In his 37 imperious years as the Yankees’ principal owner, George Steinbrenner regularly held meetings with the team’s brain trust at Malio’s, a steakhouse in Tampa, Fla., where Steinbrenner had a home and eventually set up the club’s spring-training site. Team executives and scouts — as well as Steinbrenner’s sons, Hank and Hal — would scrutinize the roster, player by player, point by point. The gatherings were long. They were sometimes contentious.
“After a while, George would many times say, ‘You’re all here, but this is a decision of one,’ meaning him,” Randy Levine, the Yankees’ president, said on Tuesday after Hank Steinbrenner died of a longstanding illness at 63. “And many times, Hank would stand up at those meetings and say, ‘Well, you may not want to hear it, but here it is,’ on a player.”
Hank, George’s eldest son, was a throwback of sorts. Like his father, Hank spoke his mind, even if the words were a bit crass. He would sometimes tangle with his team’s leaders, whether it was General Manager Brian Cashman or Buck Showalter, the former manager. He was the opposite of the modern, corporate, buttoned-up baseball owner.
As news of Hank’s death spread, many remembered him as a bombastic personality with several interests beyond baseball. He was seen as the free spirit of the Yankees’ top duo, while his younger brother, Hal, was the pragmatic, quieter figure. They became co-chairmen of one of richest and most storied franchises in sports in 2007, three years before their father died. But it was Hal, now 50, who became the final authority on Yankees decisions.
“Hank was a genuine and gentle spirit who treasured the deep relationships he formed with those closest to him,” the Steinbrenner family said in a statement issued by the team on Tuesday morning. “He was introduced to the Yankees organization at a very young age, and his love for sports and competition continued to burn brightly throughout his life. Hank could be direct and outspoken, but in the very same conversation show great tenderness and lightheartedness.”
Nothing is expected to change about the Yankees leadership structure. Hal is the managing general partner, and since he assumed day-to-day control of the Yankees, they have won just one World Series, in 2009. (They won five titles under his father.) The team has been run like a hybrid of the old Yankees, combining the financial might associated with George Steinbrenner’s era (see: the spending sprees of 2009 and 2014) with efforts at restraint (see: getting under the luxury tax in 2018) and a broad embrace of analytics.
George’s dream was to have his sons run the team. During the 1985 season, he made Hank serve as a special adviser of sorts, traveling with the Yankees and learning the ins and outs of the operation. But Hank asked to step away from the team to run the family’s horse farm in Florida, and his father agreed.
Asked why he preferred to be around horses more than players, Hank said, “Because the horses don’t talk back,” according to Bill Pennington’s book, “Chumps to Champs: How the Worst Teams in Yankees History Led to the ’90s Dynasty.”
Hank later turned down the opportunity to run the team when his father was suspended by M.L.B. in 1990 for consorting with a known gambler. And as their father’s health declined, Hank knew that Hal was suited for the responsibilities of running the Yankees.
Levine said Hank preferred to stay behind the scenes. He kept a guitar in his office and loved horses. “You could converse with Hank, in a matter of minutes, whether it was sports, whether it was rock ‘n’ roll, popular culture or history, and he would hold his own in each of them,” Levine said.
Recently, Hank had become deeply involved in auto racing with his son, George Michael Steinbrenner IV.
“Ever since I can remember, my dad has always been my biggest supporter,” his son said in a statement on Tuesday. “He taught me determination, confidence and the desire to win above all else. Being a massive racing fan himself, when I sought to start a racing team, he stood in my corner the whole way.”
When it came to evaluating baseball talent, Hank would speak up. Levine likened him to an experienced baseball scout with a great eye. And if Hank had an opinion about how the Yankees were operating, he wouldn’t shy from voicing it, even to his father.
“He was very honest,” Levine said. “But he always did it in a very kind, not personal, not partisan way. He was Hank. He would just state the facts, and often he would do it with humor.”
Hank would occasionally jab at his team’s own players or make veiled comments about its managers. He criticized M.L.B.’s playoff format.
The Tampa Bay Rays — who received money as part of M.L.B.’s revenue-sharing agreement, in which larger-market teams help the smaller ones — drew Hank’s ire after a 2008 flare-up in a running feud between the teams. “I would prefer if teams want to target the Yankees that they at least start giving some of that revenue sharing and luxury tax money back,” he said.
Baseball, including its owners, used to be full of personality, said Goose Gossage, the former star reliever whose frequent criticisms of the franchise have alienated the Yankees. Gossage believes the game has been sapped of fun by, among other things, its reliance on technology. Hank’s bravado, though, reminded Gossage of the family patriarch.
“No one was going to replace Mr. Steinbrenner,” Gossage said. He added: “But when he passed, I thought Hank would be the guy running the ball club. It didn’t work out that way. It’s very sad to hear of his passing. Hank had a good personality. Very outgoing. He was closer to the way his dad was than probably Hal is.”