Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? George Steinbrenner

Claim to fame: Memorably autocratic owner of the New York Yankees won seven World Series titles after buying the team in 1973. Set a standard for excellence in New York where even a finish in the divisional playoffs could spell doom for a manager. Was death on facial hair, even if it killed Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi as we know them. Inspired characterizations on Seinfeld.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Steinbrenner can be enshrined by the Veterans Committee as an executive.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? This column was prompted by a July 13 piece by Wallace Matthews on arguing for a plaque in Cooperstown for Steinbrenner, who died last week at 80. Matthews referenced the upcoming Hall of Fame inductions for Andre Dawson, Doug Harvey, and Whitey Herzog, calling them all deserving inductees. Matthews added:

But I defy anyone, [New York Yankees] lovers and haters alike, to make the case that any one of them — or, in fact, all three combined — made a bigger impact on Major League Baseball than George M. Steinbrenner III.

It’s a bold statement, and I’m not sure how much I agree with where it leads. Personally, I think the abrogation of the Reserve Clause in December 1975 did more to help the Yankees return to prominence than anything Steinbrenner did. Note that after winning 83 games and finishing third in 1975, the Yankees capitalized on their sudden ability to stockpile high-priced free agents like Reggie Jackson by appearing in the next three World Series, winning two of them.

It should be noted, too, that after this return to prominence, the Yankees sucked for the better part of 20 years before rising again in the mid-1990s. Why isn’t Steinbrenner faulted for that? Why isn’t he dinged for repeatedly firing Billy Martin or alienating players like Dave Winfield? That did more to cripple the Yankees for a long time than help them.

Don’t get me wrong, Steinbrenner could have been Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner who ran his basketball team aground by refusing to support a large payroll, even though he was making good profits. Steinbrenner did his job as competently as any owner of a major market sports franchise should do. But that hardly places him in the pantheon. Steinbrenner was a character, no doubt, but then, so was Marge Schott.

I would induct two executives before Steinbrenner, and Matthews references both of them in his piece. They are:

  • Marvin Miller: I wrote in December about the shame of the Veterans Committee failing to induct Miller, the former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association who led the charge to overturn the Reserve Clause. As Matthews notes, Miller fell two votes shy of the Hall of Fame last year, failing to garner much support from league executives on the committee. Miller’s 93 and will hopefully be enshrined in his lifetime, but I wouldn’t count on it.
  • Colonel Jacob Ruppert: Owned the Yankees from 1915 until his death in 1939, winning as many World Series as Steinbrenner, with seven and doing it in over ten fewer years on the job. More importantly, Ruppert helped orchestrate the purchase of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox in 1920, which did more to change New York — and baseball — than anything anyone’s done before or since.

Still, as I wrote in my piece on Miller, I’m not even wild on enshrining Ruppert. With Babe Ruth under my employ, I’m pretty sure I could have won some World Series titles. Really, what’s so hard about being an owner?

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.