I remember in the early 1980s, probably 1982 or 1983, watching an interview with George Steinbrenner on television. This was during a period when the Yankees were something of a mess. The team had made a series of free agent signings, trades and other transactions that had not worked out, mangers were being fired with alarming frequency and the Steinbrenner-Martin show was in full swing. As the interviewer launched into a critique of Steinbrenner, the Yankee owner kept insisting on talking about his record , but the interviewer refused to let him. In deference to the wishes of the Steinbrenner from more than three decades ago, his record should be recognized.
During the 37 years Steinbrenner owned the team, the Yankees won seven World Series, while no other team won more than three. The Yankees won 11 pennants, while no other team won more than five. The Yankees played .500 or better 31 of those seasons, topping .600 12 times, and are on track to do that again this year. It should not be overlooked that Steinbrenner’s record also included the years from 1982-1994, the longest period without a post-season appearance since in the franchise’s history since they acquired Babe Ruth in 1920.
Steinbrenner’s record, while impressive, only tells part of the story because as long as he was owner, the Yankees were never just a baseball team, and what happened off the field was often at least as interesting as what happened on the field. In the early years of Steinbrenner’s time as owner, the theatrics centered around the hiring and firing of managers, most notably Billy Martin, free agent pursuits and the drama between Steinbrenner, Martin and Reggie Jackson. Occasionally other stars of those Yankee teams were part of that drama as well, but none as colorfully as Jackson.
After Jackson left following the 1981 season, Steinbrenner’s middle period began. These years saw Steinbrenner at his worst. His impatience led him to trade away numerous future stars like Fred McGriff, Willie McGee and Jay Buhner for players who were at best useful role players. During the ten years between 1982-1991, the height of this period, the Yankees changed managers 11 times and made it through the season with one manager only four times. The Yankees had some good teams during those years as stars like Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Willie Randolph, Dave Righetti, Rickey Henderson and Don Baylor carried a team that other than aging ace Ron Guidry rarely had any starting pitching. Steinbrenner continued to pursue expensive free agents, but also contributed to a climate where it was almost impossible to develop young pitchers. Instead the team usually relied upon veterans like Tommy John, John Montefuso, Rick Rhoden, John Candelaria and the Niekro brothers to round out the rotation. These pitchers occasionally had good years, but it was never consistent or sustainable.
These years were the worst period of Steinbrenner’s ownership and perhaps in all of Yankee history. The team was reliably good on the field until finally falling below .500 from 1989-1992, but Steinbrenner spent these years firing managers, harassing Winfield who was a great player who always conducted himself well, making bad trades and having tantrums.
Had Steinbrenner sold the team following the 1991 season, his legacy would have been one of controversy, poor judgment and general bad behavior. Most Yankee Steinbrenner changed a little. From 1992 until Steinbrenner’s death, a period of 18 and a half seasons, the Yankees had three managers. Joe Torre’s 12 year tenure is by far the longest of any of Steinbrenner’s managers, but Torre’s predecessor, Buck Showalter, had the second longest run without being fired of the entire Steinbrenner period. Current manager Joe Girardi is rapidly closing in on the number three spot.
Steinbrenner also began to hold on to at least some of his top prospects. Instead of trading players like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte or Mariano Rivera for middle relievers, platoon first baseman and washed up starting pitchers, the Yankees held on to these and other products of their farm system and began to win again.
This was also the period when the Yankees solidified their position as the richest team in the game with the highest payroll. Although this continues to anger fans of the other 29 teams, Yankee fans were grateful that Steinbrenner constantly explored new ways to make money out of the Yankees and to pour more money into the franchise. This approach allowed him to build up the Yankee brand, business and value. Being based in New York gave the team an advantage, but Steinbrenner exploited this advantage cleverly and energetically.
Even during these years, the Steinbrenner drama never really ended. From 2001-2007, the Yankees made the post-season every year but did not win the World Series. Every year after they were eliminated, Steinbrenner’s reaction to the team’s defeat became the story. He lectured about the team disappointing the fans, promised better results next year, hinted that Torre would be fired and occasionally suggested the team was not trying hard enough. This was tiresome and tended to make defeat in the playoffs more difficult for players and fans.
Steinbrenner was something of a collection of paradoxes as well. He was a football man who spent almost half a lifetime in baseball without ever seeming to truly understand its rhythm and timing. In the first years he owned the Yankees, a brief losing streak would get Steinbrenner furious, because he did not seem to understand that in a long baseball season a few bad patches are inevitable. He never seemed to understand that players take time to develop. In addition to the many prospects Steinbrenner traded away due to this impatience, he also at various times sought to trade Guidry, Pettitte and other young players who went on to become stars. Steinbrenner did not hesitate to belittle or insult players, but he was very generous at contract time and would frequently fire a manager, but reward that manager with a lucrative contract to do something else in the Yankee organization.
Steinbrenner was also a fixture on the back of New York tabloids, and an institution in the city for almost four decades. Like many of the loudest and most obnoxious and arrogant New Yorkers, Steinbrenner was not from the city and rarely spent much time there at all, but he also was defined by, and helped define, his erstwhile hometown. He was a larger than life figure who was known to people, who paid exorbitant amounts of money to see his team play, as “The Boss” with no sense of irony.
In 37 years, Steinbrenner delivered seven world championships, countless tantrums, headlines and managerial firings, several horrendous trades, as well as several brilliant ones, one never-ending desire to win and hundreds of millions of dollars in support of that goal, but never a dull moment. That is the record on which the man should be judged. Baseball will miss him.