Steinbrenner's been out of the public eye for a few years, but we'll always have the memories — memories of one insane move or proclamation after another. Here's a look at some of his finest moments.
Born on July 4, Steinbrenner made his money in shipping, and invested it in turn in a failed basketball league and a series of failed Broadway shows; two things you can't throw money at.
"I haven't always made the right decisions," he would say later, probably not believing a word of it.
He purchased the Yankees at the nadir of their competitiveness in 1973 for $8.7 million. According to Forbes in 2009, the team is worth $1.3 billion.
"We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned,"
he said at the time."
We're not going to pretend we're something we aren't. I'll stick to building ships."
In 1974, Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's campaign. He was suspended from baseball for 15 months and was eventually pardoned by Ronald Reagan.
1975: Steinbrenner hires Billy Martin
1978: Steinbrenner fires Billy Martin
1979: Steinbrenner hires Billy Martin
1979: Steinbrenner fires Billy Martin
1983: Steinbrenner hires Billy Martin
1983: Steinbrenner fires Billy Martin
1985: Steinbrenner hires Billy Martin
1985: Steinbrenner fires Billy Martin
1988: Steinbrenner hires Billy Martin
1988: Steinbrenner fires Billy Martin
1989: Billy Martin drinks himself to death, possibly to avoid being hired by Steinbrenner
"I was often misquoted," said Steinbrenner. "I was supportive of my managers, even though they all may not think so."
In his early years, Steinbrenner said, "I am dead set against free agency. It can ruin baseball." He changed his tune once the reserve clause was officially out. In 1977, Steinbrenner signed Reggie Jackson to a then-unimaginable contract paying $600,000 a year. In his first two seasons, Jackson led the Yankees to two championships.
"They're made for each other," Billy Martin would say of Jackson and Steinbrenner. "One's a born liar, the other's convicted."
During the 1981 World Series, Steinbrenner called a surprise press conference to show off a cast on his hand. He got it, he claimed, after getting into a fight with two Dodgers fans in a hotel elevator. It was immediately apparent that the "fight" never happened and that this was Steinbrenner's idea of inspiring his team.
Steinbrenner butted heads with Dave Winfield on more than one occasion. In 1985, he criticized baseball's then-highest-paid player for his failings in a late-season series.
"Where is Reggie Jackson? We need a Mr. October or a Mr. September. Winfield is Mr. May."
In 1990, Winfield sued Steinbrenner for failing to pay $300,000 to his charity. Steinbrenner responded by hiring a small-time gambler to "dig up dirt" on Winfield. It would lead to Steinbrenner's second banning from baseball, this time for life.
Said one Yankee fan, "1991 will be our year because there's no more George. It's great. We can start winning without George. As Yankee fans, we needed this."
Yankees brass, acting for Steinbrenner, benched Don Mattingly for refusing to get a haircut. It was just the latest in a series of players who ran afoul of Steinbrenner's grooming policy, which he picked up in the Air Force and decided would be a good idea for a baseball team. In his first season running the Yankees, he sat in the owner's box and copied down the uniform numbers of players whose hair was too long.
Steinbrenner's ban was lifted in 1993, and he took less interest in on-the-field operations and left it to the front office. The second he stepped aside, things turned around. The Yankees remained in the playoff race until the final week of September that year and since then have missed the playoffs only once.
"Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing," he said. And, to clarify: "Breathing first, winning next."
He became a national figure through Larry David's frequent portrayals of him on Seinfeld (always shot from behind). The character was exaggerated, but the real Steinbrenner was so much of a cartoon that you couldn't really call the Seinfeld version a caricature. A sample exchange:
Steinbrenner: "Nice to meet you."
George: "Well, I wish I could say the same, but I must say, with all due respect, I find it very hard to see the logic behind some of the moves you have made with this fine organization. In the past 20 years you have caused myself, and the city of New York, a good deal of distress, as we have watched you take our beloved Yankees and reduce them to a laughing stock, all for the glorification of your massive ego!"
Steinbrenner: "Hire this man!"
To keep the team's winning ways going, Steinbrenner increasingly spent on player contracts, assembling a Galacticos-like collection of aging superstars. Every year since 1999, the Yankees have had baseball's highest payroll by a mile. While in charge, he refused to rein in spending, even as the team's dominance of free agency led to revenue sharing and calls for a salary cap.
"As I've always said, the way New Yorkers back us we have to produce for them."
Steinbrenner's health failed in 2006 and actual team operations were handed over to his sons. His last public appearance was at the 2008 All-Star Game in Yankee Stadium, where he never left his cart or took off his sunglasses. It was clear that he was no longer involved with the team, though they periodically released statements purporting to be from him.
In an August 2007 article in Portfolio, it became clear just how far gone he was:
When he sees McEwen, a big, goofy grin spreads across his face. "Great to see ya, Tommy," he exclaims.
"Great to see you, George," McEwen says. He introduces me as a writer working on a story and asks about Steinbrenner's wife, Joan.
"Great to see ya, Tommy," Steinbrenner says.
McEwen asks about his sons, Hank and Hal.
"Great to see ya, Tommy," he says.
McEwen asks about his daughters, Jennifer and Jessica.
"Great to see ya, Tommy," he says.
McEwen asks about his health.
Steinbrenner sighs heavily and mutters, "Oh, I'm all right."
His sons now run the Yankees: Hank, the outspoken one, and Hal, the behind-the-scenes one. They're a poor substitute for the Bronx Zoo that their father guaranteed.
He was the prototype for the megarich, hands-on owner that dominates sports today — alternately hated, feared, begrudged, and respected. One of a series of GMs to face his wrath reported that George once told him: "I will never have a heart attack. I give them."