NEW YORK— George Steinbrenner, who rebuilt the New York Yankees into a sports empire with a mix of bluster and big bucks that polarized fans all across America, died Tuesday. He had just celebrated his 80th birthday July 4.
Steinbrenner had a heart attack, was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, Fla., and died at about 6:30 a.m., a person close to the owner told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the team had not disclosed those details.
His death on the day of the All-Star game was the second in three days to rock the Yankees. Bob Sheppard, the team’s revered public address announcer from 1951-2007, died Sunday at 99.
For more than 30 years and through seven World Series championships, Steinbrenner lived up to his billing as "the Boss," a nickname he earned and clearly enjoyed as he ruled with an iron fist. While he lived in Tampa he was a staple on the front pages of New York newspapers.
"He was an incredible and charitable man," his family said in a statement. "He was a visionary and a giant in the world of sports. He took a great but struggling franchise and turned it into a champion again."
"The passing of George Steinbrenner marks the end of an era in New York City baseball history," rival Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon and Saul Katz said. "George was a larger than life figure and a force in the industry. The rise and success of his teams on the field and in the business marketplace under his leadership are a testament to his skill, drive, and determination."Steinbrenner was known for feuds, clashing with Yankees great Yogi Berra and hiring manager Billy Martin five times while repeatedly fighting with him. But as his health declined, Steinbrenner let sons Hal and Hank run more of the family business.
Steinbrenner was in fragile health for years, resulting in fewer public appearances and pronouncements. Yet he was the model of success: In addition to the World Series titles, the Yankees won 11 American League pennants and 16 AL East titles after his reign began in 1973.
"Few people have had a bigger impact on New York over the past four decades than George Steinbrenner," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement. "George had a deep love for New York, and his steely determination to succeed combined with his deep respect and appreciation for talent and hard work made him a quintessential New Yorker."
He appeared at the new Yankee Stadium just four times: for the 2009 opener, the first two games of last year’s World Series and this year’s home opener, when Derek Jeter and manager Joe Girardi went to his suite and personally delivered his seventh World Series ring.
"He was very emotional," said Hal Steinbrenner, his father’s successor as managing general partner.
Until the end, Steinbrenner demanded championships. He barbed Joe Torre during the 2007 AL playoffs, then let the popular manager leave after another loss in the opening round. The team responded last year by winning another title.
When Steinbrenner headed a group that bought the team Jan. 3, 1973, he promised absentee ownership. But it didn’t turn out that way.
Steinbrenner not only clashed with Berra for more than a decade but paid to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, deriding the future Hall of Famer as "Mr. May" in 1985 after poor performances. Berra’s wife, Carmen, said Tuesday her husband was at a golf event in Pennsylvania and was expected to comment later in the day.
While he liked to appear stern, Steinbrenner could poke fun at himself. He hosted "Saturday Night Live," clowned with Martin in a commercial and chuckled at his impersonation on "Seinfeld."
He gave millions to charity, often with one stipulation, that no one be told who made the donation.
The Yankees paid off for him, too, with their value increasing more than 100-fold from the $8.7 million net price his group paid in January 1973. He freely spent his money, shelling out huge amounts for Jeter, Reggie Jackson, Alex Rodriguez, Torre and others in hopes of yet another title.
"Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing," Steinbrenner was fond of saying. "Breathing first, winning next."
All along, he envisioned himself as a true Yankee Doodle Dandy. It was fitting: George Michael Steinbrenner III was born on the 4th of July, in 1930.
Steinbrenner’s sporting interests extended beyond baseball.
He was an assistant football coach at Northwestern and Purdue in the 1950s and was part of the group that bought the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League in the 1960s.
"A lot of people didn’t like him, but I liked him," former Yankee Tim Raines said. "He respected me as a player and I respected him for being the Boss. He always talked to me about his football days because he knew I played football."
Steinbrenner was a vice president of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1989-96 and entered six horses in the Kentucky Derby, failing to win with Steve’s Friend (1977), Eternal Prince (1985), Diligence (1996), Concerto (1997), Blue Burner (2002) and the 2005 favorite, Bellamy Road.
Steinbrenner negotiated a landmark $486 million, 12-year cable television contract with the Madison Square Garden Network in 1988 and launched the Yankees’ own YES Network for the 2002 season.
The Yankees later became the first team with a $200 million payroll, provoking anger and envy among other owners. After the 1982 season, Baltimore owner Edward Bennett Williams said Steinbrenner hoarded outfielders "like nuclear weapons."
Overall, he changed managers nearly two dozen times and got rid of more than a dozen general managers.
When Steinbrenner bought the Yankees, they had gone eight seasons without finishing in first place, their longest drought since Babe Ruth & Co. won the team’s first pennant in 1921.
Under Steinbrenner, the Yankees reached the World Series on 10 occasions and won three straight championships from 1998-2000. Those titles started a run in which the Yankees won the AL East crown every season through 2006.
"We’ve disagreed on more things than we agreed upon, but it never affected our personal relationship," commissioner Bud Selig said in 2005. "George has been a very charismatic, controversial owner. But look, he did what he set out to do — he restored the New York Yankees franchise."
Former AL president Gene Budig sometimes was on the wrong end of Steinbrenner’s barbs. After he left office, Budig maintained a friendship with him and even advocated Steinbrenner getting into the Hall of Fame.
Steinbrenner also had a soft side.
He sometimes read about high school athletes who had been injured and sent them money to go to college. He paid for the medical school expenses of Ron Karnaugh after the swimmer’s father died during the opening ceremony at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Steinbrenner kept older friends from his football days on the payroll, had a way of rehiring those he had once fired and liked to give second chances to people who had fallen from favor, such as Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden.
"I’m really 95 percent Mr. Rogers," Steinbrenner said as he approached his 75th birthday, "and only 5 percent Oscar the Grouch."
While Steinbrenner grew up in the Cleveland area as a Yankees fan, his first passion was football. He fondly recalled watching the Browns on cold winter days and many believe the NFL’s must-win-today mentality shaped how he approached all sports.
Steinbrenner was raised in a strict, no-nonsense household headed by his father, Henry.
The youngest of three children, Steinbrenner attended Culver Military Academy in Indiana. At Williams College, he was a track man and specialized in hurdles.
After that, he enlisted in the Air Force. Steinbrenner always was partial to the military and at Yankee Stadium, men and women in uniform were admitted free.
Following his discharge, he enrolled at Ohio State, pursuing a master’s degree in physical education. It was his intention to go into coaching, but after working at a high school in Columbus and at Purdue and Northwestern, he turned to the business world.
Steinbrenner married Elizabeth Zieg in 1956 and they had four children.
In 1963, Steinbrenner purchased Kinsman Transit Co., a fleet of lake ore carriers, from his family and built a thriving company. Four years later, Steinbrenner and associates took over American Shipbuilding and revitalized the company, helping annual revenues triple.
It was in Cleveland that Steinbrenner met veteran baseball executive Gabe Paul and became involved with the group that bought the Yankees. With 13 partners, Steinbrenner purchased the team from CBS Inc.
He clearly liked the status it gave him.
"When you’re a shipbuilder, nobody pays any attention to you," he said. "But when you own the New York Yankees ... they do, and I love it."
Steinbrenner once was asked his formula for success. He said: "Work as hard as you ask others to. Strive for what you believe is right, no matter the odds. Learn that mistakes can be the best teacher."
In addition to his sons, Steinbrenner is survived by his wife, Joan, daughters Jennifer and Jessica and 13 grandchildren.