Those who have offered their assessments of George Steinbrenner upon his passing have focused on his insatiable drive for victory. This is lauded as a truly American passion. Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, another American original, opined: "If winning isn't everything, why do they keep score?" Steinbrenner's philosophy is solidly based on Lombardi's edict: "Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser."
There is no question about the impact Steinbrenner had on the game of baseball. He was every other owner's nightmare -- a rival who was willing to spend what it took to secure the best players money could buy. If in the process he bought some lemons, there was more than enough good fruit left to secure a winning club.
He was without question a great supporter of the interests of the Major League Baseball Players Association, although he never would have admitted it. The Union fought for years for free agency -- winning eventually before a courageous labor arbitrator -- but it was Steinbrenner who converted the players' victory into dollars. No one forced owners to spend their money. Unlike football, for example, there are no team salary floors in baseball and a club can get through by simply paying the minimum salary to 25 players. No club actually does that, but some come close.
Steinbrenner was ready on the other end of the spectrum to make free agency and the free market a reality for ballplayers. Once again, no one forced him to pay eight figure salaries -- no one except George Steinbrenner. The New York Yankees club had the benefit of the best of the large markets, and thus the club could carry the largest payroll.
There was one prevailing characteristic of George Steinbrenner that should be remembered, however, and that was not that he spent so much money on ballplayers. Steinbrenner throughout his career was a bully.
You need not be wealthy to be a bully or especially mean, although that certainly helps. You do need to have a positive, if arrogant, self image and be willing to visit upon others the exercise of power at your discretion. You need to have an abundance of internal aggression and a hostile attribunal bias. Bullies believe others are out to get them, a paranoia of sorts. A bully acts first to revenge perceived slights that do not exist.
It is comforting to learn from studies that bullies are sad people, but that provides no solace to their victims. Steinbrenner's victims, and there were many, felt powerless in the face of The Boss. Although otherwise accomplished individuals, Steinbrenner's victims were submissive and nonassertive.
The Billy Martin - George Steinbrenner dance that lasted from 1975 until 1988 is the most obvious example. Martin was a talented player and manager and Steinbrenner fired him five times -- and rehired him each time. Martin was preparing to take the helm of the pinstripes for a sixth time in 1990 at the time of his death. Even though their relationship turned comical after a while, it was perverted. Steinbrenner was the emotional aggressor and Martin the foil. Steinbrenner was always ready to explode. Someday we will learn that bullies simply have a disruption in their neurotransmitter systems. Their serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine pathways are clogged. Whatever the underlying chemical reason, Steinbrenner exercised his power with abandon.
Steinbrenner was not the only bully in the public domain. Others, like Mel Gibson, have been in the news lately for bullying their victims. Every industry has CEOs who are known for their bullying tactics. Even the academic world has its bullies among its presidents and deans. Steinbrenner stood alone, however, in the public mind as the supreme oppressor.
No one but the commissioner of baseball could stand up to Steinbrenner, and even he allowed Steinbrenner back into the game after banning him for life. He ended his days as a bully long enough ago that he could be remembered fondly by many. For others, the stain of having been his victim will never end. Steinbrenner was always in control, always powerful, and never satisfied. It is there where the ultimate justice lies. All those World Series rings meant nothing.