The news is everywhere now. George Steinbrenner has died.
My spiritual beliefs are, at best, conflicted, but I comfort myself with the idea of a great Baseball Valhalla in which all of those who made their mark on the game — for better and for worse — and have since passed now reside. I picture a nice calm, composed and orderly person working the front of the room. Maybe Branch Rickey. He makes sure no one gets too loud and everyone is sitting at the right table.
That man’s world changed this morning, because Big Stein just opened the door, demanded a seat near the stage, started ordering stuff that’s not on the menu and slipped a twenty to the bandleader to play something with some pep.
In so doing he’d only be keeping true to form. As we’ll hear over and over again in the coming days, George Steinbrenner changed everything about baseball. He did so without apology. He did so for one simple reason: because he wanted to win. He was greedy for victory and glory, and in saying so I don’t think I’m saying anything with which he would disagree. He bought a sports team. The object of sports is to win. Anyone not greedy for such a thing got into the business for the wrong reasons.
I’m not a believer in whitewashing things when someone dies because the last thing we should be doing when we lose someone is telling lies that push their true essence further away from us. To ignore the unpleasant facts — that Steinbrenner was pain in the ass; that his ethics left much to be desired; that for a good decade there he did more to impede the Yankees’ on-the-field success than he did to help it — would be to lose the man a second time, first in body then in spirit. He was what he was.
And what he was, contrary to what many people have said for so many years, was good for the game of baseball. For decades before his arrival on the scene — and for some time afterwards, actually — baseball was a boy’s club of collusion and gentleman’s agreements that did far more harm than good. George Steinbrenner was no gentleman, thank God, because if he was there’s a good chance that players would still be making terrible money and monied old blue-bloods would be agreeing who should play where, to the competitive detriment of the game.
Steinbrenner wasn’t a point man on free agency, but if it wasn’t for him it may very well have been a different beast. It was Steinbrenner who gave Catfish Hunter that million dollar deal when Charlie O. Finely frittered away his monopolistic rights on Hunter’s contract. It was Steinbrenner who went after Reggie Jackson, making one of free agency’s first big splashes. It was Steinbrenner’s money and willingness to use it that caused the other owners to launch a collusion scheme in the 80s that ended up busting the free market open wider for the players in the long run than might have otherwise happened. Steinbrenner wasn’t a saint here — he grudgingly went along with collusion — but he was certainly a prime actor in forming the current free and, in my opinion anyway, fair market labor faces today, and that’s been good for the game overall.
And of course his impact on the Yankees is incalculable. Books have been written about what Steinbrenner meant to the Yankees and what the Yankees mean to baseball. Many of us chafe at their hegemony, but baseball in the 20th and early 21st centuries cannot be understood without reference to that team, and while there was a brief ten or eleven year respite in the 60s and 70s, most of us living today came to baseball in a Yankees-dominated world in one form or another. We may not love baseball because of that, but it certainly hasn’t prevented us from loving it either, no matter how much we grouse.
But there’s plenty of time to reflect on his objective legacy, and I’m sure we’ll be doing that more as the day goes on. In the meantime, we should all just reflect on the force of nature that was George Steinbrenner. The flair. Flair which, truth be told, I figured would have had him dying on the eve of the seventh game of the World Series.
Or maybe on Opening Day. But All-Star day is pretty good too, as
far as these things go.
“Waiter! Keep that shrimp cocktail coming! Don’t you know who I AM!”
Yes, we do Mr. Steinbrenner. Yes we do.