Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Year One A.G. (Anno George)

Of course George Steinbrenner was going to upstage the All Star Game last night. He loomed over baseball for so much of his ownership of the Yankees, first as a hothead, then as the biggest spender in baseball, who used his financial resources to build and maintain an empire in the Bronx. Each of us knows what we think of Steinbrenner today, whether he’s regarded as the savior of a legacy, the scourge of small markets, or the national joke who couldn’t decide on a freaking manager (and couldn’t leave poor Billy Martin alone).

Rob Neyer points out today that Big George definitely got the beginning and end of his ownerships right. But there were some real bumpy spots in between. Indeed, there were warning signs right away that Steinbrenner wasn’t a typical owner. His first year suggests a cagey businessman, full of bluster and enthusiasm, who couldn’t stay out of his own way.

In 1973, the Yankees had become a mediocrity, thanks to the shortsighted ownership of CBS. Mike Burke, the CBS vice president in charge of the team had done nothing to maintain the Yankee hegemony of the 1920s-1960s, and the club was drawing fewer than 1,000,000 fans for the first time since World War II. The Mets had outdrawn the Yankees by more than 2 to 1. Tired of operating the club at a loss, and the mocking that came with their poor stewardship, CBS decided to sell off the Yankees to a group led by Steinbrenner in late 1972.

By mid-January 1973, the deal was done. Steinbrenner, then a Cleveland shipbuilder, and eleven other men split the $10 million price tag (that’s just $833,333 per man), and Steinbrenner moved in. He allowed Mike Burke to stay on, saying “we plan an absentee ownership as far as the Yankees are concerned. We aren’t going to pretend we’re something we’re not. I’ll stick to building ships.”

Of course, that’s not what happened. After just four months, Steinbrenner had decided that Burke wasn’t the right man to right the Yankees’ clipper, and sent him packing. Milton Richman, an editor with the UPI wire service, wrote, “Business wise, he did a wretched job, maybe one of the worst ever. How bad? …During Burke’s eight year stewardship as chairman of the board and president, the club lost between $10 and $11 million. That wasn’t merely a paper loss, that was hard coin of the realm, and no team in baseball history ever lost so much in a corresponding period.” Richman also suggests that Steinbrenner had not known just how bad the team’s financial situation was when he bought it, “For one thing, Steinbrenner had been told the Yankees had lost money but he had no idea to what extent.”

Richman then went on to praise the new owner further, “Steinbrenner is a completely honorable man, one who keeps his word. He leveled with Burke from the start and there wasn’t anything he did later that he didn’t tell Burke he would do in advance.” Of course, in just over a year later, Steinbrenner would be convicted for making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon’s presidential quest in 1972, so one wonders exactly how well Richman knew him. In any case, Burke was dismissed and Gabe Paul was brought in to run the club.

But while Richman was selling Steinbrenner as having been duped by Burke, The New York Times Red Smith saw a fox in the henhouse:
“Three seasons ago when automobiles and meat cost less than they do today, a Milwaukee group paid $10.5 million for the Seattle Pilots, a bankrupt baseball team with a one-year record of artistic, athletic, and financial failure. Since then the buyers have sunk more than three million dollars into the club and they are now in the bucket for a shade less than $14 million. They operate in a city of 750,000 with a club that, like the Missouri mule, has neither pride of parentage nor hope of prosperity. For ten million dollars Mike Burke and friends get a team with a half-century tradition of unmatched success, a territory with 15-million potential customers, and a promise that the city will spend at least $24 million on a playpen for them.”
Smith went on to praise Steinbrenner and his fellow owners for limiting their risk and for making the Yankees into a tax shelter, calling the deal “cozy.”

Steinbrenner himself quickly earned a reputation around the league. During the investigation into his donations the following year, Steinbrenner was called “tough” and “imposing,” and “a controversial influence on the American League team.” Manager Ralph Houk resigned after 1973, citing disagreements with Steinbrenner. It was the first of 20 managerial changes that would take place under Big George’s watch. George was blamed for it in the press:
“[Houk’s] resignation can be traced to the intrusion, if not the interference, of George Steinbrenner, the primary owner in the syndicate that purchased the Yankees early this year for $10 million….In his enthusiasm, Steinbrenner didn’t [know enough to let Lee MacPhail and Houk operate the team]. He sabotaged Houk’s authority in the clubhouse. Houk knew it, the players knew it. When the Yankees, with virtually no injuries, slumped, Houk was unable to recharge them, apparently because he was unable to recharge himself.”

Meanwhile, in his first year on the job, Steinbrenner continued to make waves. To replace Houk, Steinbrenner tried to hire Dick Williams from the A’s, signed him to a three-year contract, and went so far as to introduce him at a press conference. However, he did not receive permission from A’s owner Charlie Finley first. Finley at first flatly denied to allow the Yankees to interview his manager, but later declared he wouldn’t let Williams go without compensation. Outgoing AL President Joe Cronin voided the deal, though Williams managed for neither team to start 1974. Instead, the Yankees turned to Bill Virdon who declared, “I’m not concerned about Dick Williams.” George, however, was. “No, I can’t say we’ve abandoned the idea of signing Dick Williams. If he gets free, we’ll have to cross that bridged if we come to it.”

There were other gaffes, some of which went unreported (what Steinbrenner did to undermine Houk, for instance, isn’t clear from the newspaper accounts The Common Man read). Others were amusing (prematurely announcing a trade involving one of his pitchers who wasn’t actually involved in the deal). But all of them hint at the rocky future Steinbrenner would have with the Yankees. While it’s right, today of all days, to remember how many wonderful things he did for New York and the Yankees, it’s also entirely appropriate to remember what made him stand out so much in contrast to the rest of the game.

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