Yankees Owner George Steinbrenner Dies At 80

Longtime New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died Tuesday. He took a flagging franchise and built it into the most powerful in baseball — and made a lot of waves along the way.

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During his time as owner of the New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner's team won a lot: 16 America League East titles, 11 AL pennants and 7 World Series championships. That made Steinbrenner an icon, loathed by opponents, loathed and loved by Yankee fans. Well, George Steinbrenner died this morning after a heart attack. He was 80 years old.

NPR's Mike Pesca has this look back at his life.

MIKE PESCA: Baseball nicknames sometimes are accurate, Mordecai Brown did have three fingers - sometimes not, Phenomenal Smith never actually had a winning season. Look instead to quantity. It seems the more nicknames you have, the more important you are.

George Steinbrenner was called The Boss, The Kaiser, King George and, as fictionalized on "Seinfeld," Big Stein. He might not have been the richest man to own a sports team, but he almost certainly derived greater riches from his team than any person in history.

The singular trait that set him apart, according to Paul O'Neill, who won four World Series with the Yankees, was Steinbrenner's competitiveness.

Mr. PAUL O'NEILL (Former Baseball Player): I've never played for anybody that felt like, you know, one of your teammates as far as competing to win. You know, I had all the respect in the world for him because I knew that he went in to win as bad as I did, and it wasn't a business to him. It was a challenge to win.

PESCA: Steinbrenner was born on the Fourth of July in Rocky River, Ohio. His father, Henry, was one tough German, in Steinbrenner's words. The young George was the only boy in grade school made to wear a coat and tie. Henry Steinbrenner's wealth in the shipping business bailed out the young George when an early investment in the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League went belly-up.

But George, an athlete and an assistant college football coach, knew he was meant to parlay shipping success into sports ownership. In 1973, he bought the Yankees for $10 million. The team is worth over a billion today.

To get there, Steinbrenner changed managers like some people changed socks and seemed to hold both in similar regard. He hired and fired Billy Martin five times. They made a beer commercial about it.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Mr. GEORGE STEINBRENNER (Former Owner of the New York Yankees): The best thing is it tastes so great.

Mr. BILLY MARTIN (Former Professional Baseball Coach): No, George, the best thing is less filling.

Mr. STEINBRENNER: No, Bill, it tastes great.

Mr. MARTIN: Less filling, George.

Mr. STEINBRENNER: Billy, it tastes great.

Mr. MARTIN: Less filling, George.

PESCA: Martin lost that argument, too. In the 1970s, the Yankees won and brawled their way to two World Series titles and the nickname The Bronx Zoo. Steinbrenner was proudly meddlesome, he told "60 Minutes" in 1987.

(Soundbite of television program, "60 Minutes")

Mr. STEINBRENNER: Isn't that funny, I don't really care whether they like me. I'd like them to respect me, and sometimes that doesn't happen. What I try to do is instill a sense of discipline in my players, a mental toughness and a discipline.

PESCA: In that interview, Steinbrenner boasted that he was a bad loser. The problem was his team began giving him plenty of practice, losing seasons from '89 to '92. And in the middle of it, Steinbrenner was banned from baseball for hiring a bumbling gambler to try to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. It was actually his second ban, the first for illegal campaign contributions to the 1972 Richard Nixon re-election campaign.

But upon his return in 1993, Steinbrenner had either mellowed or was smart enough to start trusting his underlings. Paul O'Neill remembers the boss offering support to a Yankee second baseman whose argument with an umpire led to a playoff loss.

Mr. O'NEILL: I can think of, you know, his intensity, and that was sitting right by the dugout in Fenway Park during the playoffs. And I can also think of he consoling Chuck Knoblauch at the end of a game that, you know, he made that play against Cleveland in the playoffs.

So there were two sides of George that, you know, only the public saw the intense side.

PESCA: The Yankees would win four championships from '96 through 2000 and appear in two of the next three. By then, Steinbrenner's health began to fail. Last year, he attended the first two games of the World Series at Yankee Stadium but was not there when they clinched in Game Six.

His son Hal has taken on the title of Yankee general partner. His other son, Hank, has taken on his father's role of landing on the sports pages with digs at opponents and challenges to Yankee players.

Steinbrenner is also survived by his wife, two daughters and 13 grandchildren. He was 80 years old.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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