Before there was a Mark Cuban, there was George Steinbrenner.
Before there was a Jerry Jones, there was George Steinbrenner.
Before The Owner became a sports caricature, alongside The Superstar or The Crazed Fan, there was George Steinbrenner.
They won’t just bury a man at Steinbrenner’s funeral, they’ll bury a mold. It may now be commonplace for owners to scream, wave money or fire coaches at will, but it wasn’t always. It wasn’t before Steinbrenner. He took petulance and gave it a face, took power and gave it a fist, took impatience and gave it a home: Yankee Stadium.
Steinbrenner moved Behind The Scenes — where owners used to operate — to Front And Center. His business was front page news.
“When you’re a shipbuilder, nobody pays any attention to you,” he once famously said. “But when you own the New York Yankees . . . they do, and I love it.”
He loved it, all right. And he used it to create a stereotype. You see pieces of it in Jones of the Cowboys, in Dan Snyder of the Redskins, in Dan Gilbert of the Cavaliers — big money guys who don’t mind stealing the spotlight. Steinbrenner cut the cloth for all of them.
Oh, there were a few colorful owners before him. George Halas had the Bears and Walter O’Malley had the Dodgers and Bill Veeck had a few baseball teams and once sent a midget to the plate, but he was more P.T. Barnum than anything else.
Besides, sports history should be measured in pre-TV and post-TV divisions, and Steinbrenner bought the Yankees in 1973, just before TV was about to explode into cable.
And no one used TV better than The Boss.
Television was Steinbrenner’s personal treasure chest. With revenues from New York cable that no other team could match, Steinbrenner was not bound by the normal “How many tickets did you sell?” budget restraints.
He used his money advantage constantly. He inflated free agency into a monster. He saw how buying a team was faster than developing one, and he pounced. His first World Series title, in 1977, came after he purchased Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter — at the time, baseball’s most expensive free agents.
And like one of those vampires in “True Blood,” a taste created an insatiable appetite. He would do it again and again.
Steinbrenner became the Joneses of baseball; nobody could keep up. This season, he was spending $85 million on four infielders. That’s larger than most teams’ payrolls.
Steinbrenner was the original wallet waver. The money-is-no-object guy. That new billionaire with the New Jersey Nets, the Russian? He’s off the assembly line.
Steinbrenner threw the switch.
And then there’s the fame.
“Owning the Yankees,” Steinbrenner once said, “is like owning the Mona Lisa.”
Maybe. But it doesn’t mean you painted it. Still, this never stopped Steinbrenner from bullying into the spotlight. Owners didn’t used to be the first guys interviewed. Steinbrenner changed that. He was a ring in the three-ring circus. Reporters would run to George to get a quote about a slumping player, then run to the player for his response, then run back to George. He used the media to invent his own brand. The nickname “The Boss” was created with a smirk, but Steinbrenner embraced it like a Christmas present.
At his height, Steinbrenner was in more commercials than most of his players (remember the Miller Lite beer argument with Billy Martin?). He became an invisible character in “Seinfeld.” The brasher he acted, the more famous he became.
This tendency can be seen in sports owners today. Cuban had a reality show. Frank McCourt’s divorce is bigger news than his Dodgers. Last Sunday, on HBO’s “Entourage,” Jerry Jones offered agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) the chance at an NFL franchise.
“The L.A. Gold!” Ari gushed.
Naming the team after yourself? That’s got Steinbrenner in it. Appearing on a TV show? Steinbrenner. Every sports movie with the angry, double-chinned boss? Steinbrenner. Too-fat contracts? Firing managers? Winning at all costs? Steinbrenner. He once said the only thing more important than winning was “breathing.”
His last breath has been taken. But his legacy goes on — and not just in Yankees history books. George Steinbrenner created the modern sports owner, with all the stereotypes that come with it.
He did retain one quality unique to him: He bought the Yankees using just $100,000 of his own money, and he died with the team worth $1.6 billion.
That, in the end, is what other owners want to emulate the most.