Philadelphia, PA. I do not want to be disrespectful to the recently deceased, especially having lost (never to be found until the resurrection) both my parents this Spring. But I am curious about the response to George Steinbrenner’s death. Talk show hosts, on both sports stations and other topics, have generally been appreciative. Death does prevent kicking someone when they’re finally down, but the marvel at Steinbrenner’s use of free agency to give the Yankees seven championships during his ownership seems amiss to this aging sports fan from Philadelphia. If FroPo’s object to the pesticides applied and fossil fuels used to deliver cheap produce to the average American kitchen, might it also be possible to regard Steinbrenner to professional baseball what an agribusiness is to farming?

Granted, Steinbrenner was not responsible for free agency or other important decisions that affected Major League Baseball during his tenure. But it seems fair to say that Steinbrenner exploited the advantages he enjoyed in New York City as owner of baseball’s most storied franchise and did not care what his own actions did to the larger baseball industry. As one sports talk show host said, “Roy Halladay would not be making $20 million today from the Phillies were it not for Steinbrenner.” This was meant to be a compliment, I guess. But the conditions that sustain these salaries are the same ones that force MLB franchises to squeeze every blessed cent out of customers and advertisers that they can. Do the fans that marvel at Halladay’s annual income also wonder about five bucks for cotton candy?

The New York Times obit summarized Steinbrenner’s legacy this way:

A pioneer of modern sports ownership, Mr. Steinbrenner started the wave of high spending for players when free agency arrived, and he continued to spend freely through the Yankees’ revival in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the long stretch without a pennant and then renewed triumphs under Joe Torre as manager and General Manager Brian Cashman.

The Yankees’ approximately $210 million payroll in 2009 dwarfed all others in baseball, and the team paid out millions in luxury tax and revenue-sharing with small-market teams.

To this description Ross Douthat added a perceptive remark that may capture why even those fans – like Douthat who roots for the Red Sox – who detested the Yankees could appreciate their owner. In sum, George was one of us:

In the end, if we don’t go in for airbrushing, the best thing to be said about Steinbrenner is this: His worst impulses were always the honest impulses of a fan, rather than the cynical impulses of a businessman. He understood, in a way too many owners and too many players (ahem, LeBron James) do not, that his entire sporting empire depended on the irrational passion of millions upon millions of Yankee-lovers, and he catered to those passions at every opportunity. He ran the team the way the average fan might, if they were suddenly handed the reins of their favorite franchise — with his heart on his sleeve, his foot in his mouth, and his knee jerking with every change of fortune on the field.

This explains why Philadelphia sports fans, who generally loathe all things New York, were almost unanimous in saying that Steinbrenner was the best kind of owner – the guy who did whatever it took to win.

The problem is that most fans do not have the resources that Steinbrenner did and so find it difficult even to find money that will allow them to enjoy the athletes under contract with George and his fellow owners. Among the many features of MLB that callers to sports talk radio complain about are these:

Cliff Lee playing for (at least) five different teams withing three years (four if the Rangers sign him in the off season).

Franchises like Cleveland and Pittsburgh functioning as a quadruple-A minor league system for big market teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs and – dare I say – Phillies.

World Series games being played on Reformation Day (aka Halloween).

World Series games starting at 8:45 pm on the East Coast.

World Series games ending after midnight on the East Coast.

Middle-aged fans on the East Coast being unable to stay up for World Series games.

Seven-dollar beer.

Four-dollar pretzels (it’s only dough!).

Advertisers competing with pitch counts on auxiliary score boards.

Photographs of players competing with advertizing logos on the main scoreboard during said player’s at bat.

Team caps and uniforms produced in colors other than the official hues of the franchise (which is akin to the chaos of state license plate designs and the quest for individuality that fuels them).

Again, George Steinbrenner is not solely responsible for these woes. But he did accelerate conditions that made these unattractive features necessary and likely permanent. In which case, if industrial farming, as good as it is for producing cheap food in large quantities, has lots of unwholesome consequences, the same can be said for professional sports after Steinbrenner.

But if they brought the price of soft pretzels down to $2 . . .

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D. G. Hart is a visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College. After completing his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, he taught at Wheaton College and Westminster Seminary before directing academic programs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He is the author of several books, including A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (Ivan R. Dee); The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies and American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press); and From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelical Protestants and American Conservatism (Eerdmans).

3 COMMENTS

  1. “…might it also be possible to regard Steinbrenner to professional baseball what an agribusiness is to farming?”

    Yes.

  2. As a Pittsburgh Pirates fan it is all too painful and instructive to realize that the other sports teams in town (Steelers in NFL and Penguins in NHL) have won championships in leagues with a salary cap in the past couple of years. Even if the Buccos sunk every cent they make back into payroll (which according to an investigative report done by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) they still could only add around $12-$13 million per year in additional payroll. The only way teams like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Oakland, Minnesota, Tampa, and Florida can win in today’s MLB is by selling high and picking up reclamation projects out of the trash.

    It is interesting how socialism works in sports.

  3. I’d like to blame it on Steinbrenner. I really would. As a Yankee hater, and fan of the Quadruple A Twins I loathe the evil empire and all that it stands for. However, I think these trends have been in baseball for much further back than Steinbrenner. He just brought them into the attention of the NY tabloid press during the birth of Infotainment.

    In the 50’s, it was the KC Athletics that served as the Yankee farm club. At least until Charley O. Finley bought them. There’s another larger than life huckster that did his best to ruin, er… modernize the game.

    Even in the 50’s people were decrying the commercialism of the game, and player endorsements and salaries.

    Baseball is a mirror in which America can see it’s own reflection. What we like, and what we loathe about ourselves are both there looking back at us. They always have been.

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