George Steinbrenner, a towering and intimidating figure who dominated the New York sports scene for 35 years, winning 11 American League pennants and seven world championships as owner of the Yankees, in and around two suspensions from baseball and multiple feuds and firings, died Tuesday morning in Tampa after suffering a massive heart attack. He was 80.
“The Boss” – as he was so aptly named by his longtime antagonist, Daily News columnist Mike Lupica – died at around 6:30 a.m. according to a high placed Yankee source. He had been suffering from failing health, the result of a series of strokes, for the past few years.
In Steinbrenner’s blustering and bombastic reign as the longest-termed owner in their history, the Yankees recovered from the rubble of their darkest era under CBS’ ownership (1964-72) to win world championships in 1977 and 1978, only to fall and then rise again with another dynastic string of four championships under manager Joe Torre from 1996-2000 and then winning a seventh world championship for him under Joe Girardi this past season.
At the same time, the franchise he and a group of 15 limited partners purchased on Jan. 3, 1973 for $8.8 million from CBS (or $4.4 million less than the network had paid for it), skyrocketed in value to over a billion dollars, according to analysts, after Steinbrenner brokered unprecedented worldwide marketing deals for the Yankees and formed his own cable television network (YES) to broadcast the team’s games. Steinbrenner’s personal initial investment in the team was $168,000.
But until his mostly glorious sunset years, during which his management team of chief adviser Gene Michael, GM Brian Cashman and Torre remained intact and the team payroll escalated to the $200 million plateau, Steinbrenner’s operation of the Yankees was one of constant upheaval, turmoil and instability. This was no better evidenced than by his hiring and firing of 12 managers (including Billy Martin five times) between Ralph Houk (whom he inherited in 1973) and Torre. And prior to Cashman’s ascension at age 30 to the Yankee GM role in 1998, no less than 14 people (including Michael twice) held that position before ultimately finding the working conditions intolerable and, in many cases, hazardous to their health.
Hard as he was on his managers and general managers, Steinbrenner feuded with his players as well, the most notable being Dave Winfield, whom he signed to a then-record 10-year, $23 million free-agent contract in 1980. The ink was barely dry on the deal when Steinbrenner discovered his lawyers had neglected to inform him of cost-of-living clauses in it that greatly enhanced its value. This, in turn, led to a bitter feud between Steinbrenner and his new superstar left fielder that culminated with the Yankee owner’s second suspension from baseball, July 30, 1990, after it was revealed he’d paid $40,000 to a self-described gambler, Howie Spira, to provide dirt to him on Winfield.