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George Steinbrenner

George Steinbrenner will be forever known as the owner of the New York Yankees who restored the baseball team to greatness. After dominating baseball in the first half of the 20th century, the team became mediocre in the 1960s. Following Steinbrenner’s purchase of the team in 1973 for $10 million, the Yankees won seven World Series championships and the value of the team increased to $1.6 billion. 

Steinbrenner will also be remembered for his outsized personality, as an icon of New York. In response to his death this week, many have praised him. In fact, there has been a tendency to gloss over Steinbrenner’s faults. On WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show, Ibrahim Abdul-Matin saidwe shouldn’t look at what we didn’t like about him, but instead lean towards “fond memories”. Of course there is a longstanding rule about not speaking ill of the dead, but I think this approach misses out on what was unique and colorful about Steinbrenner.

Many younger people only know Steinbrenner as the soft buffoon character in “Seinfeld” (who never showed his face). Or as the frail man of recent years, who could be found crying from time to time. But in his heyday, he was brusque and obnoxious, and known to be hell to work for. If you want a better idea of Steinbrenner, rent “The Bronx is Burning”, which is about the “Bronx Zoo” Yankees of the 1970s (although the actor Oliver Platt doesn’t do the man justice, you will get a better idea of what Steinbrenner meant).

Steinbrenner went through 23 managers – including hiring and firing Billy Martin five times. He would ridicule particular players, such as when he labeled Dave Winfield “Mr. May” for his lack of production in the October post-season, or when he called Hideki Irabu “fat toad”. He was twice barred from baseball: the first time in 1974 after pleading guilty to making illegal political contributions to Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign, and the second time in 1990, after paying $40,000 to gather damaging information on Winfield. It could be argued that the Yankees’ four championships during the 1996-2000 period, and success afterwards, were due precisely because Steinbrenner was not involved in the team from 1990-1993: it was during that time that the Yankees rebuilt their farm system, and signed and developed what would become known as the “core four” (Jeter, Rivera, Posada and Pettitte).

I will readily admit that Steinbrenner was a bastard. But for Yankees fans like me, he was our bastard. I would take anyone as an owner as long as they are committed to spending and winning – and Steinbrenner certainly was that. As he said, “I hate to lose. Hate, hate, hate to lose.” And he meant it. While opposing teams called his reign “the Evil Empire”, Yankees fans relished in that.

Steinbrenner also understood that, in order to win, a team needed an ethos, something that meant the team was more than the sum of its parts. That’s why he instituted a no long hair or facial hair rule, and other disciplined restrictions that have long been seen as old-fashioned by others. He hired big-name stars, but insisted that Yankees drop their egos when they enter the clubhouse. He celebrated the Yankees tradition, to remind players they were part of something larger than themselves. Players such as Jeter and Rivera have implemented Steinbrenner’s vision through their leadership on the field and in the clubhouse.

By all means praise Steinbrenner, but please don’t gloss over his faults - they are what made him who he is. He was larger-than-life with glaring contradictions. In that, he was pure New York.

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