Few business owners enjoyed the accident of appreciation more than George Steinbrenner. His $8.8 million investment in 1973 (actually, as principal owner, he ponied up just $168,000 of the family shipbuilding fortune) is now worth more than $3 billion. Or maybe his was the accident of geography. The New York Yankees were a mythic, if wildly undervalued, asset but also uniquely situated in the world's biggest media market. The team's cable-TV contracts became so rich during his tenure that the rest of major league baseball felt a subsidy was not only fair but also downright necessary.
Steinbrenner's critics, of whom there are legion, might well argue that any buffoon could have done as well, and that less of one could have done better. All he did was put a coat of paint on a faded property and ride a kind of real estate bubble, during which all sports franchises soared mightily in value. While there is a lot more arithmetic in support of his stewardship—those Yankees won 11 pennants and seven World Series championships in Steinbrenner's 37 years of ownership—those same critics could easily find ways to discount it. Didn't the Yankees, after, all lay the foundation for two World Series runs (1977--78 and 1996--2000) during those years when he was forced from the owner's box? And for that matter, during those final seasons of absentee ownership, right up to his death at the age of 80 last week?
But that misses the point. Steinbrenner's legacy is only partly about the team's absurd run-up in value, which in any case was not entirely accidental. And it is only partly about the restoration of Yankees glamour, which likewise was hardly inevitable, so tarnished was the sport's jewel on his purchase. Rather, we have to consider his ego (yes, we have to) and how it changed the way we enjoy sports today. Without the force of personality, without the permission of arrogance, without the allowance of an owner's desperation—the template of ownership that he created—well, these teams we're so damn interested in would almost certainly be a lot less interesting. And maybe not as good.
Now, to forestall some immediate argument, we can all agree that Steinbrenner may have had too much ego, more than was strictly required for the job. He more or less agreed himself, although too late in life to do many of his minions any good. He mostly mistook ownership for a sort of absolute authority, an imperiousness that was not always wonderful to behold. Certainly he wouldn't have that legion of critics if he didn't so often behave like "Patton in pinstripes," as Howard Cosell once complained.
In his first 20 years he changed managers 20 times (five-timer Billy Martin needlessly inflating that figure), suggesting he wasn't so much interested in creating a baseball juggernaut as in asserting a rather hysterical dictatorship. And while it is possible to claim competitive zeal in defense of almost any management mistake, it does not excuse the almost capricious cruelty he made famous. Like firing Yankees legend Yogi Berra in 1985. After 16 games. With a phone call. Through an underling.
To be fair, Steinbrenner admitted the ritual "poor judgment" of those early years—"You could sit and write a huge volume about the mistakes I've made"—and in time even repaired his relationship with Berra, if not quite all the aggrieved. Some gaffes were probably beyond apology anyway, like the hounding of star Dave Winfield. (As it turned out, paying a known gambler to find some dirt on his rightfielder was also beyond the rules, resulting in Steinbrenner's second suspension from baseball.) But either age or better advice somewhat modulated his impulsiveness, and he was far less trigger-happy in his later years, even retaining Joe Torre as manager for 12 of them. (Although, perhaps predictably, that didn't end so great either.)
This meddling was so extreme, even for a hands-on owner, that Steinbrenner became cartoonish, The Boss, a tabloid fixture. It was not a caricature he went out of his way to avoid, even agreeing to pose for an SI cover dressed as Napoleon. Nor was it something he tried overly hard to reform (further than was required by law). Because he understood that his bombastic bossiness, however exaggerated, was actually the fan's prerogative. And for all his high remove, he was never anything but the fan's proxy.
He was this new kind of owner, after all, who exercised his self-importance on behalf of his fans, flexing his ego for their satisfaction. What is more forgivable than that? If Steinbrenner seemed childish in his impatience, it made him all the more lovable among his patrons, who were also legion. They merely wished they could fire Billy. George would actually do it. Again. And again.
Keep in mind that the Yankees, before Steinbrenner, were owned by CBS, a colorless corporation of no known temperament or agenda. While big business might guarantee a certain decorum or dignity, it did not tend to identify with the fans' anxiety or create much in the way of hope. For Steinbrenner, it was all a bit more personal. How is baseball not personal?
Perhaps only someone with as colossal a self-assurance as Steinbrenner's could dare address the needs of all those fans. He was largely devoid of doubt and plunged into deals before their danger could be truly assessed. Beginning in 1974, he exploited the developing free-agency market, signing Catfish Hunter to a game-shaking $3.35 million contract. With a maddening bravura he collected every player he could, pioneering the unpopular but modern idea that titles could be bought. Reggie Jackson, Rich Gossage, Tommy John, Winfield—if Steinbrenner thought the Yankees needed somebody, he paid for him.
Critics (them again) complained that Steinbrenner was using that checkbook in place of any real vision and were happy to point out that results were not always commensurate with the payroll. Steinbrenner, in establishing his Bronx Zoo, was buying dysfunction as much as he was championships. But, again, this ignored his role as surrogate fan. He was simply enacting their wishes, sometimes before they could even form them. The Yankees, once Steinbrenner was in charge, became fantasy baseball for a pretty big city.
Steinbrenner managed to represent his people, the blue-collar demographic that underwrote his own dreams, even as he was creating this new baseball royalty. It was wicked fun to watch him have it both ways, promoting his players' celebrity, then removing it at the first sign of disappointment. But he understood that the fans could not long appreciate Yankees arrogance without the possibility of comeuppance, or at least accountability. "Mr. May" is what he called Winfield after a galling World Series failure, shrewdly anticipating fan backlash.
There is probably zero tolerance for an owner exactly like Steinbrenner, but there is more and more a sense that his is the only type that can truly succeed these days. You see that type in all of sports now—flighty, nervous, driven types like Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, now Dan Gilbert of the Cleveland Cavaliers—men whose need to win is rivaled only by their need to please. They're plungers, gamers, acutely attuned to the needs of the marketplace, self-appointed (critics might say) by accidents of wealth. And they don't operate with much reservation, or require much approval or agreement or even consensus. They know what's best—for the team, for you.
Steinbrenner was the first among them to recognize how a sports franchise, just during his time, had grown in importance, even beyond a dollar figure. He was the first to realize that teams had become public trusts, civic preserves that must be tended with sure and confident hands. He was the first to appreciate how sacred, how vital these things had become to a community. He was the first to understand—and he'd also be the first to tell you—that running one was not a job for just anybody.