George Steinbrenner made himself synonymous with owner meddling, involving himself with the day-to-day fortunes of his ballclub to an extent unmatched by any owner since Connie Mack, who was his own manager. Only Charlie Finley can approach Steinbrenner in this, but not even Finley equaled Steinbrenner’s record of 17 managerial changes in his first 17 seasons. Finley rehired Alvin Dark as manager just once; Steinbrenner gave Billy Martin five separate terms. Graig Nettles commented, “Every year is like being traded – a new manager and a whole new team.”
The son of a Great Lakes shipping family, Steinbrenner made his money as chairman of the American Shipbuilding Company, a Cleveland-based firm. In his youth he was an assistant football coach at Northwestern and Purdue universities (Jim Spencer said of his employer, “George Steinbrenner knows nothing about baseball. He doesn’t understand that this is a major league team, not Purdue”) and assembled national champions in the National Industrial and American Basketball leagues. In 1973 he put together the group that bought the Yankees from CBS, promising at the time, “I won’t be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all.” But one-time associate John McMullen, who later owned the Astros, said, “Nothing is more limited than being a limited partner of George’s.”
The advent of free agency proved a boon to Steinbrenner although he said of it early on, “I am dead set against free agency. It can ruin baseball.” After Catfish Hunter was released from his A’s contract in 1974, the Yankees paid him the unheard-of salary of $2.85 million for four years. He signed Reggie Jackson after the team won the AL pennant in 1976, and the move was largely responsible for back-to-back World Championships in 1977-78. However, in that period Steinbrenner had solid baseball minds such as Al Rosen and Gabe Paul in the front office making trades like the one that brought Graig Nettles and Chris Chambliss from Cleveland, and also refusing to trade Ron Guidry. Steinbrenner’s initial success purchasing free agents led to a tendency to overstock the team with superstars to the point where there wasn’t room in the lineup for them all. His preference for name players came from the conviction that “you measure the value of a ballplayer by how many fannies he puts in the seats.” The departure of general managers nearly matched the turnover of managers and apparently was accompanied by a corresponding lack of GM control over major decisions. A series of disastrous acquisitions in the early 1980s (Ed Whitson, John Mayberry, Doyle Alexander, Mike Armstrong) was made worse by a steady stream of departing stars escaping from what had been dubbed The Bronx Zoo. From 1979 through the end of the next decade, the Yankees won only one more pennant, in the strike-split 1981 season; the 1980s were the first decade since the 1910s in which the Yankees did not win a World Championship.