“Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.”
Those weren’t just the words sitting on a plaque on George Steinbrenner’s desk. They embodied the all-or-nothing, win-at-all-costs attitude that the Yankees’ late owner employed to turn a downtrodden baseball franchise into sports’ gold standard.
When Steinbrenner, who died Tuesday at age 80, bought the Yankees for a mere $10 million in 1973, he adopted a team 11 years removed from a championship and drawing fewer than 12,000 fans a game. Mantle, DiMaggio, Ford and Ruth were long gone, succeeded by journeymen and forgettable spare parts playing mediocre baseball in an aging, empty Bronx ballpark.
Sure, Steinbrenner turned his acquisition into “The Bronx Zoo,” complete with clubhouse rivalries (with Reggie Jackson always in the middle); Steinbrenner’s regular spot on newspaper back pages; and the ludicrous, repeated hiring and firing of manager Billy Martin. And, of course, The Boss was suspended by the league twice.
But what grew from that wreckage in the Bronx is a winning franchise worth $1.6 billion. Along with that is a $1.2 billion stadium, dubbed “The House That George Built,” and the team’s successful YES Network.
Steinbrenner actually bought the Yankees for less than what CBS paid in 1964, which is unheard of these days, according to Lee Igel, a sports management professor at NYU.
“The Yanks were nothing and he built them up,” Igel said. “It’s a total rags-to-riches story with a lot more money involved.”
Igel added that Steinbrenner was the first owner to truly see baseball as a business. “It’s not just owning the team and having fun with it,” Igel said. “There’s all the businesses that go around it.”
Most importantly, Steinbrenner injected winning back into a losing franchise in the form of seven championships and 11 American League pennants.
For George, that’s all that mattered — above money, fame and power.
“I die when we lose, just like they do,” he said in 1983, referring to Yankee fans.
Despite his well-chronicled faults, from his short temper to his impulsive decision making, perhaps the most enduring effect of his 37 years at the helm is instilling that same “can’t lose” attitude in the hearts of all Yankee fans.
In the seats of Yankee Stadium for 81-plus days a year, Steinbrenner’s legacy is alive and well.