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.

10 Replies to “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? George Steinbrenner”

  1. If part of the hall is to memorialize, if not honor those whose life and work changed the landscape of the game, then the Boss certainly qualifies. No owner has ever been more committed to winning for his fans and to build a winning team year after year than he was. While other owners took their profits, George poured them back into improving his team. No one contributed more to the betterment of players salaries and their ability to make the most of their earning power during their short careers.
    What’s forgotten too by his compulsive desire to win is that he was a people person who was loyal to his players and fans as well as quietly contributing to numerous charities and in helping others in need. Nor should we overlook the fact that he had a sense of humor and could laugh along with us at jokes that were made of him.
    If he’s not elected to the hall, it’s not because he’s undeserving. It’s because his style and personality were too big to be contained in one small place.

  2. While I don’t feel strongly about it either way, I guess I’m leaning towards “Yes.” Had I not been a resident of the Bronx during Steinbrenner’s real glory days, however, I’d probably feel differently.
    I do wish that I had kept my “Billy’s Back!” t-shirt, though…

  3. Veeck is, Finley isn’t. I might enshrine Finley before Steinbrenner, too. Putting together a three-peat in Oakland was no easy feat.

    It’s funny, Finley and Steinbrenner have exactly opposite career trajectories. The end of the Reserve Clause destroyed Finley’s A’s and gave new life to Steinbrenner’s Yankees.

  4. Charlie O was one of the most creative, innovative, and imaginative of all baseball owners, one who took a moribund team that had done nothing for three decades and moved them to the west coast where he built a dynasty by being smarter, a better evaluator of talent, and a promoter who was able to do it all on the cheap. We can only wonder what kind of teams he might have assembled had he the luxury of being able to overspend or make a mistake in a player signing?

    At times, he out Veecked Bill with his half pennant porch, the sheep grazing on the hill behind the outfield fence, the ball girls, the softball colored uniforms, the DH, the designated runner, Charlie O the mule, playing the post season games at night and the mechanical rabbit that popped out of the ground to give the home plate umpire new balls. All were unheard of before. His teams were throw backs to an era of blue collar grinders who fought on the field almost as hard as they fought in the clubhouse.

    He understood too the advantage of free agency, where every year teams and players would be able to contract the best deal for themselves without the restrictions of the reserve clause or in taking the risk on a bad long term contract. It would certainly be a whole new ball game if there were no restrictions tying a player to one team for several years before being eligible for arbitration and then free agency.

    He was most certainly in a sense a visionary, far ahead of his time.

    Above all, he was colorful, unpredictable and you never knew what outrageous idea he’d be coming out with next, and how reasonable it would all seem to be looking back on it.

  5. Few people are old enough to remember the incredible frustrations of being a Yankee fan when George Steinbrenner decided he needed to control the Yanks on the field as well as in the office.

    I am a long-time New Yorker and saw how year after year Steinbrenner spent millions of dollars on some fine deals and then some disasters– Ken Phelps for one. But even in his smarter deals he did the utmost to undermine those players and drive them away only to have them find success elsewhere. Steinbrenner made a joke out of the childish and humiliating way he hired and fired managers. He was by far for almost 20 years the most hated man in NYC. He was only saved by the success of the front office and management team he hired in the 90’s most notably to Joe Torre– and also by that time he was severely restricted in his ability to handle the team. I think in many ways Steinbrenner did some great kindnesses to some people who worked for him in the Yankee office and in his business. But he was a big baby and overbearing boob as an owner for most of his active tenure with the Yanks. Very few people who lived through his nonsense would disagree.

    So, no Steinbrenner in the HOF. As others have said other owners are more deserving.

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