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How George Steinbrenner Turned the Yankees (and New York City) Back Into Winners

July 13, 2010

People who look at the City of New York in its 2010 state (which, still sadly is still a bit less wondrous than its 2000 state) may not know or remember what the town was like in 1973. New York was literally on the verge of fiscal ruin. The city was falling apart, slum lords ruled much of the town, and people were trying to escape the city to the safer suburbs.

But in the midst of all that, up to the plate stepped George Steinbrenner, a businessman, a ship builder, a guy with a vision. He saw an opportunity. And that was the chance to buy the most famous franchise in sports: The New York Yankees. And bought the Yanks he did, to the impossible pricetag of nearly ten million dollars!

George Steinbrenner

Almost immediately, he changed the nature of how baseball worked by signing the first ever “free agent” for the team: Jim “Catfish” Hunter. This changed not only how baseball worked but how all professional sports would work, forever. Suddenly, athletes were getting paid what they felt they were worth to a club, and this meant they could go to whatever team they wanted and ask for whatever treats they would like. LeBron James, you owe George a thank you.

So as Steinbrenner was putting together a team that could take the Yankees to the top, he was also creating a personality: in interviews, in actions, Steinbrenner became a character just as big as the team he was helping to shape, bringing in superstars like Reggie Jackson and his constant battles with his on again/off again manager, Billy Martin. Steinbrenner was always good for a quote, and even better when he was angry, which was usually whenever the Yankees lost. His comments were legendary, and his emotions were uncensored. Here was a guy determined to win at all costs. It was the stuff of beer commercials.

Suddenly, baseball was fun again! It was a soap opera, as every day, there was a new headline about something going on with the Yankees. As Billy Joel said in his song “Zanzibar,” “Melodrama’s so much fun… In black and white for everyone to see!”

So, in 1977, when the Yankees won their first World Series in fifteen years, and with an incredible performance of three consecutive home runs on three pitches to Reggie Jackson, there wasn’t much time to celebrate, it was back to work to get the next one!

And really, in a very big way, that set the tone for the city. The Bronx, filled with landlords who just wanted to cash in on insurance by committing arson on their own buildings suddenly found that their neighbors in the borough were the champions, and that slowly started changing attitudes. The Yankees were back and, maybe, so was New York City.

The bankruptcy issues of the mid 1970s slowly started to ebb away. A sense of pride began to wash in. People stopped seeing New York as a place to escape (except for Kurt Russell in 1981!) and the entire view of what the city meant began to change. It also coincided with Ed Koch’s tenure as Mayor, and Koch’s attitudes about the city mirrored George’s about his Pinstriped Team.

As this happened, more people began to see New York as an important place again. And more business and industry started finding their way back, setting up shop with an NYC address.

Some would argue that Times Square exchanged one form of porn for another as it went from Triple X peep shows and dirty movies to Disney and M&M stores among a host of tourist attractions under Mayor Giuliani, but the overall sense of the city was one of improvement, one of positivity and interest for families, who were seeing the town in a very different way from those graffiti covered subway days of the 70s and 80s.

But, to me, if it weren’t for the Yankees resurgence, and subsequent championships, I don’t think any of it would have occurred, and of course that was, in great part, due to George Michael Steinbrenner III. So here’s a remembrance and a thank you to the bombastic and pompous owner that everyone (and even some Yankees fans) loved to hate. For all of the antics, the anger, the rude thoughtless statements, and the emotional meltdowns, George Steinbrenner wore his heart on his sleeve and even when he didn’t succeed, everyone knew he tried, which is why he was, is, and will always be not only a beloved part of baseball lore, but of New York City history. His fingerprints are all over both.

Thanks, Boss.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2010 12:31 pm

    Not having been a Yankees fan, I didn’t really appreciate how important Steinbrenner and the Yanks might have been to NY’s revival. Things did feel pretty dire back then, probably reaching a nadir with the famous Ford to City: Drop Dead Daily News headline.

  2. evmaroon permalink
    July 13, 2010 1:31 pm

    The first MLB game I ever saw was in 1976, in the House That Ruth Built. It was like watching a magic show, and I was thrilled to develop an affection for Don Mattingly, Reggie Jackson, and Jesus Figueroa. Over the years I’ve gotten a bit disillusioned by the money lust of Steinbrenner, but I couldn’t stop being a Yanks fan any sooner than I could cut off a limb from myself and eat it. I’ll always love the Yankees, even as I love baseball and sports more generally, appreciating the whole of it more than a single player or team.

  3. July 13, 2010 5:23 pm

    @redlami Clearly the interest and focus on NYC and the Yankees starting to make the playoffs and World Series after years of ineptitude was not a coincidence, and for everyone that has an interest in this city I really think you can’t separate one from the other. Yes, that famous Daily News Headline really summed up where things stood, from the national perspective, and the attitude of New Yorkers was to get the job done, which was exactly Steinbrenner’s philosophy.

    @evmaroon who knows? Maybe we were at the same game! But the endlessly fascinating thing about the Yankees is the legacy, that long, long history of 27 Championships (and counting!) and the players that came and went during all of those years. The team itself is a Baseball Hall of Fame and certainly George, for better or worse, was all about getting more Marquee Names to play in Pinstripes. He was a showman and definitely had a sense of the dramatic, and I can’t imagine where the Yankees would be, had he not happened along.

  4. July 13, 2010 9:20 pm

    He also had the best hair in baseball!

  5. July 13, 2010 9:21 pm

    So, in 1977, when the Yankees won their first World Series in fifteen years, and with an incredible performance of three consecutive home runs on three pitches to Reggie Jackson, there wasn’t much time to celebrate, it was back to work to get the next one!

    I remember reading Jackson’s autobiography and this era of his life was quite memorable. It’s been a long time since I read it, but even as recently as a couple of months ago when Reggie was on Fresh Air (I think) I noticed he didn’t mention Steinbrenner once! Any thoughts on that?

  6. July 13, 2010 9:21 pm

    Also, what Spoon said!

  7. July 13, 2010 10:06 pm

    RIP George Steinbrenner.

  8. July 13, 2010 10:14 pm

    @Snarky’s Machine I’m not certain about the Reggie bio. I know that it was “co-written” by Mike Lupica, a local NYC sports journalist who had endless negative comments about George in his career. I suspect that may be more to do with it than Reggie himself, as the relationship Jackson and Steinbrenner had was actually pretty good throughout his tenure with the Yankees. Jackson and Billy Martin, however, was quite another story! The miniseries that ESPN showed “The Bronx is Burning” is a very entertaining and pretty straightforward factual telling of those days of Reggie joining the Yanks, and features Oliver Platt as Steinbrenner, so Netflix that when you get a chance!

    @ poplife he really was suave! And really for the 1970s and 80s, he was also a spectacular dresser!

  9. July 14, 2010 2:49 pm

    Excellent post, it was a very good read for me! It is a sad time for the baseball world especially with the all star game being played on the same day, but I am also surprised at the amount of praise that the man who was once known as the most hated man in baseball. He definitely did do a lot for the New York Yankees and I’m sure the city is very grateful for it. I also kind of like/hate the fact that I have a team to hate for in the Yankees because they just buy all their players. Also you think you could take a quick look at my blog cuz I really want to know what you think.

  10. July 14, 2010 6:49 pm

    Growing up, I didn’t follow sports, but I still heard about Steinbrenner. I hadn’t heard of the owners of any other teams. I don’t think I had even been consciously aware that sports teams had owners. Steinbrenner changed that. You never knew where or when he’d be mentioned. I’d see cartoons in the paper about him firing his entire team down to the bat boy, rehiring them, then firing them again. Later, he became a recurring character on “Seinfeld” (thanks to Larry David), another part of his pop culture immortality. And on a more serious note, the Yankees’ dominance persuaded uber-pundit George Will to call for a profit-sharing system in Major League Baseball, to stop the buying of the best players. Getting George Will, the standard-bearer for the conservative movement, to denounce the free market… now that’s what I call a cultural impact.

  11. July 14, 2010 11:15 pm

    @Chris Ross The elements of “buying” players is certainly part of the criticism, but above and beyond trying to make the Yankees winners, he was also just bringing more attention to the sport as a whole, and whether you liked him or hated him, you definitely noticed him, and that just brought more people to the table… either you sided with the elements he represented, or you opposed everything he stood for, and it really didn’t matter which side you fell on, you were now a part of the baseball family, and that was great for the sport. I made more comments about this on the post that you linked in your comment, and thanks for finding this one!

    @heathereff Steinbrenner was, quite literally, a game changer. Free agency alone would have assured him a place in sports history, as that permitted all players to receive the salary they felt they deserved. But of course there was so much more. He was bombastic, and bull-headed, and definitely determined to win, no matter what. But he raised the level for everybody, and it definitely benefited all of the major league teams, despite what the opposing fans may think! It’s a bit of a special tribute to the man that on the day he died, the Yankees were the reigning World Series champions, and had the best record in the game for this season.

  12. July 18, 2010 1:21 am

    Here’s to the dude you only saw by the back of his head talking to George on Seinfeld!

  13. July 19, 2010 10:58 am

    i just have to say that this is a really great piece of writing. i really couldn’t care less about the yankees and even less than that about steinbrenner. but i read this whole piece through and was really interested in it. good work!

  14. July 23, 2010 1:13 am

    @InfamousQBert Thank you for a wonderful compliment!

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