Steinbrenner, principal owner of the New York Yankees for 37 years, died Tuesday at 80. But his legacy is going to be very easy to spot -- in the baseball team, in the baseball/media empire that accompanies it and in all things Yankee.
His was not a spotless tenure, nor an unmixed blessing. The best one-stop source for all information Steinbrenner is a splendid biography by New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden: "Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball." In this book, you're going to find a man who built a business empire and had a notably charitable side to his nature. But you'll also find a man who was arbitrary, infuriating, unfair, dictatorial, and at times, downright cruel to his subordinates.
Maybe the Steinbrenner caricature on "Seinfeld" was hilarious, but Steinbrenner was much more complex than that, for better or for worse. He was twice suspended from baseball, the first time for making illegal contributions to the 1972 presidential campaign of Richard M. Nixon. Even in a felony conviction, Steinbrenner was bigger than the run-of-the-mill sports franchise owner. The second suspension might have been a break for the Yankees, because it allowed Gene Michael to build the foundation of the great Yankee teams of the late '90s without as much interference from ownership.
But it was Steinbrenner's will to win, his absolute lust for triumph that also made the Yankees what they are today, which is, once again, defending World Series champions. To say he did not tolerate defeat would be a vast understatement. He did not tolerate defeat even in Spring Training games. He was over the top with some of this, subject to parodies, just as he was in the habitual hirings and firings of former manager Billy Martin.
But history will hold Steinbrenner in the front rank of North American sports franchises' owners. He brought the Yankees into the new millennium as a titanic sports/business force. They have the product people want and they have the means of distribution. They are an unbeatable combination of revenue generation in baseball and a model for every other franchise to follow, even though replication of the Yankees' fiscal circumstances is impossible.
Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig noted Tuesday in comments made at a meeting of the Baseball Writers' Association of America that when Steinbrenner bought the Yankees in '73, baseball was a sport that generated no more than $300 million in annual gross revenues. Today, its gross revenues are nearly $7 billion. The Yankees didn't do that alone, but they have led the way in much of the heavy financial lifting.
The long friendship between Selig and Steinbrenner probably illustrates a lighter side of Steinbrenner's personality.
"No two people who held as differing agendas as we did ever should have gotten along, but we struck up a friendship," Selig said Tuesday.
Here's an issue where these two were polar opposites: Revenue sharing. As Selig pointed out, baseball used to share no revenues at all; this year it will share $450 million. And which single team is the biggest benefactor for the small-market franchises? That would be the Yankees, whose owner, Steinbrenner, was not originally on board with Selig on the absolute need for this device as a way to increase the game's competitive balance.
"I will say this," Selig said. "I know he was controversial, but he was clearly a giant in the sport. ... Nobody loved his team more than he did."
If the ultimate comparison rests in the question: Are the Yankees better off now than they were when Steinbrenner took over? The answer is absolutely. They're better on the field and their financial circumstances are so much better as to be unrecognizable.
Steinbrenner's ownership was far from a steady march to greatness on all fronts. But eventually, that same ownership restored the Yankees to a preeminent position, not only in baseball, but among all sports franchises. There were no other owners who were comparable to Steinbrenner, plus or minus. This was a man who made the Yankees the Yankees again, and then, on the business side, the even bigger Yankees.
In that way, Steinbrenner's place in the history of sports ownership is both uniquely sizable and completely secure.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.