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George Steinbrenner: Leader of the "Evil Empire"

"Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing. Breathing first, winning next." - George Steinbrenner

Some love him - some hate him, but no one can deny the fact that George Steinbrenner stands alone as perhaps the most successful owner in all of professional sports. Often depicted as the villainous ruler of an "Evil Empire", the outspoken proprietor has made no apologies for his demanding demeanor or ruthless business tactics that have propelled his New York Yankees to the top of the baseball world. Looking back on his stormy relationship with our National Pastime, one has to wonder what is it about this man that has so infuriated the public. Is it really hate - or is it envy? That is the question. In order to fairly assess the man and his actions one must ask: "What would you do if you owned a major league baseball team?" The answer is obvious: "Whatever it takes to win."

That's his answer too. He does whatever it takes. And he wins. And they hate him for it. Imagine being despised for being better at your job than anyone else. That's a typical day in the life of George Steinbrenner…

With a background in football and basketball, Steinbrenner spent his early adult years as an assistant football coach at both Northwestern and Purdue universities and also assembled multiple national champions in the National Industrial and American Basketball leagues. The son of a Great Lakes shipping tycoon, Steinbrenner went on to make his money as chairman of the Cleveland-based firm known as the American Shipbuilding Company. Always a competitor, he was eager to expand into other lucrative ventures and professional sports certainly fit the bill. Despite an obvious lack of experience, Steinbrenner felt that he could be a business-savvy "baseball man" and in 1973 he assembled a group of private investors to purchase the New York Yankees franchise from the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Immediately after assuming his new role in the major leagues, Steinbrenner set the tone for what was to come by involving himself with the day-to-day fortunes of his ball club to an extent unmatched by any owner since Connie Mack. His managerial style would later prove as both a curse and a blessing as he set a major league record of his own with 17 managerial changes in his first 17 seasons (including Billy Martin who was hired and fired five separate times.) Despite his reputation for wielding a "rapier-like-sword" Steinbrenner always remained true to his franchise's roots by repeatedly hiring "within the family". As a result, most of the coaches and staff members on the payroll were ex-Yankees who clearly understood the day-to-day pressures of putting on the pinstripes and playing in "The House That Ruth Built".

Although initially against the advent of free agency, Steinbrenner would later embrace the concept while making some of the greatest player transactions the game has ever seen. Investing in success was always good business and Steinbrenner wholeheartedly believed that "You have to be willing to spend money - to make money." After pitching phenomenon Catfish Hunter was released from his Oakland A's contract in 1974, the Yankees paid him the unheard-of salary of $2.85 million for four years. The unparalleled deal raised the bar for competitive contracts and set an unwanted precedent that would echo across both leagues for years to come. Shortly after inking the "Catfish deal", Steinbrenner was indicted for making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon and was later found guilty and suspended for two years.

Upon returning to the big show Steinbrenner proved that he hadn't missed a step in his absence and promptly signed Reggie Jackson after the team won the American League pennant in 1976. Many fans still feel that the brilliant move to sign "Mr. October" was largely responsible for back-to-back World Championships in both 1977 and 1978. Unfortunately, the trend was short-lived after New York's initial success in purchasing free agents eventually led to a tendency to overstock the team with superstars to the point where there wasn't room for them on the payroll or in the lineup. The end result was a series of disastrous acquisitions in the early 1980s and a steady trend of departing superstars escaping from what had been dubbed in the papers as "The Bronx Zoo". From 1979 through the end of the next decade, the Yankees won only one more pennant and the '80s ended as the first decade since the 1910s in which the Yankees did not win a single World Championship title.

Things continued to go poorly for Steinbrenner in the early 1990's after the Yankee owner came under fire from owners around the league denouncing his "overly dominating" business practices. In 1990, baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent ordered the Yankees owner to resign as the club's general partner and shockingly banned him from the day-to-day operations of the team for life. The ruling came as a direct result of Steinbrenner's $40,000 payment to confessed gambler Howie Spira for damaging information about the since-traded Dave Winfield. Later Spira was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for attempting to extort $110,000 from the Yankees organization, but regardless of the motive, the suspension still remained. In his absence which was repeatedly under appeal, VP and chief administrative officer Joseph Molloy, (Steinbrenner's son-in-law), was appointed as the "acting" managing general partner of the club.

Three years later, George resumed his role as general partner, but within two years, he was back in the headlines after being fined $50,000 for criticizing the umpires during the New York - Seattle playoff series. In 1997, Baseball's executive council voted unanimously to immediately remove Steinbrenner from it's ruling body as the latest exchange between the two parties since the Yankee owner had sued major league baseball over disagreements regarding the club's 10-year $93 million Adidas deal.

Despite the years of ups and downs, Steinbrenner has always managed to emerge from his trials with a fresh perspective while never losing focus on the best interest of his team. His vision for total domination on the baseball diamond finally came into fruition in the mid-1990's following a series of brilliant moves that enabled the feisty owner to play the open market like a finely tuned instrument. Despite a decade and a half of shortcomings, Steinbrenner had finally risen from the ashes to renounce his critics on the way to reclaiming BOTH the mystique of Yankees dynasty as well as 4 more Championship trophies.

Today Steinbrenner has mellowed (a little), but he still does whatever it takes to win. The Yankees continue to set the bar both in performance and payroll and its business as usual at Yankee Stadium, even if what's always good for business isn't always good for baseball. The bottom line is this: You can love him or you can hate him - but you HAVE to respect him. That's George Steinbrenner.


Copyright 2006 by Michael Aubrecht
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