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Hall of Fame case for George Steinbrenner

George Steinbrenner

NEW YORK- 1989: New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner talks to the press during the 1989 season in New York, New York. (Photo by: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

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On Monday, December 9, the Today’s Game committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which covers the years 1988-2018 — will vote on candidates for the 2019 induction class. Between now and then we will take a look at the ten candidates, one-by-one, to assess their Hall worthiness.

And yes, we did this two years ago, the last time the Today’s Game ballot was up for a vote, with most of the same candidates appearing. As such, a lot of this will be repeat material, some of it verbatim. Our view of this, however, is that if the Hall of Fame can keep recycling the same ballot, we can recycle our analysis of it to the extent it hasn’t changed.

Next up: The Boss, George Steinbrenner

The case for his induction:

There aren’t many good numbers to look when it’s an executive, rather than a former player, up for induction. And the ones that do exist — how many rings did the guy win? — are pretty crude and vague. On the surface, one might say “hey, George Steinbrenner owned the Yankees and the Yankees won seven world titles before he shuffled off this mortal coil, and that has to count for something!” But, as we’ll see below (a) it’s not so straightforward as “countin’ da rings” when it comes to Big Stein; and (b) he certainly has some demerits on his ledger to put it mildly.

That said, I’ve long attempted to make a case for Steinbrenner for the Hall of Fame. It’s not a case I’m passionate about, as Steinbrenner was a world class jackwagon, but it makes sense under my particular conception of the Hall of Fame as, primarily, a historical institution. The numbers lead the charge when it comes to players but both with them, and especially with executive types, I like to ask whether they had a significant historical impact (with said impact not being primarily infamous). Whether baseball became a richer entertainment and pursuit because of their presence and whether we can accurately tell the story of baseball in their era without including them.

It’s awfully hard to talk about baseball in the last quarter of the 20th century without mentioning George Steinbrenner’s name. And not just for the tabloid headlines he constantly generated.

Steinbrenner was a lot of things, but he made an important mark on baseball in that he was the first owner to take full advantage of free agency and forced other teams to keep pace. That pretty radically changed how teams were built and, though I know some of you disagree, made it more exciting to be a baseball fan. There’s a reason the hot stove season is the hot stove season, and that has an awful lot to do with teams -- at least until the last year or two -- making a point of going out and trying to sign big names and excite the fan base. Whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it certainly changed the game.

There are a lot of owners in the Hall of Fame who did far less than that, and if you want to make a case for Steinbrenner, you make it on (a) the Yankees’ return to prominence under him; and (b) that game-changing, damn-the-torpedoes approach to talent acquisition that came to the fore, mostly, because of him.

The case against his induction:

Rings are nice, but there is an argument to be made — a pretty strong one, actually — that the Yankees greatest successes during Big Stein’s reign were achieved in spite of him rather than because of him. He was suspended twice during his time as owner of the Yankees, once in the mid-70s thanks to illegal campaign contributions to Nixon and once in the early 90s thanks to him hiring a sleazeball to follow Dave Winfield around in an effort to dig up dirt on his star outfielder. There’s a strong argument that the seeds of the 1977-78 and then the 1996, 1998-2000 World Series championship teams were planted during Steinbrenner’s absence, with his underlings finally being given free rein to make smart moves Steinbrenner would have avoided in the name of merely BIG moves.

If you add all of that to the underlying character considerations which led to those absences -- and if you are generally opposed to the sort of chaos and disorder he brought to the management of the Yankees during good times and bad -- you have a pretty compelling case against The Boss. Personally, I was entertained by the chaos, but I appreciate that reasonable people disagree about all of that.

Would I vote for him?

I’ve gone back and forth on him for years, generally leaning yes because I’m a pushover for big personalities who have been dead for a while and who, thus, can no longer do harm. Steinbrenner was a piece of work, at times a bad guy and not the biggest reason for the Yankees’ success during his reign. At the same time he was definitely a transformative figure and an historic one. If you’re wanting to explain baseball history, you really can’t do it without including The Boss. I’d probably vote for him. He’s baseball’s weird uncle who makes everyone uncomfortable but hey, he’s family.

Will the Committee vote for him?

There was a time I thought he’d get in easily on that historic basis, but I think I wildly underestimated the Hall of Fame electorate’s dislike of him. Last time he was on the ballot, in 2016, I gather he didn’t gain anywhere near the 12 votes he needed from the Veterans Committee, and I doubt that changes any time soon. Just today, for example, we learned that White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf is on the committee this year. Steinbrenner may be a long dead historical figure to you and me, but Reinsdorf spent a good chunk of his professional life butting heads with him. Pat Gillick, John Schuerholz, Paul Beeston and Andy MacPhail are all executives who (a) have long been in the Selig/Manfred camp when it comes to business matters in baseball; and (b) may thus be loathe to honor a guy who drove Bud Selig crazy. Steinbrenner would need a vote from at least one of those guys and ALL of the remaining members of the panel, which includes Tony La Russa and Joe Morgan, neither of whom strike me as Steinbrenner guys.

To put it mildly, Steinbrenner didn’t have the same sorts of allies among the baseball establishment as a lot of the executives who did get into Cooperstown had. I think the chances of his being elected are almost zero.

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