Steinbrenner lifted Yankees, but not from despair

Tue, Sep 21

I was watching the George Steinbrenner monument ceremony Monday night, hearing all the platitudes about Steinbrenner's impact on the Yankees and baseball, what he meant to the players, his philanthropic work and so on. (By the way, don't miss Tuesday's "30 for 30" episode, "The House of Steinbrenner," at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN). The commentary was expectedly a bit generous (no mention of Howard Spira or other classic Steinbrenner adventures ), but one story was repeated several times: that when Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees in January 1973, the franchise was in the dumps, a soiled remnant of the Yankees glory days of the '50s and early '60s.

This is not completely accurate. True, the Yankees had not captured an AL pennant since 1964 (eight seasons -- or the same span the team recently went between World Series titles) and had hit rock bottom with a last-place finish in 1966. But the team had been competitive in recent seasons:

1968: 83-79
1969: 80-81
1970: 93-69
1971: 82-80
1972: 79-76

Does that resemble a mess of a franchise? Already in the organization were such stars as Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, Bobby Murcer, Roy White and Sparky Lyle. Ron Guidry was a young minor leaguer. And while attendance in 1972 had dipped below 1 million for the first time since 1945, that was still the fourth-best total in the American League. (By the way, when the Yankees won the 1996 World Series, ending an 18-year title drought, the team ranked just seventh in the AL in attendance.)

Under Steinbrenner and his various general managers, the team did improve with a series of smart trades: Chris Chambliss and Dick Tidrow from the Indians for Fritz Peterson; Willie Randolph and Dock Ellis from the Pirates for Doc Medich; Mickey Rivers and Ed Figueroa from the Angles for Bobby Bonds. But it took two big free-agent signings (and the refurbished Yankee Stadium, which opened in 1976) to push the Yankees back on top: Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson.

In other words, it took a little money. And that, ultimately, is the Steinbrenner legacy.