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