George Steinbrenner turned an investment of less than $10 million into a franchise valued at more than $1.5 billion. But that may not be as impressive as what he did over the last 17 years, when he turned the Yankees from a forgotten franchise into the jewel of New York—and baseball—and transformed himself from the most loathed man at Yankee Stadium to the grandfather-like figure beloved by all Yankees fans.
Steinbrenner died of a heart attack Tuesday, July 13, less than a month before the 20th anniversary of his second ban from baseball, this one for paying gambler Howie Spira $40,000 to drum up dirt on then Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield. When Steinbrenner’s punishment was announced during the Yankees-Detroit Tigers game at Yankee Stadium July 30, 1990, the crowd of 24,037 stood and applauded for 90 seconds.
Today, of course, the only thing more incomprehensible than a reviled Steinbrenner is a mostly empty Yankee Stadium. But the Yankees regularly played to sparse crowds from 1989 to 1992, during which the team suffered four straight losing seasons, its longest stretch since 1912-15. The Yankees ranked eighth, ninth, 11th and 11th in the American League in attendance from 1989-92, with their average crowd dwindling from 26,797 in 1989 to 21,590 in 1992.
Fans—those who showed up and those who stayed away—blamed Steinbrenner, whose impatience had resulted in a decade-plus championship drought as well as seemingly countless managerial firings and multiple mistakes in the free agent and trade market. As Frank Costanza railed at Steinbrenner on Seinfeld: “How could you trade Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps?” During the 1989 season, fans chanted “George Must Go!” and a Banner Night that September resulted in more than 150 signs blasting Steinbrenner.
Steinbrenner’s ban was lifted prior to the 1993 season, but his absence allowed general manager Gene Michael to keep the prospects who would become the core of the dynasty that won four championships in five years from 1996 through 2000: Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada.
The post-ban Steinbrenner was just as consumed as ever with winning but more willing to listen to what he called his “baseball people.” He changed managers and general managers just twice more. Joe Torre, the manager hired to replace Buck Showalter, remained in place for a dozen years while current general manager Brian Cashman is in his 13th season.
The Yankees drew three million fans in 1999 and finished first in the American League in attendance in each of the final six seasons at the old Yankee Stadium. In 2005, they drew four million fans for the first time, a mark they would reach in each of the next three seasons as well in becoming the first baseball team to welcome four million fans in four seasons.
The Yankees’ success at the gate and on the field, where they made 13 straight trips to the playoffs from 1995 through 2007 and won the World Series for the 27th time in 2009, allowed Steinbrenner to first create the YES Network, which began airing Yankees games in 2003 and added untold millions to the club’s coffers, and then break ground on the new Yankee Stadium, which opened last year and features the cash-generating luxury suites and high-priced corporate seats lacking in the old stadium. The Yankees will honor Steinbrenner at their new palace this weekend, and it’s safe to say the late owner will receive the type of reaction he couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago this month.