George Steinbrenner: architect of the multimillion-dollar athlete

George Steinbrenner, who passed away Tuesday, resuscitated the Yankees by the force of his will and checkbook. He was a trailblazer in the commercialization of baseball.

By , Staff writer

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    In an Aug. 21, 1990, photo, George Steinbrenner gestures during a news conference after resigning as general manager of the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium in New York. The Yankees owner died Tuesday morning.
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To New Yorkers, George Steinbrenner – who passed away Tuesday – was simply “The Boss.”

As the owner of the New York Yankees, he opened his checkbook, hiring super stars who helped bring seven World Series trophies to a city that considers itself the Mecca of professional baseball.

Around New York there was almost immediate reaction to his passing. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, declaring few people have had a bigger impact on the city than Mr. Steinbrenner, ordered the flags at City Hall plaza to be lowered to half staff in Steinbrenner’s honor. “George was a larger than life New York figure whose passion and drive to succeed will forever be missed,” said Mr. Bloomberg in a statement.

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IN PICTURES: George Steinbrenner through the years

Steinbrenner’s influence went beyond New York. He was, in many respects, the first owner to embrace free agency, offering top players unheard of sums of money to join the Yankees. In the process, he revolutionized professional sports, ushering in the current era of multimillionaire athletes.

“He came into baseball a few years before free agency and was one of the first owners to realize the opportunities it presented," says Andrew Zimbalist, a professor at Smith College and the author of "Circling the Bases: the Future of the Sports Business," which will be published this fall. "

By exploiting those opportunities in the world's largest entertainment market, Steinbrenner was a trailblazer in the commercialization of baseball, followed by the other pro sports in the United States," he adds. “He spent money not only on the players but also on the front office, promotion and advertising.”

After buying the Yankees from CBS in 1973 for $8.7 million as the majority owner of an investor group, his impact on the franchise was enormous and immediate. “Those CBS teams were awful,” recalls Doug Muzzio, a political commentator at Baruch College and a long-time Yankee fan. “He brought back the premier sports franchise and he did it in a swashbuckling way.”

In 1974, he signed free agent pitcher Catfish Hunter to a $750,000-a-year contract. At the time, most of baseball's top players were making little more than $100,000 a year. Two years later, Steinbrenner signed outfielder Reggie Jackson.

In subsequent years, the trend only accelerated. Today, the Yankees pay third baseman Alex Rodriguez $33 million a year, the highest salary in baseball.

In fact, partially because of Steinbrenner’s penchant for paying super-size salaries Major League Baseball established a luxury tax to try to equalize the differences between large-market teams like the Yankees and small-market teams.

In the first seven years of the luxury tax, the Yankees have paid $175 million. This year, the team has a salary of $206,333,389, the most in the major leagues.

Steinbrenner was known for his mercurial temperament, such as his hiring and firing of the late Billy Martin as manager five times. Mr. Martin had public feuds with Steinbrenner, including one where he suspended Mr. Jackson for trying to bunt instead of swing. After the game, Martin told reporters that Jackson and Steinbrenner deserved each other. “One’s a born liar [Jackson], and the other’s convicted,” said Martin, referring to Steinbrenner’s conviction of an illegal political contribution to Richard Nixon in 1972.

“It was a serial soap opera,” recalls Muzzio of the Martin affairs. “It was all entertainment.”

Despite its Bronx location, the Yankees became a major tourist and fan attraction, drawing some 4 million fans, the largest in baseball. Steinbrenner also formed his own television network, the YES network, which broadcasts many of the Yankees' games.

Although Steinbrenner was known for his big player salaries, he also gave away millions to charity through the Steinbrenner Foundation which supports medical care for disadvantaged children, musicians, firefighters, and slain law enforcement officers. He was also known to anonymously donate millions to athletic and educational causes in Florida's Hillsborough County, where he lived.

On Tuesday night Major League Baseball will play its annual All-Star game, which includes six Yankees. New York Gov. David Paterson commented: “I hope we all take a moment to remember the life and legacy of George Steinbrenner: the owner, the businessman, the husband and father, the Boss.”

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IN PICTURES: George Steinbrenner through the years

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