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Yankees owner George Steinbrenner dies at age 80 in Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 08:13 AM
TAMPA -

New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, an American icon who was born on the Fourth of July, a sports tycoon whose bluster and larger-than-life persona helped return baseball's most storied franchise to glory, died Tuesday at the age of 80 after suffering a heart attack in his adopted hometown of Tampa.

Emergency crews responded Monday night to a call to his Tampa home and transported him to the hospital. Steinbrenner, who had been in declining health in recent years, had been keeping a very low profile, making very few public appearances.

"He was a visionary and a giant in the world of sports,'' his family said in a statement released by Major League Baseball. "He took a great but struggling franchise and turned it into a champion again."

Funeral arrangements will be private. There will be an additional public service with details to be announced at a later date.

Steinbrenner had been in fragile health for years, resulting in fewer public appearances and pronouncements. Steinbrenner had fainted at a memorial service for NFL star Otto Graham in 2003, appeared weak in 2006 at the groundbreaking for the new Yankee Stadium and later became ill while watching his granddaughter in a college play.

He was honored by family and staff members on July 2, two days before his birthday, with a surprise party at Steinbrenner Field, spring home of the Yankees. On May 16, he and his family appeared at the dedication of George M. Steinbrenner High School in northwest Hillsborough County. Steinbrenner smiled as he received a standing ovation from students and school officials. He was presented a copy of the school's first yearbook and a crystal heart inscribed with "heart of a warrior.''

It's not a coincidence that Steinbrenner High's athletic teams have the "Warrior'' nickname. Since making Tampa his adopted home after purchasing the Yankees in 1973, Steinbrenner has been relentless as he carved out a legacy as unique as the franchise he swore to uphold.

Recognized as a baseball maverick, Steinbrenner has deep roots in Tampa and is beloved here for his philanthropy, generosity and community spirit.

"I know of no one who has moved here from somewhere else who has done more for this community than he did,'' said Tom McEwen, former Tribune sports editor and columnist who knew Steinbrenner for decades.

"We wouldn't be the vibrant place we are today and not have the great future we have without him. He never stops.''

Several times, McEwen introduced Steinbrenner as the keynote speaker at local functions, usually punctuating his remarks with this kicker, "George Steinbrenner would've been a good king.''

Steinbrenner's drive was felt by everyone connected with the Yankees.

Steinbrenner was admittedly difficult to work for, earning a nickname that stuck throughout his ownership tenure:

The Boss.

Steinbrenner resurrected the Yankees dynasty and spent lavishly, frustrating millions of small-market baseball fans in the process.

Wearing his patriotism on his pinstripes, he clung to principles learned at home and reinforced at Culver Military Academy in Indiana.

Once portrayed as a bully with a billfold, Steinbrenner reshaped his public image dramatically after hiring Joe Torre as manager in 1995 and taking a less public role in the Yankees' day-to-day operations.

"You've got to be able to ride out the downs and take what's coming to you,'' Steinbrenner said in 2002 during a three-hour lunch at Malio's, his favorite Tampa restaurant. "Don't spend too much time dwelling on your victories.''

There have been so many since George Michael Steinbrenner III came into this world.

He was born again on Jan. 3, 1973, when he led a group of 17 businessmen who purchased the Yankees from CBS.

The first child of a demanding German shipping magnate and an Irish housewife, Steinbrenner was shielded from the hardships of the Great Depression, but learned the value of a dollar and a good deed.

Steinbrenner was born in Rocky River, Ohio, on the Fourth of July in 1930. His dad owned the American Shipbuilding Co., based in Cleveland.

After two years in the Air Force and a fling with coaching football and basketball, Steinbrenner returned to take over the struggling shipbuilding company, which he eventually moved to Tampa.

"I saw it as a nice place to live," he told the Tribune in 2004. "It was not as big as it is now. It didn't have all the problems it has today. What it had was potential and the people willing to make an investment in its future."

After he eventually settled in Tampa, Steinbrenner's philanthropy touched thousands of lives.

"It's nice to have money because of what you can do with it,'' he said. ""I live OK because I work hard, but when I see a need is there, I like to give.''

He found plenty of needy causes, ranging from the opera stage to the Little League field.

He played a key role on the U.S. Olympic Committee and remained a tireless champion for American youth.

In 2001, he committed $700,000 from the Steinbrenner Family Foundation to The Academy of Holy Names for construction on an aquatic center.

Hillsborough County coaches have been honored at an annual dinner/dance sponsored by Steinbrenner, who also sponsored an annual Children's Holiday Concert at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

Steinbrenner doted on his grandchildren and was startled by their prowess on the Internet, noting he didn't even carry a cell phone or know how to turn on a computer.

Along the way, this former glee club president at Williams (Mass.) College found time to marry, raise four children, develop a successful horse farm in Ocala and promote Broadway plays.

While proud of his versatility, Steinbrenner knew it was his stewardship of a storied franchise that forged his legend.

When Steinbrenner stood in front of the microphones for the first time as Yankees owner, this relatively anonymous Midwestern businessman guaranteed a winner by the fourth year.

His team delivered in that fourth year, 1976, as the Yankees reached the World Series for the first time since 1964. After losing to the Reds in four games, the Yankees won back-to-back World Series championships.

Then, starting in 1996, Torre added four World Series rings in a five-year span.

Steinbrenner's penchant for making headlines was priceless for New York's competing tabloids, which gleefully turned over their back pages to chronicle the latest fired manager or free agent signing.

Billy Martin was hired on five separate occasions, including the infamous Old Timer's Day announcement in 1978 that Martin would return to the dugout in 1980.

"He's done some crazy things, like we all have,'' Yankees pitcher David Wells said. "But most of all, George wants to win.''

Steinbrenner's impulsive behavior proved fertile material for ""Seinfeld,'' where series co-creator Larry David provided the voice for The Boss.

Steinbrenner even flew out to California to shoot a cameo for the 1996 season finale, but NBC never aired the segment.

Friends marveled at Steinbrenner's loyalty and acts of generosity.

In 1974, when Steinbrenner pleaded guilty on a felony charge for illegal campaign contributions, New York's second-year owner accepted his punishment alone, refusing to drag others into the fray.

Steinbrenner was pardoned in 1989 by President Reagan in one of his final official acts in office.

Regrets, he had a few.

Steinbrenner said he never should have fired Dick Howser, who led New York to 103 wins in 1980, then was dismissed after New York was swept by Kansas City in the American League playoffs.

Yogi Berra, a Yankees icon who won 10 championships as a player, was discarded as manager just 16 games into the '85 season.

That's when Berra lived up to one of his famous sayings: ""If you come to a fork in the road, take it.''

Berra boycotted Steinbrenner, refusing to appear at any Yankees functions for 14 years. The two men remained distant until an emotional reconciliation, sparked by Steinbrenner's apology.

He was banned from baseball for 2 1/2 years for paying self-described gambler Howie Spira to dig up negative information about Yankees player Dave Winfield.

The return of Yankees glory prompted Steinbrenner to branch out and rediscover his family tree.

"Family means just about everything to me,'' he said. "Sometimes you get a little away from it and when you do, you have to stop. That's what my wife, Joan, is very good at -- helping me reassess my priorities. Guys that are involved in sports can get carried away.''

In September, 2003, the Steinbrenners moved into a home in the Golf View Estates neighborhood near Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club.

"We love Tampa,'' he said. ""I don't think we would ever give any thought to moving away. Tampa is my home.''

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