On this day in 2010, George Steinbrenner, the larger-than-life, longtime owner of the New York Yankees, who re-established the team as one of baseball’s most successful franchises, dies of a heart attack at age 80 in Tampa, Florida. Under Steinbrenner, who owned the team from 1973 until his death, the Yankees won seven World Series championships and 11 American League pennants. Nicknamed “the Boss,” the influential, demanding and controversial owner also built the Yankees into baseball’s first billion-dollar team.
George Michael Steinbrenner III was born on July 4, 1930, and raised in Bay Village, Ohio, near Cleveland. After graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1952, he served in the Air Force, earned a master’s degree in physical education from Ohio State University and did brief stints as an assistant college football coach at Northwestern and Purdue. In 1957, Steinbrenner joined his family’s Great Lakes shipping business and went on to grow it substantially. In the early 1960s, he became an owner of the short-lived Cleveland Pipers professional basketball team, and later invested in horse racing and Broadway shows, among other ventures.
In 1973, Steinbrenner headed an investment group that bought the Yankees for less than $10 million. (At the time of his death, the team was worth an estimated $1.6 billion.) Although he initially promised to be a hands-off owner and “stick to building ships,” Steinbrenner soon became heavily involved in running the team, even dictating the length of his players’ hair and sometimes directing post-game traffic outside Yankee Stadium. He had contentious relationships with a number of his players and staff, and famously hired and fired manager Billy Martin five times. Steinbrenner himself was suspended from the sport twice–first, in 1974, after pleading guilty to making illegal corporate contributions to President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, and a second time, in 1990, for paying a small-time gambler to dig up damaging information about Yankee outfielder Dave Winfield, with whom Steinbrenner was feuding. Beyond baseball, Steinbrenner became a pop-culture figure, hosting “Saturday Night Live” and being portrayed as a recurring character on “Seinfeld.”
When Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees, the team was struggling and hadn’t won a World Series since 1962. He began spending record-breaking sums to acquire the game’s top players and soon got results: the Bronx Bombers won the World Series in 1977 and 1978, and again in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. Steinbrenner and the Yankees also raked in millions from lucrative licensing and marketing deals. However, the Yankees’ long-term dominance and colossal payroll earned them detractors, who charged Steinbrenner with “buying” championships and driving up salaries (and ticket prices) across the sport. In an effort to level the playing field for teams with fewer financial resources, Major League Baseball in 2002 instituted a luxury tax in which teams whose payroll goes over a certain threshold are taxed on the excess amount.
In 2009, the Yankees won their 27th World Series–more than any other team in baseball history. By then, Steinbrenner’s health was in decline and he had ceded day-to-day management of the team to his sons Hal and Hank. Following Steinbrenner’s July 13, 2010, death, baseball commissioner Bud Selig said, “He was and always will be as much of a New York Yankee as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and all of the other Yankee legends.”