November 10, 2010
Almost immediately after George Steinbrenner's death in July, a lot of baseball writers, players, and fans came out in favor of his candidacy for the Hall of Fame. They argued that, despite his faults, his long tenure with the New York Yankees made him one of the most influential owners in the game's history. They also pointed out that since the resolutely anti-integration Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey was in the Hall, then Steinbrenner had to go in as well.
Despite all of those assertions, Steinbrenner was never nominated for Cooperstown during his lifetime, despite multiple opportunities and the same laundry list of accomplishments.
So were Steinbrenner's supporters merely speaking with the rose-tinted glasses of eulogy?
Or was their analysis spot-on?
We'll find out soon. Thanks to a rule change that was passed in July, Steinbrenner is now eligible for the Hall of Fame, just four months after his death. His name will appear on a ballot that the Hall's Veterans Committee will vote on in December. He's the only owner and the likeliest inductee on the list, though his frequent foil Billy Martin is also a strong candidate*.
*GM Pat Gillick also probably deserves enshrinement, but the Hall has rarely inducted a pure general manager, and John Schuerholz, though not on the ballot, has a better case. Former union head Marvin Miller certainly deserves a place in the Hall, because he changed the game perhaps more than any other single man, but because he's the labor leader who made the players' union stronger than the owners, he's anathema to baseball's powerful old guard.
The case for the Hall: A lot of different people have made the case, and they've offered a lot of different reasons. The simplest one is this: Steinbrenner was principal owner of the Yankees from 1973 to 2009 and, in that time, the team won 11 pennants and seven world championships. Joe Posnanski took the simple historical tack of examining all the other owners in the Hall, and showing how Steinbrenner stacked up against them. Next to the racist Yawkey and the gimmick-prone Bill Veeck, Steinbrenner would be in the upper echelon of Hall of Fame owners.
Most people have connected his candidacy to the free-agent era, though. The New York Times' William Rhoden argued that Steinbrenner's importance was to validate the importance of Curt Flood in inaugurating the free-agent era. Rhoden wrote:
I want Steinbrenner in the Hall of Fame. He makes the freshest, most irrefutable case yet for Curt Flood's long overdue selection.
ESPN's Wallace Matthews felt that the Yankees' success alone was enough to enshrine Steinbrenner, writing:
Over the past 30 years, the two biggest stories in baseball have been the resurgence of the New York Yankees and the proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs.
Andy of the Baseball-Reference.com blog writes:
By pouring so much money into his team, he's almost single-handedly responsible for the salaries we see in the game today. The Yankees are responsible for salary escalation more than any other team, and perhaps more than all other teams combined.
The ambivalence in that statement was frequently repeated, including by Carlton Fisk, who proclaimed himself in favor of Steinbrenner while saying, "Whatever way you view it, good or bad, he was very influential and such a powerful guy in the game."
Essentially, Steinbrenner's significance lies in his having wielded the Yankees' overwhelming wealth effectively. He was a very rich man who spent his money well. And he was both wise enough and lucky enough to turn a struggling CBS asset into one of the biggest sports brands in the world, buying his way into an ownership group with $168,000 of his own money, and gradually muscling his partners out of the stake. He was the first owner to attempt to take full advantage of the free-agent era, though his early efforts were hit-or-miss. It's impossible to deny his central role in escalating the free-agent arms race to its current fever pitch; in his way, he became the face of owners' extreme spending as much as Marvin Miller was the face of players' mercenary search for higher pay. If George hadn't done it, another owner might have filled the void, but the fact remains that he did, and spent more on Yankee payrolls than any other owner in the history of the game, a legacy his sons continue.
Yes, the Yankees were wealthy and successful before his tenure, and he continued their long legacy. Col. Jacob Ruppert, the man who built the Yankee powerhouse, may deserve a spot in the Hall just as much as Steinbrenner. But that doesn't make George undeserving.
The case against the Hall: Being rich and successful isn't enough to stand out with the Yankees, who have been baseball's richest and most successful team since Col. Ruppert. Considering the massive built-in advantage of baseball's biggest media market and biggest revenue stream, it would have been remarkable if the team failed; it's unremarkable that they won.
And, in fact, Steinbrenner's Yankees often lost. The 1980s were the franchise's worst decade since the team became known as the Yankees, as the team's playoff drought from 1982 to 1993 was the longest since the New York Highlanders were dwarfed in popularity by John McGraw's New York Giants. (The World Series drought lasted from 1982 to 1995, Don Mattingly's entire career.) Steinbrenner's instinct to pay top dollar for free agents resulted in a number of mediocre teams.
His team's greatest success generally came after he was suspended from baseball and unable to make any decisions on the team. The team's world championships in 1977 and 1978 came soon after he was indicted in 1974 for illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon and was suspended for a year and a half, and the team's world championships in 1996 and 1998-2000 came shortly after he was suspended from 1990 to 1993 for hiring gambler Howard Spira to find information to discredit Yankee player Dave Winfield.
In both cases, Steinbrenner got off easy. His first sentence was commuted from two years to 15 months for good behavior, and his second sentence was commuted from a lifetime ban to three years. Steinbrenner's absence in the early 1990s meant that GM Gene Michael "and manager Buck Showalter were running the team with little interference," during which period they drafted Derek Jeter(notes) and held onto superstar prospects Jorge Posada(notes), Mariano Rivera(notes) and Andy Pettitte(notes), the kind of players the team traded for veteran talent in the 1980s.
The Examiner's Ronald Monestime argues that the suspensions alone should be enough to keep Steinbrenner out — he was given a lifetime ban for paying a gambler, after all — and if Pete Rose deserves to be out forever, then so does Steinbrenner. Ty Duffy at The Big Lead looks at the aftermath of the suspensions and asks, "Steinbrenner wrote the checks, but should he be rewarded when his main contribution was not interfering?"
Verdict: Steinbrenner was an innovator when it came to the free-agent market, but his innovations didn't necessarily lead to success. He was also a rulebreaker and a lawbreaker who was repeatedly fined and twice suspended from baseball, and his team appeared to be better off when he was absent. Because of the sympathy vote for the recently deceased, he has a good chance to be inducted, but that doesn't mean he should be. His plaque belongs to Col. Ruppert and Gene Michael. It shouldn't belong to him.