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Commentary > SportsBiz
Steinbrenner in Cooperstown?
Even critics should acknowledge Yankee owner has brought more revenue, fan interest to game.
July 23, 2004: 10:00 AM EDT
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Senior Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - You don't have to love him -- and relatively few baseball fans do -- to believe that George Steinbrenner belongs in baseball's Hall of Fame someday.

But as baseball greats gather in Cooperstown this weekend for this year's induction weekend, you probably can't find a more controversial candidate for the hall than Steinbrenner, nor a more deserving candidate who is unlikely to ever be inducted. And that includes Pete Rose.

Yankee haters -- and there are plenty -- view him as the devil incarnate, the man who ruined baseball by throwing around dollars, driving up salaries and making it impossible for small market teams to compete.

And despite the team's success in his tenure, there are plenty of Yankee fans who hate him as well, or are at least embarrassed by his outbursts and antics. News of his suspension in 1990 brought a standing ovation at Yankee Stadium. I was one of those cheering.

But his public image has improved in recent years, as the Yankees returned to their winning ways and the revolving door of his manager's office stopped spinning. Sports Illustrated did a very complimentary piece about him earlier this year, and fans serenaded him with chants of "Thank You, George" at the Yankees' home opener this year, leading him to cry in front of reporters.

Debates as to who belongs in Cooperstown are among the most heated, and unanswerable, in a sport that thrives on heated, unanswerable debates. And most of those debates involve players, who have a bevy of statistics by which to measure them. Owners are even tougher to pick.

On-field success of their teams is apparently not a measure. The last two owners inducted -- Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey and Indians, Browns and White Sox owner Bill Veeck had one championship in a combined 61 years of team ownership.

And I would argue that Steinbrenner probably doesn't deserve all the credit for the Yankees' on-field success since he bought the team in 1973. Both of the late 1970s teams that won two championships, and the current crew that has won four titles since 1996 are built around players acquired during his two suspensions from the team, when he couldn't interfere with front office decisions.

Without the suspensions, it's possible the players he needed to win those crowns never would have had a chance to make a contribution to the Yankees because they would have been traded away for bigger-named stars.

Commitment to winning

But Steinbrenner clearly has shown a commitment to winning at all costs. Even if he's not been the best judge of players' talent or value, he has been willing to reinvest his team's considerable revenues in the player personnel. He's been an important figure as baseball learned how to cope with free agency and an era of increasing revenue.

"He's innovated baseball management. He's shown the way to exploit a big city market by spending heavily on players," said Andrew Zimbalist, Smith College professor and expert on the economics of baseball.

Zimbalist and other baseball experts say Steinbrenner's success in getting a big television contract from a regional sports cable network, then setting up his own such network, has shown other owners how to increase badly needed revenue, and he should be credited with that, even if he had the natural advantage of the nation's largest market.

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"He helped revolutionize economics of sports," said Donald Coffin, the interim chairman of the business of baseball committee for the Society of American Baseball Research. "It led to growth of revenue sharing and luxury tax, which wouldn't have happened if it had not been for the Yankees. He's the seminal figure in the last fifty years."

But with the decision on executive inductions now essentially in the hands of Hall of Fame players, rather than a small, closed-door "veterans committee," it's unlikely that Steinbrenner or any other owner is likely to be voted into the hall any time soon, said James Vail, author of two books on the subject of hall of fame selection.

Vail points out that Marvin Miller, the former head of the players' union who helped put millions into the pockets of players by winning the right of salary arbitration and free agency, got only 44 percent of the vote, while less controversial owners, like Walter O'Malley, who helped with both the integration and expansion of baseball while he owned the Dodgers, got 48 percent of the vote. Candidates need 75 percent vote for induction.

"I've been a George basher all my life," said Vail. "But he's contributed in his own inimitable way. In terms of criteria for an owner's induction, the important thing would be: Did he contribute anything meaningful to the business of baseball, to marketing, the way it's managed? George would be right up there."

George Steinbrenner
Business of Sports

Steinbrenner is not even eligible for consideration to the Hall until he's out of the game for six months, and given his hands-on attitude, that likely means he'll only be inducted posthumously. Many baseball fans probably would like to see him inducted only over their own dead body.

But if any owner in today's game deserves the honor, it's the man most people love to hate.  Top of page

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