George Steinbrenner: The 10 Greatest Feuds
George Steinbrenner owns the back pages of New York's tabloids one last time today, the day after his passing at the age of 80.
Steinbrenner helped restore the Yankees to status as baseball's marquee team in his 37-year run as owner. His mercurial nature made him both a feared and respected presence and an easy target for lampooning. Above all, he was unforgettable, the most famous owner in the history of American professional sports.
On a sad day in Yankee history, we take a look back at the 10 greatest feuds in the Boss' incredible run.
The Boss & Billy The Kid
The Story: They were the Brokeback Mountain of professional baseball, without the gay love affair. Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner did everything to quit each other, but they never could stay separated for long.
Martin managed the Yankees five times, with each stint ending acrimoniously. His infamous 1978 quote about Reggie Jackson and Steinbrenner: "One's a born liar, and the other's convicted" remains perhaps the greatest dig ever dished out on The Boss, who was long sensitive about his felony conviction during the Watergate scandal.
The Resolution: Rumors swirled of a sixth managerial stint for Martin, but fate intervened when Martin was killed in a car accident on Christmas Day 1989.
Boss Absurdity Index - MODERATE: Steinbrenner knew Martin was a fine field manager, but the owner's buttoned-down nature just never mixed with the outspoken and hard-drinking manager. If anything, Steinbrenner looked at Martin as a wayward son, making his repeated overtures toward the manager somewhat understandable.
The Story: Okay, so Steinbrenner never technically feuded with his father, but it was the difficult relationship with ship magnate Henry Steinbrenner that essentially set the stage for every feud George had in his life.
Henry was intensely hard on his son, and he didn't think twice to cut George down to size no matter the setting. An example: In 1978, MIT built Henry G. Steinbrenner Stadium, a gift from George in honor of his father, who had attended the school. When a giddy George brought his father to the dedication as a surprise, Henry's only comment was: "That's the only way you'd ever get into this school."
The Resolution: Steinbrenner spent his whole life trying to earn affection from his gruff father, but it never came. Many feel that the mean-hearted way Henry treated George is the reason why George could be so miserable to his own friends, family, and employees.
Boss Absurdity Index - LOW: The Boss had serious Daddy Issues. It happens. Need more proof? Check out this quote from George in the Bill Madden biography Steinbrenner: "Anything I ever accomplished I owe to him. Whatever's good in me is through him. Whatever's bad is me."
The Saga of Mr. October
The Story: Reggie Jackson forever earned a soft spot in the hearts of Yankee fans for his three-homer outburst in Game Six of the 1977 World Series, but his five-year tenure in the Bronx was hardly a fairytale.
Jackson's true enemy in New York was Billy Martin, a man he came to detest in their sporadic time together. But he clashed with Steinbrenner as well. Jackson felt that Steinbrenner didn't stand up for him enough during the countless Martin spats while Steinbrenner chastised his star for his incessant claims of racial prejudice.
The Resolution: After a poor 1981 season, Steinbrenner opted not to re-sign the mercurial right fielder. Spurned, Jackson signed with the Angels, where he rejuvenated his career. Despite their rocky relationship, Jackson became a close aide of Steinbrenner's in the 1990s, with Mr. October going into the Hall of Fame in 1993 with a Yankee cap on his plaque.
Boss Absurdity Index - LOW: The Jackson-Martin relationship was nuclear in every way, and all things considered, Steinbrenner managed the situation the best he could.
Kuhn Bans the Boss
The Story: George Steinbrenner was suspended twice during his tenure as Yankees owner, the first ban coming after his conviction for making illegal contributions to President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign.
Yep, ol' George got himself tangled up right in the middle of the Watergate scandal. He was like a real-life Forrest Gump.
MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn eventually handed down a two-year ban, calling the Yankees owner "ineligible and incompetent" to "have any association whatsoever with any major league club or its personnel."
Kuhn's ruling lasted over 12 pages, but the "incompetent" slight is what truly drove Steinbrenner mad. In a heated missive fired off after the ruling, Steinbrenner hissed, "It is impossible to understand how the commissioner of baseball could call me incompetent."
The Resolution: Steinbrenner served his two-year ban, but he never forgave Kuhn for the insulting language of his punishment. The two had a strained relationship until Kuhn stepped down from the post in 1984.
Boss Absurdity Index - MODERATE: The truth is that the "incompetent" word was more a legal term than a personal swipe at Steinbrenner, and the Boss' rage was seen as more of a PR move to win fan support during a damaging period in his professional life.
The Boss Draws The Fury Of Yogi
The story: After a disappointing 1984 season on the bench, Yogi Berra agreed to come back for another season as Yankees manager on the condition that Steinbrenner promise him a full year of job security in 1985. Steinbrenner agreed ... then fired the Yankees icon just 16 games into the season.
Berra vowed never again to set foot in Yankee Stadium until Steinbrenner sold the team.
The resolution: Perhaps sensing that Steinbrenner would die before giving up control of the Yankees (a wise call in retrospect), Berra settled for an apology, which Steinbrenner delivered in 1999. That July, the Yankees hosted Yogi Berra Day to welcome back their prodigal son. Berra caught the first pitch from Mr. Perfect Game Don Larson, and later David Cone would team up with Joe Girardi to toss a perfect game of his own.
Boss Absurdity Index - HIGH: Berra is one of the greatest players in baseball history, as well as one of the most beloved. Maybe Yogi should've known better than to take a manager gig under Steinbrenner in the first place, but The Boss should have gone down a more tactful road with a franchise legend.
Dissing Donnie Baseball
The Story: Don Mattingly was unquestionably the most popular active Yankee in 1995, but he was also a player in decline, as chronic back issues robbed the first baseman of the skill set that once made him an MVP.
Steinbrenner knew moving on from the Mattingly Era would be a touchy issue, so he resorted to his oldest strategy: Leaking stories to the press.
When Mattingly saw Bill Madden—the Daily News beat man and Steinbrenner crony—sitting in the Boss' box one afternoon, he knew what was coming next. The back page headline said it all the next day: "DONE DON". Mattingly went after Steinbrenner in the media in the final months of his career, telling ESPN's Roy Firestone, "There's a time to move on. But I think there are ways to handle it, too. You just don't kick a guy, and spit on him, and tell him to go on and get out the door."
The Resolution: The Yankees qualified for the postseason in '95, and Mattingly made the most of his only playoff opportunity, hitting .417 with a homer and six RBIs in a five-game loss to the Mariners. The strong series allowed Mattingly to bow out gracefully, and he officially retired in January 1997. The rift apparently healed, the Yankees hosted Don Mattingly Day that August, where the captain's No. 23 was retired in Monument Park.
Boss Absurdity Index - HIGH: Mattingly was one of the least productive first baseman in the American League by the end of his career, but Mattingly's incredible popularity with the fanbase should have meant more to Steinbrenner than it did. It was shades of Yogi Berra in 1985, with Steinbrenner disrespecting a Yankee diety while ignoring the potential consequences of his actions.
The Bride Becomes The Toad
The Story: Steinbrenner thought he had acquired the Yankees' answer to Dodgers phenom Hideo Nomo after pulling off a trade with the Padres for Chiba Lotte Marines starting pitcher Hideki Irabu.
New York rushed the right-hander to the Yankees' rotation after just eight minor league starts, but Irabu never came close to matching the hype in pinstripes.
A chain-smoker whose idea of conditioning was lifting his arm for another round from the bartender, Irabu drew the wrath of Steinbrenner during a spring training game in 1998 after the pitcher failed to cover first base on a ground ball. The Boss called his one-time golden boy a "fat, pussy toad" and barred him from traveling with the team on a trip to Los Angeles.
The Resolution: Steinbrenner later relented, allowing Irabu to travel with the team, but the right-hander was shipped off in a trade shortly thereafter. As far as feuds go, this was as one-sided as they get: Irabu didn't speak English and seemed preoccupied with little else other than his next nicotine fix.
Boss Absurdity Index - LOW: You can get on Steinbrenner for buying into the hype of Irabu, but it's hard to fault him for the infamous "toad" commentary. Irabu appeared disinterested in succeeding at the Major League level, and his poor work ethic made him an easy target for the meticulous Steinbrenner. After bouncing around the league for a few more years, Irabu's MLB career was done after 2002.
Digging Up Dirt On Winfield
The Story: In an effort to get out from under a contractual commitment to the charity of slugger Dave Winfield, Steinbrenner paid seedy underworld character Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on his All-Star outfielder.
Predictably, the plan blew up in Steinbrenner's face, and MLB commissioner Faye Vincent slapped Steinbrenner with a lifetime ban from baseball in 1990.
The Resolution: The "lifetime ban" lasts only two years, but the incident is a lowpoint in Steinbrenner's career. Winfield was later traded; going on to win the Comeback Player of the Year Award with the Angels and a World Series ring with the Blue Jays.
Boss Insanity Index - CANNOT BE CALCULATED: Paying a guy named Howie Spira to successfully do anything is probably a bad idea, so you can imagine the lack of foresight in asking the guy to try to destroy the reputation of one of your highest paid players.
If this happened today, I think the internet would actually explode.
Leading the Evil Empire
The Story: It is the quote that jump-started perhaps the most intense period of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry to date. It all started over little old Jose Contreras, the Cuban pitcher who was the prize horse of both organizations.
In December 2002, the Red Sox—in an effort to freeze out their rivals—bought up all the rooms in the Nicaraguan hotel in which the Cuban pitcher was staying, just so New York officials could not get close to him.
But the Yankees won the bidding war for Contreras anyway, exasperating Boston officials who felt they did everything in their power to thwart their rivals.
When asked to comment on the Feb. 2003 signing, Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino first declined, but eventually couldn't help himself. "The evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America," he said.
The Resolution: Contreras turned out to be much ado about nothing, lasting less than two seasons in pinstripes before being shipped to the White Sox for 10 cents on the dollar. The war of words between Yankees and Red Sox management was just warming up, however.
Just over two years later, the Yankees pulled the rug out from under the Red Sox again, acquiring Alex Rodriguez in a trade just days after Boston believed it had a deal in place. After Sox owner John Henry complained to the media about New York's financial might, Steinbrenner blasted off one of his greatest missives ever:
"We understand that John Henry must be embarrassed, frustrated and disappointed by his failure in this transaction. It is time to get a life and forget the sour grapes.''
Boss Absurdity Index Level - LOW: The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is the type of stuff that Steinbrenner lived for, and you were happy to have him on your side. He simply would not let his rivals to the northeast ever outwork him.
The Boss Takes Down Torre
The Story: It is remembered as one of Steinbrenner's greatest moves. But when the Boss tapped Joe Torre as the replacement for Buck Showalter as Yankees manager in 1996, fans and media were outraged. "CLUELESS JOE" blared a headline in the Daily News. Torre and the Yankees were a perfect match from the start, however, winning four World Series titles in five years.
Steinbrenner's relationship with Torre was the healthiest the Boss had with any of his managers. But when the Yankees stopped winning championships in the 2000s, the relationship slowly soured.
The Resolution: Steinbrenner fired off an angry missive before Game Four of the 2007 ALDS, essentially saying that Torre was managing for his job. If the Yankees couldn't pull off a comeback against the Indians, he'd be out. When the Yankees were eliminated the next night, Steinbrenner stayed true to his word.
Boss Absurdity Index - HIGH: The in-series missive was a classic Steinbrenner move, but it didn't make it any less detrimental to a team that was dealing with crushing pressure to start with. Torre took aim at Steinbrenner in The Yankee Years, a 2009 book that doubled as a 400-page FU to the front office.