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The controversial figure had a massive heart attack after years of failing health

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated July 13, 2010 10:15 AM
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Credit: Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive/Getty

George Steinbrenner, whose New York Yankees won 11 American League pennants and seven world championships under his frequently controversial ownership, died of a massive heart attack Tuesday morning in Tampa, Florida. He had turned 80 on the 4th of July, but has been in failing health the past few years after suffering a series of strokes.

Called “The Boss,” the imposing figure was that and more – bullying (especially his managers and general managers), bombastic but, like the team he and 15 limited partners bought for $8.8 million from CBS in 1973, generally victorious. He even entered the pop-cultural landscape, being portrayed on Seinfeld as George Costanza’s boss … though he was never seen, only heard (with Larry David providing the voiceover).

His style didn’t only rub managers the wrong way. As New York’s Daily News notes in its lengthy obituary Tuesday morning, Steinbrenner also ticked off his players, including such stars as Reggie Jackson, Lou Piniella, Goose Gossage, Graig Nettles and Sparky Lyle, though the feuds would end – eventually.

That wasn’t the case, however, with Yogi Berra, fired by The Boss only 16 games into the ’85 season. Steinbrenner finally issued a public apology to the icon, though not until 1999. In a statement on Tuesday, Berra said, “George and I had our differences, but who didn’t? We became great friends over the last decade and I will miss him very much.”

Overbearing Father

A Cleveland native, George Steinbrenner long lived in the shadow of his MIT-graduate and NCAA hurdles champ father, Henry Steinbrenner. Graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts, George did his military service at Ohio’s Lockbourne Air Force base, and upon his discharge entered the sports world – as a football and basketball coach at St. Thomas Aquinas High School.

He also met and married Ohio State student Joan Zieg, who now survives him, as do two sons, Harold and Hank, and two daughters, Jennifer Swindal and Jessica Steinbrenner.

Abandoning coaching in 1957, Steinbrenner joined his father’s shipbuilding business, which accounted for the family’s hefty bank account – which, in turn, underwrote George’s passion for sports. According to the News, in the ’50s he owned the ill-fated American Basketball League’s Cleveland Pipers and was a longtime member of the U.S. Olympic Committee. His ship company’s Tampa base also permitted his involvement in horse racing and breeding.

But the Yankees – today valued at $1.6 billion, reports The New York Times – remained the jewel in Steinbrenner’s crown. “I’ve just bought the Mona Lisa of sports teams,” he said at the time of purchase, causing his hardnosed father to respond, “You finally did something right.”

This marks the second loss for the Yankee organization this week. Just two days ago, longtime team announcer Bob Sheppard died at 99.