George Steinbrenner’s Teams

As you likely have already heard, George Steinbrenner died today of a heart attack at the age of 80. Steinbrenner has been a gigantic figure in the baseball world since his purchase of the New York Yankees in 1973. The Yankees were a truly mediocre franchise for the decade immediately following their 1964 World Series loss to St. Louis. The Yankees finished in the bottom half of the standings every season from 1965 to 1973 except for a 2nd place finish – and no playoffs – in 1970.

Steinbrenner’s Yankees saw quick success, reaching three straight World Series beginning in 1976, his fourth full season as owner. The Yankees would win in both 1977 and 1978, and the impact of free agent acquisitions such as Reggie Jackson were certainly significant.

After losing in the 1981 World Series, however, the Yankees entered another period of relative futility which would last until the strike. The Yankees did win 90+ games three times in this stretch, but also finished below .500 five times and didn’t make the playoffs a single time. Steinbrenner certainly left his mark on this period, constantly meddling with his team, particularly with the managers. After the 1981 season and before the hiring of Buck Showalter in 1992, the Yankees played under nine different managers, including three of Billy Martin‘s five separate managing stints with the team.

This brings us to the Yankee dynasty that we all remember. From 1995-2000, the Yankees made the playoffs six times including four division championships and four World Series victories. These teams did include some home-grown talent – Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte, for example, and others brought in through trades, such as Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius, and Roger Clemens. Still, free agency proved key. The Yankees brought in Joe Girardi, Wade Boggs, David Cone, and David Wells, all key pieces in various seasons in this period.

Steinbrenner’s teams really began to make use of free agency and his massive wealth in the 2000s. In 2001, the Yankees signed Mike Mussina to a big money deal. 2002 saw the addition of Jason Giambi. 2003 saw the import of Hideki Matsui. Although they were through trades, the 2004 additions of Alex Rodriguez and Kevin Brown were shows of the power of Steinbrenner’s impressive financial assets. On top of Rodriguez’s $22 million contract and Brown’s $15 million contract, the Yankees signed Jose Contreras for $8.5 million out of Cuba and added Gary Sheffield for $13 million. The Yankees took the $16 million owed to Randy Johnson in 2005. In 2006, the Yankees had four different players (Mussina, Jeter, Rodriguez, and Giambi) earning at least $19 million, and then they added Bobby Abreu‘s $16 million contract. The Yankees added $39 million more in free agency via the Andy Pettitte, Carl Pavano, and Johnny Damon contracts in 2007. The Yankees stood pat in 2008, waiting for various contracts to come off the books.

This period is generally seen as a failure, due to the fact that the Yankees didn’t win any titles over this period, but lest we forget, these teams were very, very, very good. Every team except for the 2008 team, which suffered from the end of some big contracts but still won 84 games, reached the playoffs. Overall, the Yankees had a .599 winning percentage from 2001-2008, which is about as much as money can buy. The team simply sputtered in the playoffs, something that the media tended to blame on the inability of expensive free agents to play with chemistry.

Even though Steinbrenner retired in 2006, his fingerprints are still on the team. The revenue streams he managed to set up allowed the Yankees to continue to pour money into the free agent market, adding players like CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett for the 2009 World Series championship team, despite the fact that it contained many expensive free agents.

Much of the coverage today has featured Steinbrenner as a hero. That, to me, is going a bit far. He was notoriously hard on his workers. He made illegal campaign contributions to the Nixon campaign. As always, Joe Posnanski puts it best:

Steinbrenner is what you make him. He is the convicted felon who quietly gave millions to charity, the ruthless boss who made sure his childhood heroes and friends stayed on the payroll, the twice-suspended owner who drove the game into a new era, the sore loser who won a lot, the sore winner who lost plenty, the haunted son who longed for the respect of his father, the attention hound who could not tolerate losing the spotlight, the money-throwing blowhard who saved the New York Yankees and sent them into despair and saved them again (in part by staying out of the way), the bully who demanded that his employees answer his every demand and the soft touch who would quietly pick up the phone and help some stranger he read about in the morning paper.

As far as his impact on the game of baseball, however, there can be no debate. George Steinbrenner was a big part of making free agency relevant. His teams changed the way that other large market teams did business, as his Yankees teams of the 2000s forced teams like the Red Sox and Mets to drive their payrolls into a never before thought of territory, be it $100 million or the nearly $170 million on the Red Sox payroll this season. George Steinbrenner created winners in New York, and although he occasionally created losers through his meddling, I doubt that his seven World Series rings and 11 AL pennants particularly care about that. Steinbrenner is certainly the most successful owner in professional sports history, and that is what baseball will remember him as.

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Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.

16 Responses to “George Steinbrenner’s Teams”

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  1. CircleChange11 says:

    I think a case could be made that he, his spending in particular, turned the tide toward AL dominance. You had a choice, spend like them or get creative in taking advantage of market shortages … Or be over-run.

    BOS spent more money and was smart with homegrown talent, BAL tried throwing money around, etc.

    In the NL there is not a team that pushes competition like NYY and BOS do in the AL.

    He played the role very well, and often the NYY were successful even in spite of him. Where the NL took hold in it’s usage of black players, the NYY took it back by signing star players in their unique market situation. It’s not just NY, but NY + the Yankees.

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    • longgandhi says:

      The spending point gets overlooked/disregarded more than it should. I don’t have the payroll figures for his first few years of ownership, but since 1978 the Yankees have ranked first or second in overall payroll 30 times.

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  2. Mattingly's Sideburns says:

    This is a minor point but at the start of this piece several players were wrongly listen as having been acquired via free agency. According to, on July 28, 1995 the Yankees dealt Marty Janzen, Mike Gordon, and Jason Jarvis for David Cone. Also, on November 20, 1995 the Yanks sent Mike DeJean to the Rockies for Joe Girardi.

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  3. Joe says:

    Pretty sure the 2008 team won *89* games.

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  4. george says:

    “These teams did include some home-grown talent – Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte”

    Was a good read… could have also mentioned a nice little reliever amongst the homegrown talent, Mariano, er um, ah yes, Rivera. :)

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  5. pros says:

    Steinbrenner is a very creepy guy

    you don’t have to be a criminal to succeed–
    he is a terrible example for our society…a Satanic symbol
    of win at all costs…greed is good..

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    • Sam says:

      Relax, it is sports. And also an example of how capitalism works,

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    • kbertling353 says:

      Right, because he should pocket the money made from playing in New York — not reinvest it in his team.

      Or are you saying that earning money from a business that you own is immoral?

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  6. CL says:

    Would Jerry Buss be in the running for most successful sports owner?

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  7. CircleChange11 says:

    Weren’t Mo and Jorge shortstops as prospects? I know Mo was a position player turned SP turned dominant reliever. Jorge, while not a great catcher, has been a productive member of some great teams.

    Either way that’s a great usage of resources/talent.

    Some of the Yankees 80s woes were their own doing, such as Buhner for Phelps, and the like.

    But, all have to admit that the guys the Yankees sign, in general, are mega stars that do not require great talent evaluation. But also, guys like Scott Broscious did well for them. Moreso than other teams they have a huge safety net. When they make a bad move, they just make an over the top signing to correct it. That’s where fans of other teams get bent … And perhaps rightly so.

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  8. designated quitter says:

    Although Steinbrenner was the first to see and use the power of free agency, the team’s success after 1981 correlates most closely with periods when he was not involved with running the team. The homegrown talent (the Core 4) of the 90s would have likely been traded had the Boss not been suspended. The Yankees drought of the 80s was caused by trading young talent for aging veterans.

    Similarly, it was not until Brian Cashman took his rightful powers away from the “Tampa Mafia” that the team regained its footing at the end of the Torre era. Keeping Cano, Chamberlain, Hughes, Gardner, Cervelli, Aceves, etc would be unlikely if Steinbrenner actively had his hand in roster management.

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  9. Dan says:

    This piece is just full of inaccuracies and omissions. Kind of substandard for Fangraphs, don’t you think?

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