George Steinbrenner is on a billion-dollar high - and can you blame him?
In a rare exclusive interview, the Yankee Boss told the Daily News he is both "gratified" and "humbled" at the Yankees becoming the first baseball team to be worth $1 billion according to the latest financial team evaluations by Forbes magazine. Not bad for an original investment of $8.7 million.
"This is all very gratifying," Steinbrenner said by phone from Tampa. "I'm truly humbled. I've been very lucky in life, and more than anything this is the product of surrounding yourself with good people. That's always been my philosophy. I've had a lot of good people with me the whole time."
In January 1973, Steinbrenner, a shipbuilding magnate from Cleveland, and his group of investors paid CBS $10 million for the Yankees, but, as he explained it, the sale price dropped to $8.7 million when CBS bought back a couple of parking garages. At the time, the Yankees were at about the lowest ebb in franchise history. CBS had allowed the scouting and player development system to deteriorate, while the team, which had dominated baseball from 1921-64, plummeted to mediocrity and worse, with season attendances of barely 1 million.
"I re-member," said Steinbrenner, "when I told my father I had bought the Yankees, he said to me: 'You're better off sticking to shipbuilding.'"
Which, as I reminded Steinbrenner, was precisely what he said he planned to do at the press conference introducing himself and his partners.
"What can I say?" he said with a laugh. "I suppose I meant it at the time, but once I got into it, I was determined to restore the Yankees to their glory. We knew what we'd bought."
But the more he talked about the enormity of presiding over a billion-dollar entity 33 years later, the more emotional he sounded. Especially because Forbes' $1.26 billion valuation of the team does not include the Yankees YES Network (which took in a reported $62 million last year) or its lucrative joint venture with Yomiuri Shinbun media.
According to Forbes, the Yankees, who drew over 4 million fans for the first time last season, took in an additional $49 million in sponsorship revenue in '05.
"I could have never envisioned all this," Steinbrenner said. "All I knew when I went into [then-CBS chairman] Bill Paley's office was that I wanted a baseball team." A year earlier, Steinbrenner had been rebuffed in his attempt to buy his hometown Cleveland Indians
, and when then-Indians General Manager Gabe Paul tipped him off that the Yankees were for sale, he was as much skeptical as he was excited.
"I remember walking into Paley's office and being scared stiff," Steinbrenner said. "I was sure he was gonna tell me he wasn't gonna sell or that I didn't have enough. As it was, he said to me: 'What are you planning on paying me with, Chinese money?' to which I said: 'No sir, I've got cash. Good old-fashioned American cash.'
"To his credit, Paley lived up to every aspect of the agreement. He didn't take anything back. He was a man of his word."
What Steinbrenner clearly didn't realize was that CBS - which bought the Yankees for $11.2 million from Dan Topping and Dell Webb in November 1964 - simply wanted out of the baseball business. Thus, of the Yankees five owners since their inception in 1903, only Steinbrenner bought the team at a discount.
It was at the mention of his father, Henry, a driven, demanding man from whom Steinbrenner spent a lifetime trying to earn approval, that the Boss began to choke up a little.
"What do you think your dad would say now?" I asked him.
"Oh, I don't know," he said, pausing. "I think ... he'd be very happy."
In an effort to restore his buoyant mood, I returned the conversation to that original press conference in 1973, which I attended with my boss, Milton Richman, as a cub reporter for United Press International.
"I've been with you for the whole ride, George," I said, "but I didn't get out of it what you did."
"I know that," he snapped. "But you, I could have done without!"