In Defense of Steinbrenner


When the New York Yankees took the field for the opening game in Tokyo this past March 30, George Steinbrenner passed an important milestone: He has now owned the Yankees for a longer period than anyone else. (Colonel Jacob Ruppert and his family owned the team from 1915 until 1945.) That’s an awful long time for the fans of the most popular sports franchise in America to be conflicted, but 10 pennants have eased the burden.

It’s doubtful, though, that twice that many pennants would change the way most New York fans feel about Steinbrenner. Not “feel” as in “like”; hardly anyone likes George Steinbrenner, a fact that seems to matter little to him or the fans. He is, after all, a team owner, and no one, not even another team owner, is expected to like a team owner. What Yankee fans have never been quite able to decide is whether or not he’s one of us.

In the beginning, the insult most frequently hurled at Steinbrenner by New Yorkers was “carpetbagger,” the charge being that, like some late-19th-century robber baron, he used his family’s Cleveland shipbuilding money to purchase instant status as the Yankees’ principal owner. (Alex Belth, who hosts the Bronx Banter website, says his father always referred to Steinbrenner as goyim—i.e., not a New Yorker.) This was true. It was said that he bought the Yankees back to the top through the free-agent market using his personal fortune to outstrip the resources of the old baseball families (the phrase “the best team money can buy” was practically coined for him). This was also true. While the stuffed shirts who ran Major League Baseball tried to ignore the new era of free agency that began in 1976, Steinbrenner forced them to confront the game’s new economics. Behind his back, and sometimes to his face, they called him rude, aggressive, obnoxious, and bullying—all of which was true too.

What the baseball establishment seemed to understand from the beginning, even if New York did not, was that George Steinbrenner is a natural New Yorker.

The litany of Steinbrenner’s transgressions, from his illegal campaign contributions to Nixon to his two-year suspension for paying money for dirt on one of his own players to the brutalizing of employees like Yogi Berra (whom he fired just 16 games into the 1985 season), have filled books. But if Yogi can forgive George, why can’t we at least give him his due?

Steinbrenner wants to win, and more than that, he wants to win for us. Numerous times over the last three decades, he has clashed with owners and commissioners while asserting his right to spend our money to make the Yanks a better team. (Whether or not he has always been smart enough to do so is another question.) He was the first owner to understand how free agency would change the game; the only one, for several years, willing to pay the fair market value of a player; one of the few owners (according to former players’ union head Marvin Miller) to treat the players’ union with a modicum of respect; and, now, early in the 2000s, one of the few owners to openly battle baseball’s disturbing trend toward noncompetition.

Attendance is up sharply in big-league parks this season, but salaries are down just about everywhere except New York—the Bronx, New York, that is. The other American League teams aren’t even spending the welfare money they’re getting from the Yankees.

Economist Andrew Zimbalist, author of May the Best Team Win: Baseball Economics and Public Policy (2003), thinks that this season “the Yankees could be paying out as much as $75 million in revenue sharing and luxury tax [the penalty for exceeding the $120.5 million payroll ceiling].” By Zimbalist’s estimate, the Yankees began this season not knowing if they’d show a profit. That’s how much Steinbrenner wants to win.

It’s pretty much become an axiom in the sports press that Steinbrenner is hurting the game by spending the opposition into oblivion, which was the subject of an ESPN mock trial that aired the first week in April. (The “jury” voted 10-2 against the proposition.) Steinbrenner can never win against such accusations. If he signs a superstar to a long-term contract, he’s accused of “buying a playoff spot.” If he lets a superstar like Andy Pettitte get away, he’s roasted in the press for not spending enough.

Of course, this is nonsense; Major League Baseball, even without a salary cap, is every bit as competitive as professional football or basketball. In Zimbalist’s words, “Right now Major League Baseball is in the best possible situation: competitive teams in all divisions in all parts of the country and a contending team in New York to help attract the biggest audience. It couldn’t be working out better if they had designed this season from a blueprint.”

The burden of being the “contending team in New York,” of course, falls entirely on the Yankees. In the first two weeks of the season, the New York press was commending the Mets for giving the city (as the Times‘ Harvey Araton put it) “the more innocent feel of small-market fun while General Steinbrenner cracks the whip next door.” Ah, the innocent fun of the small market; at New York prices, we can enjoy the same kind of baseball produced in Cincinnati, Kansas City, and San Diego.

The Mets have, potentially, the same resources as the Yankees, but they make a player like top-shelf Vladimir Guerrero an offer he can’t accept and make no offer at all to baseball’s best player, Alex Rodriguez, then mumble about “producing more players from their farm system.” (As if you can’t spend the same amount of money on your farm system that you could have spent on free agents.)

Meanwhile, they cut their budget by one-third from last season while raising ticket prices. Some consumer advocates liken ticket-buying fans to stockholders; if that is true, would Mets fans have a potential lawsuit for fraud? What else would you call it when a business devalues the product while increasing the price?

The Mets are a New York team on a St. Louis budget, or at least they would be if Wilpon would match the Cardinals’ payroll by spending an additional $2 million. Say what you will about Steinbrenner, but don’t accuse him of being afraid to invest in his own business. That’s your money he’s spending, Yankee fans, the money that you gave him. You want to win, he wants to win for you. This is New York; it ought to cost more to make it here than to make it anywhere.

Of course George Steinbrenner is a New Yorker. The only question is why it has taken so long for us to realize what the rest of baseball knew from the beginning.

Allen Barra’s most recent book is Brushbacks and Knockdowns: The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press).