“I’ll tell them until they’re tired of hearing it. I don’t live in New York. I live in Tampa, Fla.”
— George Steinbrenner, at a 1997 chamber of commerce luncheon.
TAMPA — Everyone knew George M. Steinbrenner III as The Boss, the bullying and bombastic owner of the New York Yankees, famous for firings and feuds, with a temper so legendary it was parodied on TV’s Seinfeld.
As the owner of sport’s most recognizable brand, Steinbrenner modernized baseball by promoting free agency and turning a national pastime tinged with hometown nostalgia into Big Business calculated on market share and mercenary ballplayers.
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But in his adopted hometown of Tampa, Steinbrenner dropped his dictatorial owner persona and adopted the mien of a compulsively generous, big-hearted billionaire who leaves a legacy of quiet philanthropy to children.
Steinbrenner, 80, died Tuesday morning after suffering a heart attack at his Tampa home that was preceded by a long period of declining health.
“In New York, they knew him for baseball and that’s it,” said former Mayor Dick Greco, a longtime friend. “Tampa saw more of what he was really like than any other place. He chose to give back. And he didn’t do it to get attention. Everything that you know he did, it was tens and thousands more than you’ll ever know.”
Steinbrenner moved from Cleveland to Tampa 35 years ago, looking for a wide enough berth for a shipbuilding business he inherited from his father. He never left, moving his wife, Joan, and family and settling in a Sunbelt town eager to assert itself as “America’s Next Great City.”
It was a mutually beneficial relationship.
For Tampa, Steinbrenner was a philanthropist of causes big and small who helped put the area on the sporting world map. For Steinbrenner, convicted of a felony in the 1970s, Tampa provided him with the acceptance and approval that eluded him for years in New York City.
“It’s tough to please them in New York,” Monsignor Laurence Higgins, pastor emeritus of St. Lawrence Catholic Church and a longtime friend, said in an interview earlier this year. “People here liked him.”
Steinbrenner felt comfortable to drop his guard and be himself in Tampa, said Phil McNiff, an executive vice president with the Yankees since 1980.
“In New York, he had to be The Boss,” said McNiff, who was the head of the FBI’s Tampa office when he met Steinbrenner in the 1970s. “In Tampa, he just really enjoyed the area. And he was good for the area.”
He left a remarkable public legacy. Look around, and his fingerprints are all over the Tampa Bay area: the Florida State Fair, the Port of Tampa, Steinbrenner Field, where the Yankees train in spring. The Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Downs, middle school sports programs, Boys and Girls Clubs. Lights at Little League fields, a pediatric emergency center at St. Joseph’s Hospital, children’s concerts by the Florida Orchestra.
Steinbrenner opened his checkbook for charities that help kids from the poorest neighborhoods, and for scholarships for children of police officers killed in the line of duty.
Steinbrenner’s noblesse oblige wasn’t the only thing Tampa appreciated. It was the fizzy fun of Steinbrenner’s celebrity. Residents got a kick out of driving past his mansion with out-of-town friends to gawk.
“He’s probably the most famous person in the history of Tampa,” biographer Peter Golenbock said Tuesday.
Tampa’s VIPs embraced Steinbrenner, cherishing his status and all the glitz that came with it. He lived in a mansion in Palma Ceia and enjoyed rubbing shoulders with Tampa Bay’s elite in his owner’s box at the Yankees spring training stadium, since renamed for him. In a New Yorker profile of Steinbrenner, Higgins compared the owner’s box to New York City’s Tammany Hall.
“This is where things get done,” Higgins told the magazine.
While the New York sports press derided him as a carpetbagger and “The Man From Tampa,” Steinbrenner held court at Malio’s Steakhouse, the now-gone Dale Mabry restaurant he bankrolled and where the glitterati congregated.
Near the hostess station, Steinbrenner sat in his favorite booth, which had a phone. From this prized perch, The Boss entertained business and baseball stars and met with his scouts, making deals like the one where he traded for Roger Clemens.
“He’d get carried away. If he got mad on the phone, I’d have to clear the room out. I’d move a couple of people and pick up their check,” recalled Malio Iavarone, the owner. “I know he’s a tough businessman, but I’ve seen him do some damn nice things for people out of nowhere.”
Steinbrenner was a man known for his inability, or refusal, to control his emotions.
In New York, his outbursts would be writ large in the tabloids whenever he fired another manager or lashed out against a slumping star slugger. In Tampa, he would regularly reach deep into his pockets when he was moved by the hardship of others.
“Look, we all have negative aspects,” Higgins said. “It’s just that people here accepted George for who he was. He acted on his emotions, but Tampa recognized how generous those emotions were.”
Greco said Steinbrenner showed glimpses of his renowned combativeness, but it was usually during harmless fun.
There was the tennis game at Steinbrenner’s old West Shore waterfront mansion, Greco said. It was about 12 to 14 years ago and Steinbrenner wasn’t very good. So, Greco lobbed the ball slowly at The Boss. Big mistake.
“He stopped the game and yelled, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” Greco said, laughing. “He wanted me to hit the ball harder at him. This man would dive on concrete. George always wanted to act tough.”
Tales of goodwill
When it came to philanthropy, Greco and other friends said Steinbrenner dodged the limelight. Still, quite a few of his acts of kindness found their way into local lore anyway.
There was the oft-told Steinbrenner encounter with a young Yankees fan in Tampa who was deaf. He paid for the child’s visit to Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York to restore his hearing. Or the time Steinbrenner read that a Sarasota family couldn’t pay for the burial of their son, a former high school football standout who was shot and killed. He paid for it himself. Or when he was dismayed by how long children were waiting for emergency care, so he donated more than $1 million to St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital.
One epic tale of his goodwill took place in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew hit Miami. Steinbrenner showed up at the Salvation Army in Tampa and drove a truck with bottled water overnight to the storm-ravaged area.
Steinbrenner created the Gold Shield Foundation in 1981 to help families of slain law enforcement officers. Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee said Steinbrenner alone is responsible for financing the college educations of numerous children.
“It was a great concept and it’s helped so many people,” Gee said. “He had this idea, and he did it. One thing about him is that if he wanted something done, he’d get it done.”
Asked about what drove his philanthropy, Steinbrenner told the Times in 2005: “ I don’t want to die with all this money. I want to give to the people. I don’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery.”
‘Scared ... of him’
While his good deeds nurtured closer ties between Steinbrenner and the business elite in Tampa, he still had to overcome the bad headlines back in New York. The team floundered for most of the 1980s and early 1990s. With no winning record to shield him, Steinbrenner was fair game for sportswriters.
“He’s not a nice person,” said ABC News reporter Dick Schapp, who wrote a 1982 biography on Steinbrenner. “He does some nice things for people, but he also hurts people.”
“He was a bully,” said Golenbock, a St. Petersburg author of such baseball books as The Bronx Zoo and George: The Poor Little Rich Boy who Built the Yankee Empire, released in 2009.
“People were scared to death of him,” Golenbock said. “He was critical, demanding. If you made the slightest misstep, you got fired, so you went to work every day wondering if it’d be your last.”
Steinbrenner was 42 when he led a group of investors that bought the Yankees from CBS in 1973 for less than $10 million. During Steinbrenner’s ownership, the Yankees won 11 American League pennants and seven World Series titles.
Yet his time as Yankees owner was fraught with conflict.
He was suspended in 1974 by Major League Baseball for two years (later reduced to nine months) after pleading guilty to making illegal contributions to President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign and a felony charge of obstruction.
Steinbrenner returned to the Yankees later that year and become infamous for firing managers, including hiring and firing Billy Martin five times. His style was so notorious that he became known as “The Boss’’ and spoofed his ways in beer commercials and on an appearance on Saturday Night Live.
Steinbrenner became baseball’s leading player in the new era of free agency, enticing superstars such as Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, David Winfield and dozens more with some of the richest contracts in baseball history at the time. Throughout Steinbrenner’s ownership, the Yankees typically had the highest payroll in baseball.
Baseball ordered Steinbrenner to resign as the club’s general partner in 1990 after he paid $40,000 to confessed gambler Howie Spira for information about Winfield. Steinbrenner resumed control of the Yankees in early 1993.
Meanwhile, his American Ship Building Co. struggled. It sought bankruptcy protection in the early 1990s. By 1997, the last of a family shipping empire that started hauling goods across the Great Lakes in the 19th century was sold to a Fort Lauderdale outfit.
By then, however, Steinbrenner’s fortunes had rebounded. He turned over most of the day-to-day operations to team executives, and the Yankees went on to win four World Series titles between 1996 and 2000.
‘King’ of Tampa
And at the height of his popularity in New York, Steinbrenner was ensconced in the upper ranks of Tampa society. In 1996, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the all-male private group of power brokers that puts on the city’s biggest parade every year, crowned him king. Now he really was King George.
More than 800 came to honor him at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in 1997. Greco, mayor at the time, gave him a key to the city (his second). In a tribute, retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf called Steinbrenner “a great American.”
His famed swagger vanished in recent years as his health worsened. In 2003, he fainted at the memorial service of legendary Cleveland quarterback Otto Graham. He fainted again three years later while attending his granddaughter’s college play. A 2007 article in Portfolio magazine described Steinbrenner as suffering from symptoms that suggested dementia.
On July 1 , team employees, family members and friends threw a party for him at Steinbrenner Field, three days before his 80th birthday on the Fourth of July. Among those in attendance were Steinbrenner’s sons, Hal and Hank, and daughters, Jennifer and Jessica, and longtime friend Howard “Hopalong” Cassady, the 1955 Heisman Trophy winner.
“He was an incredible and charitable man,” his family said in a Tuesday statement. “First and foremost he was devoted to his entire family.”