There was no doubt where the ball was heading. Chris Chambliss, first baseman for the New York Yankees, watched, bat-in-hand, as it sailed high into the sky before dropping into the right field bleachers. Yankee Stadium erupted. As Chambliss rounded the bases, fans poured onto the field celebrating the team’s first American League title in twelve years, an unacceptably long period for the most successful franchise in the history of sports.
I was never a Yankees fan, rooting instead for the sometimes beloved, often infuriating, and always less successful Mets. Still, one of the most vivid sports-related memories of my teen years came in 1976, when I attended the deciding game of the American League Championship series between the Yankees and the Kansas City Royals. I was a last-minute invitee to the game, when unforeseen circumstances left my cousin Wilfred with an extra ticket.
We sat in my cousin’s seats, five rows from the field, on the first base side of home plate. It was from there that I watched the Yankees take and maintain an early lead before Royals third baseman and future hall-of-famer George Brett hit a three-run homer in the top of the eighth to tie the score at six. The score remained tied until Chambliss sent pitcher Mark Littell’s first offering into the right field stands to lead off the ninth, setting off pandemonium.
The celebration carried over onto the streets outside the stadium. Fans were yelling, screaming, yelping and crying. It was a surreal scene, as strangers embraced and sometimes kissed. At some point I bumped into my high school friend Jack, whom I did not know was also at the game. He hugged me and said something that I could not hear over the roar before disappearing into the crowd.
My memories of that game were awakened by the news that Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died Tuesday, at the age of eighty. During the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, Steinbrenner was the face of the Yankees, a bombastic, larger-than-life personality, who was also very much a visionary.
In 1973, Steinbrenner and a group of investors purchased the struggling franchise from CBS for just under nine million dollars. Steinbrenner then set about rebuilding the team into a first class organization that would attract some of the best players in the game, multiply in value, and win numerous championships.
Steinbrenner’s management skills were at times questioned. He had a history of hiring and firing managers at will, and often overspent on free agents simply because, as the head of the richest team in the game, he could afford to do so. He was criticized by many for what was sometimes perceived as bullying and meddling. Yet no one could ever question Steinbrenner’s commitment to winning, unbridled enthusiasm for the game, or impact on baseball.
Since 1973, the Yankees have become the model for success in sports, winning seven world championships, increasing in value to more than a billion dollars (number one in the world, according to Forbes magazine), and forming their own television network (YES) which reaches millions of homes per year. None of this would have occurred without Steinbrenner, the man commonly referred to as “The Boss” by the New York media. His passing should be mourned by all who follow baseball, for he was truly a giant of the game. Without Steinbrenner, my memories of Chambliss and the biggest block party in the Bronx would likely not exist.