With the loss of two Yankees legends in the span of three days, I thought it would be fitting to talk to Steve Lombardi, founder of the Yankees blog, WasWatching.com, and a follower of the Yankees since George Steinbrenner’s first season as owner of the Yankees, back in 1973.
Keefe: You have been following the Yankees since 1973, and lived through the entire George Steinbrenner era. On a day like today, it feels surreal that The Boss is no longer with us. Even though George hasn’t been the in the forefront of the front office or the polarizing figure he once was for the last few years, it is still feel weird to think about the Yankees without him. What are your memories of The Boss?
Lombardi: I went to my first Yankees game on August 8, 1973 when I was 10 years old, so I sort of feel like George Steinbrenner and I have been running side by side with him in terms of our passion for the team. And now, there does feel like there’s a void there for me; granted, he has been out of the picture for the last few years, and he was 80 years old and in ill health when he passed, I should have been prepared for today’s news, but it’s still somewhat of a shock and surreal.
In terms of memories, like many Yankees fans, I’m only focusing on the good stuff now. Sure, there were times in the past where his quick trigger and impulsive moves made the organization look bad, but in retrospect, as Yankees fans, we were very lucky to have an owner who wanted to win so badly, who was not looking to stick profits into his pocket and who was willing to spend money to bring a winner to New York. As I have recently written, in his salad days, Big Stein was narcissistic, illogical, pompous, impetuous, delusional and pathological, and that made life terrible for all those who worked for him. But, at least 70 percent of the time, he gave Yankees fans teams that allowed them to walk the streets with their heads up and chests out. You can’t say that about a lot of owners in baseball or sports, period.
Keefe: George Steinbrenner was certainly a unique owner and extraordinary businessman, as well as a pioneer of the game in many different ways. He always made sure he reinvested his money back into the team and always tried to put what he felt was the best team on the field for the Yankees even if it didn’t always work out. What would you say was the most significant move George made during his time as the owner of the Yankees?
Lombardi: That would be signing Catfish Hunter back in December 1974. The Yankees had a pretty good team in ’74, yet signing Hunter (to what was then a huge contract) set the tone and let the rest of baseball know that the Yankees were going to do whatever it took to bring premium talent and winning ballplayers to New York.
Bringing Catfish was start. That, combined with Gabe Paul’s trades led to the pennant in 1976, and that led to Reggie Jackson coming and the rings in ’77 and ’78. During the 1980s, the Yankees had a lot of wins but no rings. Wanting to get back to those rings led to the magic of the late ’90s. But, again, it all started with bringing in Hunter. For what it’s worth, I think Steinbrenner has mentioned this in the past too.
Keefe: The Yankees also lost an iconic figure not just in New York, but in all of sports in Bob Sheppard. What are your memories of Bob Sheppard from the old Stadium and how will you remember him?
Lombardi: Bob Sheppard was a small part of the Yankees organization but a major part of their history. That’s not an easy thing to pull off. Pete Sheehy did it. Gene Monahan is doing it. And, Sheppard is in that group too. It’s a very small team picture.
I will always remember him as being part of the Yankee Stadium experience before the Stadium became what it was in 2009. It’s so different attending games now, and the difference is not all good. Bob Sheppard will forever be part of that special “before time” Yankee Stadium feeling compared to what the Yankees, and going to their games, is like today.