George Steinbrenner is dead at 80 from a heart attack. As a survivor of 4 heart attacks myself and finally a heart transplant, I feel a special kinship for "The Boss" and his family. A figure of controversy, at the very least, I come to praise George, not to bury him. My appreciation for Steinbrenner as a sports owner has nothing to do with his personality, his warmth - or lack thereof - or any personal qualities he may or may not have exhibited in life. I praise him for two reasons.
First, George Steinbrenner stood taller than all other sports owners (with the possible exception, for a few years, of Ted Turner) in his fidelity to the Cardinal Rule of Team Ownership which is: Do All You Can To Win! Sport is unique among business enterprises. Its goal is not profit alone. It's winning. Unlike any other commercial activity, in sport there is a scoreboard. A definitive, final score is posted daily for each and every contest. In other businesses while many claim to be "winners," only sport can celebrate the real "winner" by pointing to a conclusive victory -a league championship, a national or even a world title. So unlike other businesses, in sport there are no pretenders. You wear the ring, or you don't. Steinbrenner was truly a man of the ring.
There are many sports teams that show a substantial profit for their already wealthy owner. Apparently, many of these owners are satisfied with that result despite the lack of success their team demonstrates on the field of play. George Steinbrenner was never one of them. He did everything possible to make the New York Yankees winners. Sometimes he even did the impossible. And he never, or so it seemed, cared what the cost might be. No matter how much he spent, Steinbrenner knew something others failed to grasp. Winning, even winning at all costs, is a long-term money making proposition.
There have been coaches and managers, and many players over time who have earned a reputation for seeing victory as their only salvation. That dedication to winning is a natural reaction for those whose lives are tied directly to the game on a daily basis. Few owners fit that category. And none ever with the verve and determination of George Steinbrenner.
Imagine how much more competitive baseball or any sports league would be if every team owner had Steinbrenner's unquenchable drive to win combined with his willingness to spend whatever it took to achieve victory.
The second reason I praise "The Boss" is an often overlooked quality of ownership Steinbrenner always demonstrated, and with little or no fanfare - top-notch, equal treatment for labor regardless of color, creed or national origin. It's been commonplace for decades to heap praise upon Branch Rickey for breaking baseball's (and America's) color line. Taking nothing away from Rickey, those were the days of "Plantation Baseball" when all players were the perpetual property of one team. In their glorious hey-day at least one National League Rookie of the Year was asked to take a cut in pay for his second season and no Brooklyn Dodger, in those days, ever made more than $40,000 a year.
George Steinbrenner agreed to a lengthy contract that paid Alex Rodriquez about $50,000 - not for a year's work, but for each at-bat! In an age when African-American players have almost disappeared from Major League rosters and there are charges that some teams have signed Latin American players to "cheap contracts" - with one MLB team even facing accusations of skimming bonus money from Latin American players - George Steinbrenner had an equal opportunity, no limits, open checkbook. "The Boss" paid for talent. That's it, pure and simple. He didn't care where a player came from - North America, Latin America, Asia, anywhere - and he never asked about a player's color or religion or politics. But he eagerly offered top dollar if you could hit the low curve ball bending away from the outside corner, or take the inside fastball and pull it down the short right field line in Yankee Stadium, or if you were a pitcher and could fire the high hard one past the Red Sox cleanup hitter. George wanted to win!
Some say Steinbrenner had an unfair advantage. He was a wealthy man with a New York franchise. But baseball is loaded with wealthy owners, many richer than Steinbrenner. And a lot of millionaire players would actually prefer not to live and work in New York City, if not to avoid the rabid New York press, for tax and ease of lifestyle considerations. I believe, had George Steinbrenner owned the Pittsburgh Pirates or Milwaukee Brewers, I'm sure his team, wherever it played, would have been the dominant baseball team of this generation. He would have made it so.
No one can say what the future of the New York Yankees will be without "The Boss." His family will continue in control. However, even the richest of owners have been known to look huge piles of money in the face and decide to pocket it instead of investing in players who would make their teams champions. George Steinbrenner may be the last of his breed for a while.