But all of these trades were made by 1975. In 1975, the Yanks won 83 games and finished third. What pushed the Yanks over the top in 1977? Well, there was a young pitcher from Louisiana named Ron Guidry. There were a few more trades, for Mike Torrez, Ken Holtzman and Bucky Dent. But the big difference was made possible by Steinbrenner, his money and his drive to win: the signing of free agents Don Gullett (six years, $2 million), Catfish Hunter (5 years, $3.2 million) and Reggie Jackson (5 years, around $3 million).
Before the 1977 season, free agency was brand new. There were only two free agent signings before the end of the 1976 season: Hunter (by the Yanks) and Andy Messersmith (Atlanta). But in the post-season following the 1976 World Series, free agents were signed by the boatload: 26 in all, including Don Baylor, Rollie Fingers, Bobby Grich and Joe Rudi. Steinbrenner nabbed the two most expensive of these free agents, arguably the most significant of these free agents, in Hunter and Jackson.
Steinbrenner’s free agent signings made the difference. The Yanks won it all in 1977, and again in 1978, and five more times during the Steinbrenner era.
Sure, there were failures during this era, and some terrible Yankees teams (for example, the 1991 team finished 5th in the AL East and 11th in AL attendance). Add to this the stuff that took place off the field: Steinbrenner’s felony conviction, his ugly squabbles with Dave Winfield, his soap opera co-starring Billy Martin (who was hired and fired five times).
Steinbrenner’s story was not always pretty.
But I prefer to think of George Steinbrenner at that moment after the 1976 World Series, after the Yankees had been swept by Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. Most owners would have been satisfied with making it to the World Series, and would not have been bothered by losing to one of the greatest teams of all time. But Steinbrenner was not satisfied. With his signing of Reggie Jackson, Steinbrenner set a tone for the Yankees that would remain in place for more than 30 years. Playing good ball would not be enough. Being competitive would not be enough. Even playing in the World Series would not be enough.
Only winning it all would ever be enough.
Do you want to know why the Yankees went from irrelevant in 1973 to the most important sports franchise in 2010? Why the Yankees went from a team sold for a song by CBS in 1973, to the most valuable franchise in sports (estimated $1.6 billion) in 2010? Winning helped. Tradition helped. The explosion of interest in pro sports – that helped a lot. Being in the nation’s biggest media market helped more than a lot.
But don’t discount how much it helped to have Steinbrenner as the owner. Steinbrenner, who would do whatever an owner could do to put the best possible team on the field in the Bronx, regardless of cost. With Steinbrenner at the helm, the Yankees mattered, and they would continue to matter, win or lose.
That, I think, is the Steinbrenner legacy. You could love him or hate him, but you could never ignore him. You know. Like the way folks feel about a certain pro baseball team in the Bronx.
R.I.P., George. We will miss you.