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.