Sadly, on Tuesday we heard the news that “The Boss”, George Steinbrenner, had died of a heart attack. With him gone, there is a bit of a void in the baseball world. Looking at some of the things he did while the owner of the Yankees:
- He won 7 World Championships (1977, 1978, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2009)
- He won 11 American League Championships (1976-1978, 1981, 1996, 1998-2001, 2003, 2009)
- The Yankees made the playoffs 19 times, including 13 times in a row from 1995-2007
The on the field success clearly stands out, as he was the most successful since he purchased the team in 1973 from CBS. The changes he brought to the landscape of baseball, and the overall larger than life character that he became in the biggest city just lends further to the story.
As an Athletics fan, I have (and continue to) be unhappy every time I see the Yankees go out and sign some free agent to a massive contract. Steinbrenner’s willingness to spend any amount of money to bring in the top talent, while potentially bad for small market teams like my Athletics, has overall increased the amount of money that is available to ALL players on ALL teams, as other teams rush to compete.
The biggest things, to me, that Steinbrenner has done for baseball are three-fold:
- He has created a global brand in the Yankees, with very specific ideals and goals that are known by all who encounter it.
- He has created a massive money-making empire out of a baseball team, including the YES network and new Yankee Stadium.
- He has forced MLB and the other 29 teams to adapt to the business practices of the Yankees, including revenue sharing, payroll taxes, and regional sports networks.
It has come to pass, over time, that the first team that the casual baseball fan has heard of is the New York Yankees. The team is constantly in the news, and not always for good things. Over his years of ownerships, he has created a mystique of what it is to be a Yankee, and what is expected of anyone who wishes to wear the uniform of the most powerful team in MLB. Clearly, some of the things that have come with that haven’t always been well received (see the grooming rules). But more than any other team in professional sports, the Yankees are known to clearly stand for very specific things and there is a very specific image that is in everyone’s mind when you discuss them.
By reaching out to the legends of old, he has helped to mesh the current version of the organization with the championship teams of the past, and retain some of that mystique. The Yankees have probably the richest history of any team in the Majors, and Steinbrenner did well to not only reach out to the old-timers, but also help to build their own legends. The Yankees are one of the few teams to have multiple players who have played 10+ seasons with the same organization, with Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada all having been with the team nearly 15 years each.
The organization has consistently been unafraid to spend money in the hopes of making money while also winning. It is extremely well known that the Yankees consistently will outspend any team in the league if it suits them. Currently, 4 of the 6 highest total contracts of all time have been paid in at least some portion by the Yankees, and annually it seems that the largest contracts are being given out by the Yankees. But they have taken a team that in 1973 that drew about 1.2 million in attendance to a team which consistently draws between 3.7 and 4 million fans per season, with a brand new stadium that allows them to charge more per seat than any other team in the league. They have created the YES network, a network which specializes in broadcasting Yankee games and was one of the first of its kind. According to Forbes’ most recent MLB survey, the Yankees are estimated to be worth approximately $1.6 Billion dollars.
By showing a willingness to outspend other teams, the Yankees have forced an overall expansion of the knowledge base used by organizations to help evaluate players. With Steinbrenner and the Yankees being so willing to clearly spend amounts of money that many teams simply cannot consider, other organizations were required to begin looking for other things that the Yankees may have missed. As a result, strategies like Moneyball and other modifications of it helped other teams to compete with the Yankees. In addition, the sheer amount of difference in the amount of payroll spent between the Yankees and the other teams forced the league to institute rules regarding revenue sharing and payroll taxation which helped to allow other teams to benefit from the success that the Yankees had.
Over the years, Steinbrenner adapted from the owner who had his hands in every single aspect of the organization, sometimes to the detriment of the success on the field, to become the elder statesman of the organization, content to bring in the right people to do the jobs, hold them accountable to do the job they were brought in for, and give them all the resources that they need to accomplish the job. As time has progressed, the Yankees have actually become more of a scary thing to the other 29 teams, as they now use their money to not only buy the top free agents, but also to keep their best developed players and find new ones. No one wanted to win more, and the goals he and the organization had were always the same: win, now and in the future.
While the hatred of the Yankees remains, the respect for George Steinbrenner and what he has been able to accomplish with both the team and in general is unending. Through his actions and his business dealings, he has not only made the Yankees an excellent organization, he has forced the rest of the 29 teams in the league to improve to keep up with the Yankees as well. And for that, a great deal of gratitude.