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George Steinbrenner dead at 80, leaves winning legacy

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner waves to fans after

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner waves to fans after attending a news conference at the Yankees' minor league complex in Tampa, Fla. (Feb. 17, 2004) Credit: AP

He was revered and reviled, ridiculed and respected.

But though he could be contradictory and his actions often polarized the baseball world, George M. Steinbrenner III always displayed a single-minded drive when it came to one thing: Winning.

Critics and fans alike knew him simply as "The Boss."

Thirty-seven years after he bought the Yankees from CBS for $10 million, turned them into a $1.6-billion empire and restored them to glory as the winningest sports franchise ever, Steinbrenner died Tuesday at a hospital in Tampa following a massive heart attack at his home Monday night.

Steinbrenner had celebrated his 80th birthday July 4. His death comes two days after longtime Yankee Stadium announcer Bob Sheppard died at age 99 at his home in Baldwin.

"It is with profound sadness that the family of George M. Steinbrenner III announces his passing," a statement released Tuesday by longtime Steinbrenner publicist Howard Rubenstein said, adding: "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."

Funeral arrangements will be private, though there will be a public memorial service with details to be announced later, the statement said.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, in a prepared statement, said: "He has left an indelible legacy on the Yankees, on baseball, and on our city, and he leaves us in the only way that would be appropriate: as a reigning world champion."

Sen. Charles Schumer called Steinbrenner "a true New York icon" and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said, "George's single-minded drive in the pursuit of excellence and his devotion to family inspired people far beyond the baseball diamond."

Slugger Darryl Strawberry, who made his name with the Mets and was sidetracked by drug issues before Steinbrenner gave him the chance to resurrect his career with the Yankees from 1995-99, told ESPN Tuesday morning: "I think the thing I learned from him more than anything is to never quit ... When I got knocked down, he was there to pick me up."

Another Mets player who revived his career with the Yankees, Doc Gooden, had similar feelings of gratitude toward Steinbrenner. "When I came off my suspension in '95, a lot of people turned their back on me and had every right to do so," Gooden said. "But he welcomed me back with open arms to recapture my career in New York and join the Yankees."

After building his fortune in the shipbuilding industry, Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees from CBS in 1973 using less than $200,000 of his own money in the $10-million deal, according to a book on Steinbrenner by longtime Daily News sportswriter Bill Madden.

Steinbrenner turned the team into the most valuable franchise in pro sports history.

Along the way, he returned the Yankees to the glory days of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. The franchise won 11 American League pennants and seven World Series titles during his reign.

The latest title was last season, the Yankees' first in their new multi-billion-dollar stadium - a modern version of the fabled "House that Ruth Built." It was constructed across the street from the old Yankee Stadium and considered by some "The House that George Built."

"Owning the Yankees is like owning the 'Mona Lisa,' " Steinbrenner once said.

Steinbrenner pledged to be an absentee owner after he bought the team. He proved anything but. He decried free agency, claiming it could ruin the game - then went out and signed pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter and slugger Reggie Jackson to multi-million-dollar deals in the 1970s en route to building the Yankees into a World Series champion. He continued to authorize expensive free-agent signings even after relinquishing day-to-day control of the team in recent years to sons Hank and Hal, the Yankees signing Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira in recent years.

The open checkbook policy led rival Boston Red Sox officials to dub the Yankees under Steinbrenner "The Evil Empire." During the course of his ownership reign, Steinbrenner, who was known to quote Gen. Douglas MacArthur, found himself depicted in cartoons wearing a World War I German army helmet and addressed as "Gen. von Steingrabber." He was also lampooned in episodes of "Seinfeld."

In his first 23 seasons as owner, he changed managers 20 times, firing Billy Martin five times. He also changed the general manager of the team 11 times in 30 years. He was suspended as owner of the franchise twice.

"I will always remember George Steinbrenner as a passionate man, a tough boss, a true visionary, a great humanitarian, and a dear friend," said Joe Torre, hired by Steinbrenner to manage in 1996, in a statement. "I will be forever grateful that he trusted me with his Yankees for 12 years. My heart goes out to his entire family. He will be deeply missed in New York, Tampa and throughout the world of baseball. It's only fitting that he went out as a world champ."

Steinbrenner often was heralded behind the scenes for his tireless philanthropic work and the success of the franchise includes the launching of the acclaimed YES Network.

Bloomberg said flags in City Hall Plaza would be lowered to half-staff Tuesday in honor of Steinbrenner. And chances are Major League Baseball will feature a tribute to Steinbrenner at the All-Star Game Tuesday evening in Anaheim.

Fans also remembered Steinbrenner fondly for making the Yankees a winner.

In Times Square, Michael Banks, 42, of Selden, a 17-year veteran officer with the NYPD, said, "Steinbrenner was a stern, direct guy. He got to the point to get the job done."

Nick Falco, 30, of Ridgewood, N.J., wore a Yankees cap as he grabbed a meal in Times Square. "He was a visionary businessman and there was no one like him," he said. "He was a stalwart in the movement of sports capitalism."

Although a Yankees fan, Falco admitted some of Steinbrenner's actions rubbed him the wrong way. "He was a little too driven to win at any cost," he said.

But Falco also said he believed Steinbrenner had a deep respect and passion for the sport. "He is a great baseball lover and he would not do anything unthinkable to hurt the game or his team."

With Jim Baumbach and Gary Dymski

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