Yankees' Legendary Owner Had Baggage, But If Main Criteria Is Production, It's No-Brainer

By Jason Keidel
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Those of us who entered the portal of puberty in the late 1970s or early ’80s were forever tethered to the Bronx Zoo Yankees, or, more specifically, their curator, George Steinbrenner.

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And while a sportswriter — specifically a New York sportswriter — shouldn’t admit this, I assumed Steinbrenner was in the Hall of Fame.

I assumed it was one of those perfunctory, back-channel things that always seem to be prearranged for the powerful. He was too important, lording over the world’s most preeminent franchise, to be denied.

No doubt King George engendered some ill will, but surely the sheer force of his deeds would lead him to Cooperstown. You’ve got the Richard Nixon thing that happened several decades ago, which most of us don’t remember. And you’ve got the Howie Spira scandal, which many of us do remember.

But most of us forgave the Spira scandal, smoothed by time and soothed by Torre. The Joe Torre dynasty filled endless voids, not only in Steinbrenner’s soul, but in our capacity for forgiveness.

Victory has a way of doing that. The Yankees were a mess when Steinbrenner was suspended, so the Yankee hater assumes everything they did was by dint of his absence. But he was a different, less obtrusive Boss when he came back to the fertile farm that Gene Michael so meticulously tendered. The Boss deferred to his baseball people, an impulse he didn’t possess a decade earlier.

Then came the conga line of World Series teams, which gave New Yorkers an overwhelming sense of unity. Every fall it felt like we’d attend a parade. And as the Boss aged he became more emotional. Was he more in touch with mortality? Or was he losing touch with reality?

Either way, we cherished the more lovable George, the more huggable George. We started hearing stories about his epic compassion toward players who had fallen on hard times. Even men who made their bones as Mets, like Doc and Darryl, found safe haven in pinstripes.

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There were the robust donations to charity, millions of dollars quietly funneled into fine causes, which he insisted remain a secret. So when George collapsed at Otto Graham’s funeral and slowly faded from the cameras, his legacy was complete. He found the wise man’s coda, less concerned with vanity as veracity. He stopped caring as much about what he looked like as how his his name would be remembered.

His acts of generosity didn’t negate or erase his past. We don’t pretend they did. But it provided a portrait of the man in full, the vivid contrast between the younger and older lion. Since he loved to speak in jungle metaphors, he would appreciate the terms.

And when he died, and we saw the endless line of luminaries drip into Yankee Stadium, the new Yankee Stadium, the place the Boss built, I figured he had already connected with Cooperstown. But he hadn’t.

Keith Olbermann, who knew the Boss much better than most of us, laid out an eloquent argument for Steinbrenner’s enshrinement, with equal parts sarcasm and sincerity, as Olbermann often does. He also argued that if Pat Gillick made it, then George surely belonged.

That’s true. But we don’t need to trivialize someone else in order to validate the Boss’s career. Steinbrenner stands on his own, alone, as baseball’s most dominant, if not important, personality. Take with it the most World Series titles (7), most division titles (16), and the sports’s highest winning percentage (.566) at the time of his death.

And the blue-collar ethos that so resonated with New Yorkers. While Mets fans, and many baseball fans, abhorred King George, they secretly lusted for an owner of his heft and desire. He did the one thing you ask of an owner — demand the most of his team and his town.

For that, among so many things omitted here, George Steinbrenner should be in the Hall of Fame. It’s not a matter of popularity. It’s a matter of production. And no one knew that better than the Boss.

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Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel