Today’s Game: George Steinbrenner

All this week we’re taking a closer look at the 10 people on the Today’s Game Era Ballot for the Hall of Fame.

I've written a lot about George Steinbrenner over the years. He has been endlessly fascinating to me. To end this series, I’m going to put together some of those words I’ve written about King George in the past, and maybe add just a few more.

In 1971, George Steinbrenner put in a bid to buy the Cleveland Indians. Steinbrenner grew up in Cleveland and, even more, he WAS Cleveland. The city’s charms and flaws, strengths and insecurities, outsized kindness and comic fury, all these flowed through Steinbrenner. The Indians were in desperate shape in the early 1970s, and Steinbrenner saw his chance to become a city-wide hero.

Imagine if he had bought the Indians. This alternative history is not as simple as just swapping the fates of the Indians and Yankees. Cleveland is not New York. And New York is not Cleveland. What probably would happened is that Steinbrenner, frustrated by his city’s and his own financial limitations, would have flamed out dramatically. The Yankees probably would have sailed unsteadily through the next 40 years, not unlike the Los Angeles Dodgers, winning some and losing some, all depending on the motivations of ownership, the quirks of good luck and the vagaries of the wind.

But Steinbrenner did not buy the Indians.

He bought the Yankees.

And he became the wind.

* * *

The story of George Steinbrenner is fascinating because, at the end of the day, the story goes wherever the narrator wants it to go. Do you want a hero? Do you want a scoundrel? Do you want a tyrant? Do you want a heart of gold? George Steinbrenner was all of those things, and more. He's however you see him.

He's the convicted felon who quietly gave millions to charity, the ruthless boss who made sure that his childhood heroes and friends stayed on the payroll, the twice-suspended owner who drove the game into a new era, the sore loser who won a lot, the sore winner who lost plenty, the haunted son who longed for the respect of his father, the attention hound who could not tolerate losing the spotlight, the money-throwing blowhard who saved the New York Yankees and sent them into despair and saved them again (in part by staying out the way), the Big Stein character on Seinfeld who wore Lou Gehrig’s pants,* the bully who demanded that his employees answer his every demand, and the soft touch who would quietly pick up the phone and help some stranger he read about in the morning paper.

* Big Stein: “Nice to meet you.”

George Costanza: “Well, I wish I could say the same, but I must say, with all due respect, I find it very hard to see the logic behind some of the moves you have made with this fine organization. In the past 20 years, you have caused myself, and the city of New York, a good deal of distress, as we have watched you take our beloved Yankees and reduce them to a laughing stock, all for the glorification of your massive ego.

Big Stein: “Hire this man!”

When Steinbrenner died, I wrote that he was in need of two obituaries.

In one, we could commemorate the exhaustively generous person who would anonymously help those in need, the loyal man who stood by his friends in times when others would have walked away, the driven competitor who channeled the desperation and hunger of fans more than, perhaps, any owner in American sports history, the monarch, King George, who made the Yankees matter again

And in the other obituary, we could talk about George Steinbrenner, the convicted felon (and convicted liar, in the words of Billy Martin), the relentless self-promoter, the destroyer of managers, the out-of-control egotist, the twice-suspended tabloid back page photo, the Boss.

“If I believed half the things said about me, I wouldn’t go home with myself,” Steinbrenner once said. But, that was the funny part. He did believe HALF the things people said about him. It was the other half that made him crazy.

* * *

On our podcast, Mike Schur and I do a Yankee Minute, where we gripe about the Yankees. The thing we're griping about, really, is the bigger-than-life, holier-than-thou, annoying-as-hell faith that Yankees fans have that their team SHOULD win. We all WANT our teams to win. Some years, when the talent lines up just right, we might believe that our team WILL win.

But many Yankees fans — there are a few other teams' fans like this, and you know who you are — believe that their team SHOULD win, that it's somehow their team’s divine RIGHT to win. That’s Steinbrenner. When he bought the Yankees in 1973*, it was a shattered brand, a boring and mostly lousy team that had lost New York. The Mets had outdrawn them every year since ’64. In 1972, for the first time since the end of World War II, the Yankees didn’t even draw one million people.

*He bought the team for $8.8 million — when you take out the parking garages he sold back to CBS for $1.2 million. It was important for Steinbrenner to make the point about the parking garages; he enjoyed talking about the deal he got. And it was a deal. That's less than $50 million in today's dollars. The Yankees are worth roughly $3.7 billion.

It was personal for Steinbrenner. You would think that any sports owner would take their team personally, sure, but it was particularly personal for Steinbrenner. In his mind, an entire nation was counting on him. He believed that America could only be strong when the Yankees were winning. He really thought like that. He connected Yankees dominance to the flag, to bald eagles, to Ike, to Superman and truth and justice and the American way. "Owning the Yankees is like owning the Mona Lisa,” he said repeatedly, and, more than just saying it, he meant it.

[caption id="attachment_23772" align="aligncenter" width="462"] Steinbrenner hired -- and fired -- Martin as Yankee manager five times.[/caption]

He meant to get to work right away, but first he was indicted for making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, and got himself suspended from baseball for a while. Even so, he fired the Yankees' president, nudged out the general manager, pushed out the manager, signed Catfish Hunter, tried to overthrow commissioner Bowie Kuhn, hired Billy Martin and signed Reggie Jackson. So he kept himself busy.

He was a whirlwind, a force of nature. The papers had a field day with him, dressing him up as a Napoleonic figure, mocking his many quirks, celebrating and lambasting him in roughly equal measure, and he loved it and hated it. When he was asked if he was worried about getting a heart attack, he sneered: “I will never get a heart attack. I give them.”

And I suppose you’re probably thinking what I’m thinking: It's impossible to look at the history of George M. Steinbrenner III and not think of another haunted son and press magnet and creature of New York, Donald J. Trump.

But we’ll save that for another time.

Steinbrenner was a football guy, not a baseball man. He had worked for Ohio State’s Woody Hayes. And because of that, he expected to win every game. Every … single … game. To the Boss, a loss was always more than a loss, it represented a character flaw, an infuriating lack of effort, a disgusting case of incompetence. Things were simple in Steinbrenner’s mind: If you lost, you were a loser. That’s all. Losing was a condition. Losing was a mindset. Steinbrenner HATED losers.

So he filled his life with inspirational speeches and quotes from generals and coaches and successful business leaders. He believed in giving 110%, that the tough should get going, that leaders lead from the front, and in leaving mercy in the hands of God. He had no understanding of overkill. He spent millions of dollars on players, and then raged at them for not living up to the money. He invented the $100 million, $150 million and $200 million payroll. He hired and fired and re-hired and re-fired managers.

Steinbrenner’s Yankees won big in the 1970s, the Bronx Zoo circus. Then they went into a 12-year drought where they didn’t reach the playoffs even once, no matter how much money and fury Steinbrenner threw around. It made him unhinged. In the late 1980s, Steinbrenner paid small-time gambler Howard Spira — he's always and forever “small-time gambler Howard Spira” in the stories, isn’t he? — to get dirt on Yankees star Dave Winfield, whose greatest crime seems to be that he had beaten Steinbrenner in negotiations. (Winfield had secured a “cost-of-living clause” that made him millions.)

That got Steinbrenner suspended from baseball a second time.

And you know what happened next: With Steinbrenner somewhat out of the way, the Yankees developed an extraordinary core of young stars — you know all the names, Jeter and Bernie, Posada and Petite and Mariano — and then Steinbrenner returned and spent a whole bunch more money, and the Yankees were back on top of the world again, exactly where King George always knew they belonged.

* * *

I mentioned above that thing about being a haunted son: King George’s father, Harry Steinbrenner, was a college hurdles champion who became a shipping magnate. He had three tenets:

(1) Hard work is the key to everything.

(2) If you don’t win, you’re a loser.

(3) My son George is a loser.

When George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees, his father said it was the first smart thing he had ever done.

“He never took ‘I can’t’ for an answer,” George said of Harry. All his life, George believed that his father was tougher, smarter and more successful than he was. This was a driving force in his life. You look at baseball today, not just the Yankees, but at the power of television and free agency, and you see Steinbrenner’s insatiable hunger for victory.

As a baseball owner, Steinbrenner was both a fan’s dream and a fan’s nightmare — a dream because he would invest everything he had to win, a nightmare because he was sure that he alone knew HOW to win.

Behind the scenes, when no one was looking, Steinbrenner was capable of extraordinary acts of kindness. He spent millions, for instance, helping the Grambling baseball team. He would see a story in the paper of someone struggling and he would anonymously donate money.

There are countless stories like that, stories of kindness that Steinbrenner simply did not want reported. And there are countless other stories about Steinbrenner’s small cruelties and broken promises and psychological torture. He won and lost. He thrived and failed. He inspired and infuriated. His personality was impossibly big and impossible small.

You don’t sum up George Steinbrenner.

* * *

So, the Hall of Fame: Steinbrenner is, for me, the essential Hall of Fame candidate of our time because …

You can’t put him in. He was suspended from baseball. TWICE.

You have to put him in. How can you tell baseball’s story without him?

You can’t put him in. He paid to get dirt on a player; as an owner, there are only a small number of things that you can do that are worse than that.

You have to put him in. What would the Yankees be without him?

You can’t put him in. He was a person who gave baseball black eye after black eye.

You have to put him in. As long as there are owners in the baseball Hall of Fame, how can you leave out the most famous, the most driven and the most fascinating of them all?

I think Steinbrenner is the essential candidate because he — more than Bonds or Clemens or McGwire or Rose or Shoeless Joe — paints the picture clearly: What is the Hall of Fame? Is it a reward for living a good baseball life?

If so, why is George Steinbrenner even on the ballot?

Is it an acknowledgement of greatness or, if not greatness, then gravity — did this person move the game?

If so, George Steinbrenner should go in unanimously.

Steinbrenner would do anything to win. And, mostly, he did win. He used some unsavory methods. He broke rules. He didn’t treat people very well along the way. But the same could be said of his heroes, of Woody Hayes, of George Patton, and the question before the Hall of Fame committee is: What kind of Hall of Fame are you voting for?

I personally would vote George Steinbrenner into the Hall of Fame.

But then, I would vote Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Rose and Shoeless Joe in too. I'm all for the Hall of Fame plaque room celebrating baseball — that big, infuriating, wonderful, messy, glorious, maddening, thrilling, troubling and captivating game.