Stop Romanticizing George Steinbrenner’s Ownership: “The Boss” Does Not Belong in Cooperstown

“Mr. Steinbrenner’s team of lawyers has also raised assorted objections to the procedures employed  . . . .  I will not belabor the point other than to state that Mr. Steinbrenner has been afforded a full and fair opportunity to present to me orally and in writing his views and testimony, all of which I have considered with an open mind.  In my view, Mr. Steinbrenner’s dilemma is not with the procedures I have utilized, but with his inability to rewrite history.”

Francis T. Vincent, Jr., Commissioner of Baseball, July 30, 1990

On Monday, the Hall of Fame Expansion Era Committee unanimously elected three new members to the Baseball Hall of Fame:  managers Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, and Joe Torre.

However, former Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who was under consideration for the second time, was not elected.  “The Boss” received fewer than six votes, which is less than half of the twelve needed for entry into Cooperstown.

Upon hearing the results, many people – from bloggers to journalists to Joe Torre – expressed their belief that Steinbrenner should have been elected to the Hall of Fame.   Phrases such as “snubbed” “ridiculous,” and “disappointment” have been used to describe the Committee’s decision.

According to Andrew Marchand of ESPN, Yankees president Randy Levine went so far as to call the failure to elect Steinbrenner a mistake:

“I think it was a mistake.  . . .  I think there is no doubt that George Steinbrenner was one of the greatest figures in the history of baseball.  He, more than anybody, deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.  I fully expect he will be one day.”

It appears that, much like George Steinbrenner in 1990, many people are attempting to rewrite history because an objective review of George Steinbrenner’s time as owner of the Yankees crystalizes the conclusion that he should not be elected to the Hall of Fame.

Although most fans know that Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball on two separate occasions (November 27, 1974 – March 1, 1976 and July 30, 1990 – March 1, 1993), very few fully understand the magnitude of Steinbrenner’s transgressions.

Within fifteen months of purchasing the Yankees, Steinbrenner was indicted on fifteen criminal counts stemming from illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign.  In August 1974, Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski dropped fourteen of the counts in exchange for Steinbrenner pleading guilty to one count of illegally conspiring to funnel corporate funds to political campaigns.

Then, during the investigation, Steinbrenner attempted to cover-up his wrongdoing by instructing his employees to lie to the FBI and to the grand jury, which resulted in Steinbrenner pleading guilty to obstructing justice.  Commissioner Bowie Kuhn promptly suspended Steinbrenner from baseball for two years (although the suspension was eventually reduced by nine months, allowing him to return for the start of the 1976 season).

As bad as Steinbrenner’s felony conviction and obstruction of justice charge may appear, the scenario that led to his second suspension was even more unscrupulous.

Dave Winfield’s contract contained a clause requiring the Yankees to pay his charity, the Winfield Foundation, $300,000.  When, in 1989, the money was not paid, Winfield sued Steinbrenner.  In retaliation, Steinbrenner paid Howard Spira, a known gambler with admitted ties to organized crime, $40,000 to spy on Winfield, with the ultimate goal of smearing Winfield.

To be clear:  an owner paid a known gambler with ties to the mob to dig up dirt on one of his own ballplayers.

Commissioner Fay Vincent found Steinbrenner’s actions “to be serious instances of misconduct,” and he ultimately banned Steinbrenner from day-to-day operations of the Yankees for life (although the ban was later reduced to two years).

In the history of baseball, only three other owners have been banned:  Horace Fogel, William D. Cox, and Marge Schott.  Fogel, who owned the Phillies from 1909 to 1912, was banned after making numerous unfounded accusations about game fixing and the impropriety of the umpires.  Cox, also an owner of the Phillies, was banned for life in 1943 for betting on his team’s games.  Schott was banned after making repeated ethnic and homophobic slurs.  (She was later reinstated just prior to resigning as owner of the Reds.)  Being associated with such luminaries as Fogel, Cox, and Schott is certainly not a credential to support admission to the Hall of Fame.

Probably the biggest argument in support of Steinbrenner’s admission to the Hall of Fame is the amount of success the Yankee franchise had under his watch:  7 World Championships and 11 Pennants.  In a vacuum, this does appear impressive.  But, how much of that success should be attributed to Steinbrenner?

The Yankees went to the World Series in 1976 and won the World Series in 1977 and 1978.  While Steinbrenner was the man in charge when the team traded for Lou Piniella and Chris Chambliss and signed Reggie Jackson (who was certainly vital to the team’s success), the remaining key players on those championship teams were either part of the organization before Steinbrenner’s arrival (Ron Guidry, Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, Roy White, Sparky Lyle, Ken Clay) or were acquired while Steinbrenner was suspended (Willie Randolph, Ed Figueroa, and Catfish Hunter).

Arguably, Steinbrenner’s greatest contribution to the success of the Yankees was getting suspended in 1990, which allowed General Manager Gene Michael to cultivate and protect the team’s best young players.  The core players who made up the backbone of those championship teams were drafted (Derek Jeter), developed (Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams), and traded for (Paul O’Neill) in the Boss’s absence.

Without Steinbrenner at the helm, the team’s culture was allowed to change.  Instead of trading away the best young prospects for aging veterans, which is what the team seemed to do throughout the 1980s, the Yankees allowed their prospects to blossom into stars.

Granted, George Steinbrenner’s willingness to open his wallet to acquire free agents (Joe Girardi, Wade Boggs) or to trade for players (Cecil Fielder, Chuck Knoblauch) certainly helped, but there is no denying that the seeds for those championships were planted during Steinbrenner’s time away.

For almost thirty-five years, Steinbrenner was baseball’s most recognizable owner.  Steinbrenner was so well-known that he even hosted Saturday Night Live and appeared as a character on Seinfeld.  His willingness to pay for high-priced free agents will live in infamy, and Steinbrenner does deserve credit for pioneering the use of regional sports networks.

It is undeniable that any discussion of baseball in the last three decades of the 20th Century will include Steinbrenner.   But, just because a history of baseball would be incomplete without talking about a certain individual, it does not follow that the honor of being enshrined in Cooperstown is required.  (See Shoeless Joe Jackson, Pete Rose, Rafael Palmiero, Sammy Sosa, Marge Schott.)

A person’s legacy and contribution to the game of baseball must be assessed by considering the totality of that person’s career.  Given his multiple suspensions involving dubious ethics and the realization that his contributions to the team’s success during his ownership may be somewhat overstated, George Steinbrenner simply falls short of the Hall of Fame.

In his written decision in 1990, Fay Vincent characterized George Steinbrenner’s testimony as “an attempt to force explanations in hindsight onto discomforting facts.”  Anyone advocating for Steinbrenner to be inducted into the Hall of Fame is doing the exact same thing.