They dedicated a monument to George Steinbrenner this week in monument park in the new Yankee Stadium, the Yankee’s Valhalla of heroes. Steinbrenner’s tablet was placed in the center of the area, and at about 1,500 pounds dominates the other monuments, twice the size of those afforded such minor baseball immortals as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. Perhaps this is only fair. The old Yankee Stadium was the house that Ruth built. It was also the house that Steinbrenner demolished, and if the new stadium has an “only begetter” it is George Steinbrenner.
When Steinbrenner passed away this July the eulogies set some sort of record for maudlin insincerity. Steinbrenner was, of course, a greedy and avaricious man, a bully and a tyrant, who used abused his position of authority to abuse his underlings mercilessly, occasionally appeasing his bad conscience by acts of sporadic generosity. It is the very definition of a paternalist, who treats people like dirt, demands loyalty, and then wants all to be forgiven because he throws his peons a Christmas party.
He was lucky enough to have purchased the Yankees in 1973 when the team and all of baseball was in a trough, and he rode the upturn of the market to his fame and fortune, and it would have more or less turned out identically, if one may play a counterfactual hunch, if Steinbrenner had remained in Cleveland or Tampa.
His baseball prowess was greatly exaggerated. He was the first owner to really understand the changed terrain of baseball after free agency, and he soon acquired some of the prized properties, like Catfish Hunter, Goose Gossage, and of course Reggie Jackson, and they led the Yankees to victories in the 77 and 78 World Series.
But other teams soon caught up, and Steinbrenner spent the next decade and a half acting as his own general manager, bullying his staff into trading away prospect after prospect for over the hill stars entering the downward inclines of their careers.
The turning point came in 1990 and 1991 he was kept out of baseball for trying to spy on Dave Winfield, and in the interim, his baseball people, loosed from his tyranny, started to make their own decisions, and cultivated a crop of prospects such as Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter that formed the core of the great turn of the 21st century teams, while Steinbrenner, happily for all, largely stayed on the sidelines.
But his arrogance remained undimmed and as always, unearned. Any boss who wants to be called “the boss” is only interested in being the Pharaoh of a land of prostrate sycophants. What is most disturbing about the legend of Steinbrenner is that it fits sp neatly with recent trends in American culture, the valorizing of the entrepreneur to such an extent that it reduces workers to insignificance, and the belief that leadership, with all of its authoritarian resonances, rather than collaboration of equals is the way to get things done. I suppose Steinbrenner really thought the Yankees were an extension of him, and that he was the most important Yankee of them all, the Babe not excepted.
To me his monument will always not be the new plaque, or the New Yankee Stadium itself, a $2 billion tribute to his vanity, an unnecessary boondoggle that New Yorkers will be paying for until the Yankees decide its time to build a third Bronx stadia, but the reality that the most famous sporting venue in all of the United States, one at which, as a Bronx inductee into the cult of Mickey Mantle I worshipped at with all of my youthful fervor by the age of six, has been reduced, by Steinbrenner’s whim and a snap of his fingers, to a rubble strewn future parking lot.