The Death of Napoleon
July 14, 2010

It's probably a bad idea to make final proclamations of someone's value on the day they pass away.  Still, it's a tradition in human history to say as many good things about a person on that day, even if some of them are wildly exaggerated because it helps people deal with their grief if they believe that somehow they were connected to something or someone far greater than themselves.  Such is the case of George Steinbrenner.  Yankees fans and the sports media in general would like you to believe that we saw the passing of the greatest owner of a sports team in human history.  And there's certainly no argument that Steinbrenner had an enormous impact on baseball.  But I'm a little hesitant to glorify this man until I look at all the facts.

First, let me get what has been said out of the way.  Joe Posnanski probably best summed it all up with this passage:

"[Steinbrenner] is the convicted felon who quietly gave millions to charity, the ruthless boss who made sure his childhood heroes and friends stayed on the payroll, the twice-suspended owner who drove the game into a new era, the sore loser who won a lot, the sore winner who lost plenty, the haunted son who longed for the respect of his father, the attention hound who could not tolerate losing the spotlight, the money-throwing blowhard who saved the New York Yankees and sent them into despair and saved them again (in part by staying out of the way), the bully who demanded that his employees answer his every demand and the soft touch who would quietly pick up the phone and help some stranger he read about in the morning paper."

The "convicted felon" came from pleading guilty to 14-counts of making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon and one count of obstruction of justice. He was fined for his actions and later pardoned by Ronald Reagan.  For that transgression, commissioner Bowie Kuhn merely suspended him for two years.  But that wasn't the only time he stooped below the law in an attempt to get what he wanted. 

In 1980, Steinbrenner paid Dave Winfield the largest baseball contract in history at the time, a ten-year, $23 million deal that included yearly payments to Winfield's foundation that provided numerous avenues of support for underpriviledged, inner-city kids.  When Winfield's performance on the field did not live up to Steinbrenner's high expectations, he refused to pay the money to the foundation.  Winfield sued and in retaliation, Steinbrenner hired a known gambler and loan shark, Howard Spira, to dig up dirt on Winfield and his foundation.  The plot was exposed and commissioner Fay Vincent leveled a lifetime ban on Steinbrenner in 1990 as punishment, which was completely in line with previous punishments meted out for association with gamblers.  However, Vincent didn't stay commissioner for long and one of new commissioner Bud Selig's first acts was to re-instate Steinbrenner in 1993.  Upon his return, Sports Illustrated featured Steinbrenner dressed as Napoleon on their cover.  Perhaps that is more fitting that many people are comfortable with.

Like Napoleon, Steinbrenner originated from the ugly-stepsister state (Napoleon from Corsica, Steinbrenner from Cleveland) to rise to prominence on the premier stage of his world at the time (France and New York City, respectively).   Both men could be alternately capricious and then incredibly focused, abusive and supplicating, patriotic and criminal.  They both wielded their power with impunity and purpose, and both met with disaster for their hubris: Napoleon with his invasion of Russia and Steinbrenner for thinking he could buy championships by loading up on all the best available free agents every year.   He was later convinced to modify this plan to incorporate building a strong farm system to fill in the holes where free agents weren't available, which met with considerable success in the late 90s; Napoleon didn't have that option.  And like Napoleon, Steinbrenner did many good things for which he is rarely recognized.  Steinbrenner quietly contributed heavily to the US Olympic cause and to numerous charities; Napoleon emancipated Jewish people from being forced to live in ghettos and expanded their rights to property and worship, invented the metric system as well as a civil code that is still in use in much of Europe and in Louisiana.

And like Napoleon, he changed the landscape of his realm but perhaps not for the better.  Napoleon's wars bankrupted Europe for a generation.  Steinbrenner's legacy remains to be fully realized but this much is known: George Steinbrenner spent a lot of money making the Yankees what they are today.  And a lot of it was not his own, the most obvious example being the $1.5 billion in public financing for the new Yankee Stadium, $1.2 billion of which is paid for with tax exempt bonds.  But there were other ways he was spending other people's money.

Since 1977 (as far back as I have figures for) the Yankees have placed either first or second in overall team payroll 30 times.  In only 4 years were they not among the top two and even in those years they were top 25%.  When Steinbrenner bought the Yankees, the average team payroll was under $2 million.  Now, it is over $90 million.  The difference between the top payroll and the bottom payroll back then was about $2 million. Today it's over $170 million. 

But it was in the mid-late 90s that Steinbrenner really opened up the flood gates.  Before then, the average payroll of a playoff team was pretty near what the average salary was of any team.  From 1981 to 1993, the average payroll for a playoff team was around 12% greater than that of an average team payroll, never more than 27% greater and in 1991 it was actually 4% less.  However, since 1995 the playoff teams have exceeded the average teams by 40% three times - with a high in 1999 of  52% more spending - and the average over that span is greater than 25% of what an average team pays.

And as the annual leader in spending and with the Yankees' well-documented success in the standings and playoffs, it's safe to say that Steinbrenner was a huge force in driving spending upwards league-wide.  All totalled, Steinbrenner's spending drove the cost of the average payroll up 4824% during his tenure and the cost of making the playoffs up by 11% over and above that. 

That's fine if you inhabit the largest media and population market in the country; not so great if you are playing in a city of 2 to 3 million.  Dallas and Philadelphia are currently the largest markets that support only one team, each with a population of around 5 million.  New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Baltimore/Washington each support two teams.  Yet even with two teams to theoretically split the market, New York City's 20 million people more than double the size of any single team market, and twice what any team in a two-market can expect for support with the exception of Los Angeles.  It's not a coincidence that the Yankees have made the playoffs every year but one (2008) since Steinbrenner ratcheted open the money spigot in 1995.  Nor do I think it's a coincidence that the Texas Rangers, the team that plays in the Dallas area, is currently going through bankruptcy proceedings after trying to spend with the Yankees over the last decade.  Even teams at the bottom are feeling the pressure.  A rebuilding team in the 1970s could be expected to have a payroll of between 35-45% of what an average team was paying.  Now it's closer to 60%. 

So while Steinbrenner's legacy for Yankee fans is certainly a positive one, the fans of the other 29 teams and perhaps some of those who are concerned about the future of baseball, might have a different view.