Steinbrenner was a game-changer in every right

The man who rebuilt the New York Yankees into an empire with a mix of bluster and lavish spending that revolutionised sports but polarised fans, died yesterday.

George Steinbrenner, left, hired and fired Billy Martin as Yankees manager five times.
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NEW YORK // George Steinbrenner, the man who rebuilt the New York Yankees into an empire with a mix of bluster and lavish spending that revolutionised sports but polarised fans all across America, died yesterday. He had just celebrated his 80th birthday on July 4. He suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in Tampa, Florida, a person close to him told The Associated Press.

For more than 30 years, Steinbrenner lived up to his billing as "The Boss," a nickname he earned and clearly enjoyed as he ruled with an iron fist. He was known for bitter feuds, clashing with players, managers and executives. He famously hired and fired Billy Martin as the Yankees' manager five times between 1975 and 1988. As his health declined, Steinbrenner let sons Hal and Hank run more of the family business.

Steinbrenner was in fragile health for years, resulting in fewer public appearances and pronouncements. Yet dressed in his trademark navy blue blazer and white turtleneck, he was the model of success: the Yankees won seven World Series titles and 11 American League pennants after his reign began in 1973. He appeared at the new Yankee Stadium just four times: for the opener in April 2009, for the first two games of last year's World Series and for this year's home opener, when the team captain, Derek Jeter, and Joe Girardi, the manager, went to his suite and personally delivered his seventh World Series ring. "He was very emotional," said Hal Steinbrenner, his father's successor as managing general partner.

Steinbrenner had fainted at a memorial service for the NFL star Otto Graham in 2003, appeared weak in 2006 at the groundbreaking for the new Yankee Stadium and later became ill while watching his granddaughter in a college play. When Steinbrenner headed a group that bought the team in January 1973, he promised absentee ownership. He did not hold to that vow. Steinbrenner not only clashed with the Yankees great Yogi Berra for more than a decade but paid an underworld figure to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, deriding the future Hall of Famer as "Mr May" in 1985 after poor performances.

While he liked to appear stern, Steinbrenner could poke fun at himself. He hosted the comedy variety show Saturday Night Live, clowned with Martin in a commercial and chuckled at his impersonation on the long-running, New York-based sitcom Seinfeld. He gave millions to charity, often with one stipulation, that no one be told who made the donation. The Yankees paid off for him, too, with their value increasing almost 200 times from the $8.7 million (Dh32m) net price his group paid in January 1973. In 2008, Forbes magazine estimated the Yankees to be worth $1.6 billion.

He freely spent his money, changing the economics of US sports forever by shelling out huge amounts for players such as Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Alex Rodriguez and others in hopes of yet another title. "Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing," Steinbrenner was fond of saying. "Breathing first, winning next." All along, he envisioned himself as a true Yankee Doodle Dandy. It was fitting: George Michael Steinbrenner III was born on the Fourth of July, in 1930.

To many, the Yankees and Steinbrenner were synonymous. Fans applauded his win-at-all-costs style. Detractors blamed him for spiralling salaries and ruining baseball's competitive balance. Steinbrenner made no apologies for bombast and behaviour, even when it cost him dearly. He served two long suspensions: one for spying on one of his players, the other for illegal campaign contributions. "I haven't always done a good job, and I haven't always been successful," he said in 2005. "But I know that I have tried." * AP

Key events during George Steinbrenner's ownership of the New York Yankees. 1973 - The shipping magnate buys the team for US$8.7 million (Dh32m) and vows to be an "absentee" owner. 1974 - Creates an uproar in US sport by signing the outfielder Reggie Jackson to a five-year contract worth an unheard-of $3m, touching off a salary surge unabated 36 years later. 1974 - Banned from baseball for 15 months after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and illegal campaign contributions to President Richard Nixon. 1975 - Now deeply involved in every aspect of the club, and pleased to be referred to as The Boss, he hires Billy Martin as manager. He would hire and fire Martin five times from 1975 to 1988, a tumultuous time during which the Yankees came to be known as The Bronx Zoo. 1977 - The Yankees win the first of seven World Series under his leadership. 1982 - Suspended again by baseball for hiring a gambler to "dig up dirt" on the outfielder Dave Winfield, to whom the Yankees had committed $25m over 10 seasons. 1988 - He strikes a $486m deal with the Madison Square Garden network, opening up a rich new source of television revenue that teams the world over would emulate. 1990 - Seventeen years into his reign, he had changed field managers 18 times and general managers 13 times. 1996 - The Yankees win a World Series for the first time since 1978, setting off a surge of four championships in five years under the manager Joe Torre. 2008 - Cedes control of the team, now valued at $1.6 billion, to his sons.