and the same number of comments were at the Associated Press obituary on the Yahoo Sports site.

His team’s rivals on the field paid tribute also.

“His name is as synonymous with that franchise as any of the legendary athletes who have played in pinstripes,” said Peter Angelos, owner of the American League East rival Baltimore Orioles. An official statement from the Washington Nationals called him “a one of a kind owner, sports figure, and man” who “will be missed.”

Even the arch-rival Red Sox organization put a statement on its site “deeply” mourning Mr. Steinbrenner. Owner John W. Henry called him “both partner and friend.” Team President Larry Lucchino praised his “giant heart, often well hidden from public view,” specifically mentioning the Red Sox’s children’s cancer charity, to which Mr. Steinbrenner was a contributor.

Despite the teams’ bitter on-the-field rivalry, some Red Sox fans remember a kinder side to Mr. Steinbrenner, who ordered the lights at Yankee Stadium to be left on so the Red Sox players could celebrate their historic comeback from a 3-0 deficit after Game 7 of the 2004 American League Championship Series.

One of the tributes from “Red Sox Nation” came from Phil David of Raynham, Mass.

“The NY Yankees have just lost one of, if not the greatest owner in sports history. What he’s done with that franchise is incredible, & all sports fans should understand that (let’s put aside our hatred for the Yankees). I am actually saddened by the news and feel for the Yankee fans out there, as hard as it is for me to say,” the diehard Sox fan said in a status update on Facebook.

Mr. Steinbrenner’s health had been in decline for years and he rarely appeared in public. He fainted in 2006 while watching a granddaughter perform in a play in Chapel Hill, N.C., and was hospitalized overnight. Mr. Steinbrenner had difficulty walking when seen in public after that.

His last appearance at the new Yankee Stadium was for the 2010 home opener, when manager Joe Girardi and Jeter went up to Mr. Steinbrenner’s suite to present him with his 2009 World Series championship ring. He attended the opening game at the new stadium in April 2009, sitting in his suite with his wife, Joan. Mr. Steinbrenner was introduced and received an emotional ovation.

In 2007, Mr. Steinbrenner handed over day-to-day control to his sons, Hank and Hal. Hal Steinbrenner was given control of the team in November 2008 in a unanimous vote by the major league club owners, who acted according to his father’s request.

In addition to his sons, Mr. Steinbrenner is survived by his wife, daughters Jennifer and Jessica and 13 grandchildren. A private funeral was planned.

The bombastic Mr. Steinbrenner bought the Yankees from CBS in 1973 for $10 million, a substantial price at the time. Upon his arrival in New York, he claimed that he would “not be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all.” Having made his money as head of the American Shipbuilding Co., based in Cleveland, he declared, “I’ll stick to building ships.”

That statement, of course, would prove to be bogus.

Just four months after Mr. Steinbrenner took ownership, Michael Burke, who had been running the Yankees for CBS and had stayed on to help manage the franchise, quit after butting heads with Mr. Steinbrenner. According to the New York Times, John McMullen, a minority owner in the syndicate, soon remarked that “nothing is as limited as being a limited partner of George‘s.”

He was twice banned from involvement in professional baseball: once for paying gambler Howard Spira to “dig up dirt” on Mr. Winfield, and another time because of an indictment involving illegal contributions to a campaign fund for President Nixon.

“I haven’t always done a good job, and I haven’t always been successful,” Mr. Steinbrenner said in 2005. “But I know that I have tried.”

Yet amid the bluster and tension during his time as owner of the Yankees, Mr. Steinbrenner also exhibited a sensitive side.

Occasionally he would read about high school athletes who had been injured and he would send them money to go to college. He paid for the medical school expenses of Ron Karnaugh after the swimmer’s father died during the opening ceremony at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

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