The news came on Thursday about George Steinbrenner moving aside from his role as the face and guiding hand of the New York Yankees. MLB owners approved the change in ownership control from George to son Hal, 39. Steinbrenner, whose health has suffered in the last few years hasn't been seen at many public events during this past season. When he was honored during ceremonies at the All Star game he was driven in a golf cart and waved to fans from afar. His thirty-five years at the helm of the corporate structure saw the team not only regain its glory but achieve a financial success only dreamed of by sports team owners.
If you grew up in the New York metropolitan area the way I did, you knew the Yankees came back to life in 1973 when George Steinbrenner bought the club for less than ten million dollars and started spending like a drunken sailor.
He spruced up the stadium, putting the Yankees in Shea with the Mets for a couple years, only to have them emerge and start to run the table in the American League as champions after he lifted the limit on the club's checkbook and allowed it to buy free agents like no other club ever had. They returned to the powerhouse they once were before CBS bought the team when fans lived through a dead zone of losing years. But the excitement and gratitude we felt towards the guy that brought the team back to glory was always tempered by our personal feelings of enmity.
George Steinbrenner used to strut around New York in mock turtlenecks, aviator sunglasses and slicked back hair. His sneer and pompous look made him easy to hate. He treated his hired help poorly whether they were players or executives, except for the fact that he paid them more than anyone else ever had or ever would. He thought that huge salaries would give his Yankee employees the necessary incentive to win...every year. Many would try and live with his antics only to revile him even while they cashed his checks. The exceptions to the rule were the weakest of the bunch and those that he realized couldn't help themselves: Strawberry and Gooden.
New Yorkers who rooted for the team perversely rooted against Steinbrenner who they knew full well was the only reason they had anything to cheer about. The dichotomy made for great drama and tabloid heaven. George knew of the ambivalence and didn't care. He flouted rules of behavior as well as rules of civility. But who could stop him? No one, until he broke federal campaign laws as well as the rules of baseball and was publicly punished.
Did he slink away in shame? Of course not. He came roaring back for more and turned the organization of the Yankees from one that depended on a team to be profitable into a multi-product enterprise. He realized that controlling the opinion of the media wasn't possible but getting their revenue was. Today, the Yankees corporate structure earns more from its cable enterprise than it does from the baseball club. Next year, when the new stadium opens, a third revenue stream from the concessions will add more to the coffers.
I was surprised that Hal, his youngest son got the mantle of CEO rather than his media darling older brother Hank. But Hank will still be among us to fill the back pages of the New York Daily News and the New York Post. And Yankee fans will be left with memories of the guy they loved to hate but also the one to whom they're forever grateful. What a great ride.
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