George Steinbrenner’s death last week sparked an instant revision of his legacy. The root of baseball evil became a cuddly rascal who “just wanted to win.” Had [EDIT: Robert Mugabe] died of natural causes on a slow news day he would have “just wanted to make [EDIT: Zimbabwe] great.” Steinbrenner’s passing inspired calls for hall of fame induction and even castigation for the eventual oil smearing being posthumous, but does baseball’s most controversial owner in history really belong? It depends on how you define the hall.
Steinbrenner’s importance to baseball is obvious. He’s the sport’s most influential owner. He revolutionized the business side of the game. He created the YES Network and his own ballpark services company. He signed lucrative deals with companies, such as Adidas, and he maximized the club’s earning potential, building the Yankees into the world’s most lucrative sports brand. Worth $8.8 million when Steinbrenner headed a group that purchased the team in 1973, the New York Yankees are now worth more than $1.6 billion.
Crucially, Steinbrenner poured those earnings back into the Yankees’ payroll. From free agency’s inception in 1974, when the Boss paid a then outlandish $2.85 million over four years for Catfish Hunter, the Yankees have been at the forefront, willing to spend whatever it took to improve the team. Even if some of the attempts were misguided, they were successful. Except for the nadir from 1989 to 1992, the Yankees have been remarkably competitive in Steinbrenner hands.
The strategy has worked, but should we commend him for it? The Yankees spending has skewed baseball’s competitive balance (or extended the skew into the draft era supposed to rectify it). The resultant arms race has prevented all but a few teams from competing consistently and keeping the star players they produce. MLB enacted revenue-sharing rules, which for years only affected the Yankees significantly.
Baseball has profited from the trend toward corporatism, but become far less accessible. Steinbrenner’s revolution led to the $40 baseball cap, World Series games starting after nine on the East Coast and the All-Star Game counting. In many cities baseball has, because of expense, gone from reasonably-priced entertainment to a once-a-year special occasion. Steinbrenner’s enduring mausoleum, New Yankee Stadium, is fitting. It’s sterile, soulless and inaccessible to the financial mortals whose tax money paid for its construction.
Steinbrenner was influential, but his candidacy ultimately rests on winning, specifically the Yankees’ four World Series wins from 1996 to 2000. Yankees fans gave the announcement of his 1990 suspension a standing ovation. He as no hall of famer at that point. It was the period after his 1993 return that cemented his legacy. However this was also the period (before his illness) where he had the least involvement with the team.
Gene Michael and the baseball people ruled in the early 1990s. The team did not trade Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte for the equivalent of Ken Phelps. They did not outmuscle the Mets for Bobby Bonilla. They built the nucleus of a championship teams. Steinbrenner wrote the checks, but should he be rewarded when his main contribution was not interfering?
Steinbrenner’s two lengthy suspensions, however mitigated by time, should be a factor. The illegal campaign payments and obstruction of justice charges are perhaps irrelevant, but the Winfield incident is not. Steinbrenner paid a gambler $40,000 to provide him with dirt to use against Dave Winfield, whose baseball related offenses were being the players union rep and forcing Steinbrenner to pay the money he was legally obligated to pay Winfield’s foundation. He wasn’t always a kind grandfather
The standards for electing an owner are a bit nebulous. Though, if inveterate racist Tom Yawkey was the first elected there apparently are none.
If the Hall of Fame is a history museum, Steinbrenner belongs (as do Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds). If it has a mission to uphold the ideals of the sport, the question becomes more thorny. George Steinbrenner was a great story and great for the Yankees, but that does not mean he was great for baseball.
[Photo via Getty]