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George Steinbrenner – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly…..but the Best

Dean SpiridonContributor IJuly 14, 2010

George Steinbrenner, the famous owner of the New York Yankees, died yesterday morning at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, Fla., at about 6:30 a.m. ET from a massive heart attack.  Steinbrenner was known throughout all of sports as a demanding owner, yet one of the most charitable people ever.  He described his priorities in life as follows: “I don’t like losing.  Winning is important.  It is second to breathing.  Breathing is first, winning is second.”

A man that puts that much emphasis on winning is surely to cross some boundaries in his life, even if they weren’t intentionally crossed.  There were many sides to George Steinbrenner, including the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Let’s take a look at all of them.

The Good

As friends and family, as well as former players and employees begin to share their memories of The Boss, one constant exists.  They all mention how caring and charitable he was.  Most of his charitable acts flew below the radar and without much publicity, but they were important nonetheless.  George Steinbrenner wasn’t one to shy away from the spotlight – at least when it came to the Yankees.  However, many say that he considered his charitable acts a private and personal matter that shouldn’t draw attention.  This speaks volumes about his character and values.

For all of the tirades and verbal assaults that he unloaded on players, it has been well documented that he not only cared for his players, but believed in giving second chances.  No greater example of this exists than with two of the Amazin’ Mets from the 1980s, Dwight “Doc” Gooden and Daryl Strawberry, and the owner of 7  MLB suspensions, Steve Howe .

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Each of these players encountered every obstacle imaginable for a human being, let alone a professional baseball player.  The list is endless: alcohol, drugs, women, prison, divorce, injuries.  Even cancer.  These former superstars needed more than a second chance.  They required 5 and 6 chances.  Strawberry alone received 2-3 chances as a player and consultant from Steinbrenner.  Gooden received several opportunities to resurrect his career and life, as did Howe.  Nobody can question George Steinbrenner’s charitable side.

The Bad

The bad side of George Steinbrenner reared it’s ugly head in his relations with managers and players.  I mentioned several good things he did for players, but the first 20 years of his tenure were more in line with “the bad” than “the good”.  When he took over the New York Yankees in 1973, he said: “I won’t be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all.”  This obviously couldn’t have been further from the truth!

He hired and fired managers 20 times during his first two decades as an owner.  He hired and fired Billy Martin five times, but was able to joke about it, as seen here in this beer commercial.

The Boss always loved to use the newspapers as a way of sending messages to his players.  He felt this was a motivation tactic and tried it time and time again.  The dugout phone had a connection to The Boss’s office and he wasn’t afraid to tell the manager what he thought.  His meddling and manipulation even went as far as restricting what coaches could say to the media about Dave Winfield.  George’s behavior eventually got him into serious trouble, as I explain below.

For all of “the bad”, it can really be explained as nothing more than just a terrible boss – he was constantly in his employee’s business and a micro-manager.

The Ugly

The managerial hirings and firings were like amateur hour compared to the two “ugly” moments in George Steinbrenner’s life.  He found himself entangled in the Watergate mess and 15 years later, in a spy and smear campaign.

First, in 1973-1974, it was revealed that Steinbrenner made illegal contributions to President Nixon’s campaign fund.  It was reported that he made contributions to Nixon out of fear of Nixon’s retribution for Steinbrenner’s support of the Democratic Party.  He was alleged to have given $25,000 bonuses to his employees with the instructions that they immediately donate the funds to Nixon.  Steinbrenner also made a significant contribution himself.  On April 5, 1974, Steinbrenner was indicted on 14 criminal counts.  He later pleaded guilty to two and was fined $20,000.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn wanted his share of the action too.  Kuhn suspended Steinbrenner from baseball for two years, however the suspension was later reduced by nine months and Steinbrenner returned in 1976.

Steinbrenner’s second run-in with the authorities came in 1989.  Ever since he signed Dave Winfield in 1980 to a 10 year/$33M contract, Steinbrenner was on a mission to smear Winfield’s character.  It all came to a boiling point in 1989 when Winfield sued Steinbrenner for failing to pay his Winfield Foundation the $300,000 guaranteed in the outfielder’s contract.

George paid Howie Spira, a known gambler, $40,000 to spy on Winfield and collect information for more smear tactics.  MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent felt Steinbrenner crossed the line and on July 30, 1990, he banned Steinbrenner for life from running the Yankees.  Vincent eventually allowed Steinbrenner to return for the 1993 season.

This is the moment in time many credit as the birth of the new Yankee Dynasty.  With Steinbrenner’s hands tied, his baseball people were allowed to run the franchise and make sound baseball decisions.  Something Steinbrenner didn’t know how to do.  Gene Michael began building the farm system with an emphasis on home grown talent – and on-base percentage.  Gene was way ahead of the Billy Beane “Moneyball” era.

But The Best

Despite the two extremes of George Steinbrenner, he managed to be remembered exactly how he wanted: as a winner.  He said he wanted his tombstone to read “a guy who never stopped trying”.  And try he did.  He rebuilt the most storied franchise in sports and created an empire that now includes the Yankees franchise, the YES Network, and his last accomplishment, The New Yankee Stadium.  His mark will forever be in the Bronx.

Just as important (if not more) as those material accomplishments is what others are saying as they mourn his death.  Just as he kept his charitable giving private and quiet, it appears he also kept the magnitude of his personal relationships private as well.  Below are three video clips from three of the most respected men in their fields.  All three say the same thing – George Steinbrenner had a significant impact on their lives.  It is worth the 15 minutes or so to listen to Donald Trump, Jerry Jones and Bobby Knight talk about George Steinbrenner.

The game of baseball has lost a legend.  There surely won’t be another one like him.

Best of luck,

The Pro Baseball Instruction.com Staff

PS – Below is a compilation of some Steinbrenner character clips from the TV show Seinfeld.  Which is your favorite?!

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