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Steinbrenner dead at 80

"The Boss" molded Yankees' return to their glory days

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / July 14, 2010

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A shipbuilder from Ohio who once promised absentee ownership, George M. Steinbrenner 3d instead took the New York Yankees and made them his own, creating a championship empire.

The sport’s longest tenured, most notorious, and most successful owner, Mr. Steinbrenner died yesterday in Tampa after suffering a massive heart attack. He had turned 80 July 4.

“He was a visionary and a giant in the world of sports. He took a great but struggling franchise and turned it into a champion again,’’ said a statement released by the Steinbrenner family announcing his death.

Mr. Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees in 1973 and soon became the most famed owner in professional sports. “The Boss’’ created terror within the of fices at Yankee Stadium, turned dozens of ballplayers into millionaires, and reveled in the media spotlight by criticizing those in his employ.

But Mr. Steinbrenner’s legacy ultimately will be defined by historic success. During his reign, the Yankees won the World Series seven times and qualified for the playoffs on 19 occasions. A team he purchased for $10 million in 1973 is now estimated to be worth at least $1.6 billion.

“He expected perfection, and that rubbed off on the organization, on the players, front office, people working at the stadium,’’ Yankees captain Derek Jeter said from the All-Star Game in Anaheim, Calif.

Mr. Steinbrenner’s passion also helped inflame the rivalry between the Red Sox and Yankees.

“I had the good fortune to call George Steinbrenner both partner and friend. And then we fiercely competed in the American League,’’ said Red Sox owner John Henry, a former minority owner of the Yankees. “George Steinbrenner forever changed baseball and hopefully some day we will see him honored in baseball’s Hall of Fame.’’

Baseball recognized Mr. Steinbrenner with a moment of silence before last night’s All-Star Game. The Red Sox plan to do the same before tomorrow night’s game at Fenway Park against Texas.

“George was a giant of the game,’’ baseball commissioner Bud Selig said. “He was my dear friend for nearly four decades. Although we would have disagreements over the years, they never interfered with our friendship and commitment to each other.’’

Mr. Steinbrenner employed 15 managers and 14 general managers during his tenure, making the impetuous decision his signature move. From 1975-1990, he made 20 managerial changes and drew the wrath of fans for his meddlesome approach.

Billy Martin was Mr. Steinbrenner’s manager five times. Mr. Steinbrenner was prepared to hire him a sixth time in 1990 before Martin was killed in an automobile accident.

Mr. Steinbrenner ruled by fear, often treating players and team employees with callous cruelty. “Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing,’’ he once said.

Mr. Steinbrenner many times angered the rest of baseball by spending wildly on players.

With the advent of free agency in 1975, Mr. Steinbrenner gave pitcher Catfish Hunter an unprecedented contract of $3.75 million over five years.

In 1980, Mr. Steinbrenner made headlines when the Yankees signed outfielder Dave Winfield for 10 years and $25 million. His final record contract came in 2007 when Alex Rodriguez signed for 10 years and $275 million.

Mr. Steinbrenner twice was suspended by baseball, once for making illegal campaign contributions to President Richard Nixon and a second time for employing a small-time gambler to dig up information on Winfield, with whom Mr. Steinbrenner was feuding.

But along with his obsession for winning came a generous side. The official charity of the Red Sox, the Jimmy Fund, released a statement yesterday praising Steinbrenner for his generosity.

Mr. Steinbrenner was active in charitable pursuits in New York, Tampa, and Ohio, and he was a supporter of the United States Olympic Committee. He helped finance MIT’s Steinbrenner Stadium in memory of his father, an athlete at the school.

Over the years, he funded funerals for veterans and college scholarships for orphans, without seeking publicity.

“My respect for George went beyond the baseball field because of his sincere and longstanding commitment to charity, and to people in need. He had a giant heart, often well hidden from public view,’’ said Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, with whom Mr. Steinbrenner often tangled.

Much of Mr. Steinbrenner’s success came in the last 15 years. Led by manager Joe Torre, shortstop Jeter, and closer Mariano Rivera, the Yankees won the World Series four times from 1996 to 2000.

Torre yesterday described Mr. Steinbrenner as, “a passionate man, a tough boss, a true visionary, a great humanitarian, and a dear friend.’’

Under new manager Joe Girardi, the Yankees won the World Series again last season.

In 2001, Mr. Steinbrenner was the driving force behind the team starting its own television network, YES, which quickly became a lucrative enterprise. He later helped broker agreements that led to a new Yankee Stadium being built.

Born in 1930 in Rocky River, Ohio, Mr. Steinbrenner attended Culver Military Academy in Indiana, then graduated from Williams College in 1952.

After spending two years in the Air Force, Mr. Steinbrenner became a high school football coach in Columbus, Ohio, for a year. He then served as an assistant football coach at Northwestern (1955) and Purdue (1956). He married Joan Zieg in 1956 and a year later joined his father’s shipping company, Kinsman Marine, as treasurer.

In 1960, Mr. Steinbrenner spent $25,000 to purchase a share of the Cleveland Pipers of the now-defunct National Industrial Basketball League. The team joined the new American Basketball League in 1961. Coach John McLendon, citing Mr. Steinbrenner’s meddling, quit midway through the season.

When the ABL disbanded, Mr. Steinbrenner temporarily gave up professional sports and purchased the American Shipbuilding Company.

After coming up short in an attempt to purchase the Cleveland Indians in 1972, Mr. Steinbrenner bought a controlling interest in the Yankees a year later. “We plan absentee ownership,’’ he said at his first news conference in New York. “I’ll stick to building ships.’’

Mr. Steinbrenner withdrew from public life in recent years, spending nearly all of his time in Florida and running the team via telephone or emissary.

Mr. Steinbrenner’s health took a turn for the worse in 2003 when he collapsed while attending the funeral of football great Otto Graham. A similar incident occurred Oct. 29, 2006 when he fell ill while watching his granddaughter perform in a play.

Close friends said Mr. Steinbrenner had suffered from memory loss and fading health since that incident and kept irregular hours at his Florida office. His last appearance at Yankee Stadium came at the home opener this season.

Though no official announcement was made, it was made clear during the 2007 season that his two sons, Hank and Hal, had assumed control of the team.

In March of 2008, the family approved changing the name of its Legends Field facility in Tampa to Steinbrenner Field. Hal Steinbrenner became the controlling owner later that year by a unanimous vote of the 29 other owners.

While most famous for his ownership of the Yankees, Mr. Steinbrenner was a notable figure in the horse racing industry. His 850-acre Kinsman Farm stables near Ocala, Fla., produced a number of champions, including Bellamy Road, who won the Wood Memorial and finished second in the Travers Stakes.

Mr. Steinbrenner also once was part of the ownership group of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and the NBA’s New Jersey Nets.

His fame translated into the arena of pop culture. Mr. Steinbrenner hosted “Saturday Night Live,’’ filmed commercials, and was parodied on the television situation comedy “Seinfeld.’’

He is survived by his wife, Joan; sisters Susan Norpell and Judy Kamm; his children Henry “Hank’’ Steinbrenner, Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal, Jessica Lopez, and Harold “Hal’’ Steinbrenner; and 13 grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are private. Details about a public service will be announced.

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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