x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

George Steinbrenner, the Boss who breathed the Yankees

For more than 30 years, as the principal owner of the New York Yankees baseball team, George Steinbrenner strode America's sporting stage like a colossus.

George Steinbrenner: "Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing."
George Steinbrenner: "Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing."

For more than 30 years, as the principal owner of the New York Yankees baseball team, George Steinbrenner, who has died aged 80, strode America's sporting stage like a colossus. He was known simply as The Boss. Between 1977 and 2009, the Yankees won seven World Series titles. Steinbrenner was fanatical, irascible, punctilious and tyrannical, much respected and widely loathed. Unsurprisingly, General Patton was his idol. He also kept a life size cardboard cut-out of John Wayne in his New York hotel suite.

One of New York's most famous sons, he was also credited with helping to revive the down-at-heel city in the 1970s. Born and raised in Ohio, George Michael Steinbrenner III was the only son of a sympathetic mother but a stern and disapproving ship-owning father, himself a track and field star. Young George claimed that what drove him was a desire to impress his father. "Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing. Breathing first, winning second," he said.

He was a good hurdler but his star did not shine as brightly as his father's, who had topped his class at MIT - George failed even to gain admission. Instead, he studied English at Williams College, Massachusetts. His senior thesis was, rather surprisingly, on Thomas Hardy's romantic heroines. He served in the US Air Force for two years before becoming a college football coach. In 1957, he joined the family firm. Sport remained a passion and in 1960, he led a group that bought the Cleveland Pipers basketball team.

He tried, and failed, to buy the Cleveland Indians, before turning his attention to the Yankees. The Yankees had declined since the golden days of Babe Ruth in the 1920s; they had not won a championship for a decade. In 1973, he convinced the chairman of CBS, William S Paley, to sell the Yankees for US$10 million (Dh37m), less than $200,000 of which was Steinbrenner's; yet by the end of the decade he had bought out all of his partners. His father said it was the first smart thing he'd ever done.

George III stated that he would not be active in day-to-day operations. It soon became obvious that he intended doing nothing else. The family firm had merged with American Shipbuilding in 1967, making George rich. He had divested himself of much of it and in 1993 the company filed for bankruptcy. Steinbrenner fought with his managers, his players, his partners and rivals. The Yankees had 11 general managers during Steinbrenner's reign and 23 managers in 20 seasons. He was twice banned from managing a team. The first resulted from illegal donations to Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign. This led to a fine and a two-year ban, later reduced to 15 months. One of Ronald Reagan's last acts as he left the White House was to pardon Steinbrenner.

The second ban came soon after, in 1990, following his paying $40,000 to a shifty gambler to reveal damaging information about a player in dispute. Consequently, Steinbrenner was absent in 1991 and 1992, but he bore no grudge against the commissioner who imposed the ban. Such was his fame that Steinbrenner's character appeared in 13 episodes of Seinfeld, as George Costanza's boss, although only seen from behind. George said of him: "No one knows what this guy's capable of; he fires people like it's a bodily function."

Steinbrenner led his rivals in taking advantage of developments in free agency. By 2009, the Yankees' payroll was $210 million, eclipsing all the others. Deals with the Madison Square Garden network and Adidas proved extremely lucrative. Forbes currently estimates the Yankees' worth at $1.6 billion. In 2009, the Yankees had a splendid new stadium and again won the World Series Championship. Steinbrenner once said: "I don't have heart attacks; I give them." He died of a coronary nine days after his 80th birthday on July 13. Born on July 4, 1930, he is survived by his wife, Joan Zieg, two sons and two daughters.

* The National