Yankees' George Steinbrenner dies at 80

NEW YORK (AP) — George Steinbrenner, who rebuilt the New York Yankees into a sports empire with a mix of bluster and big bucks that polarized fans all across America, died on Tuesday. He had just celebrated his 80th birthday on July 4.

Steinbrenner had a heart attack and was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, Florida, where he died, a person close to the owner told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the team had not disclosed those details.

His death was the second in three days to rock the Yankees. Bob Sheppard, the team's revered public address announcer from 1951-07, died Sunday at 99.

For more than 30 years, Steinbrenner lived up to his billing as "the Boss," a nickname he earned and clearly enjoyed as he ruled with an iron fist.

He was known for feuds, clashing with Yankees great Yogi Berra, and hiring manager Billy Martin five times while repeatedly clashing with him. But as his health declined, Steinbrenner let sons Hal and Hank run more of the family business.

Steinbrenner was in fragile health for years, resulting in fewer public appearances and pronouncements. Yet dressed in his trademark navy blue blazer and white turtleneck, he was the model of success: The Yankees won seven World Series and 11 American League titles after his reign began in 1973.

Until the end, Steinbrenner demanded championships. He criticized Joe Torre during the 2007 playoffs, then let the popular manager leave after another loss in the opening round. The team responded last year by winning another title.

In recent times, Steinbrenner let sons Hal and Hank run more of the family business. Still, the former college football coach took umbrage when others questioned his fitness.

"No, I did not have a stroke. I am not ill. I work out daily," Steinbrenner said in 2006. "I'd like to see people who are saying that to come down here and do the workout that I do."

When Steinbrenner headed a group that bought the team on Jan. 3, 1973, he promised absentee ownership. But it didn't turn out that way.

Steinbrenner not only clashed with Berra for more than a decade but paid to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield, deriding the future Hall of Famer as "Mr. May" in 1985 after poor performances.

While he liked to appear stern, Steinbrenner could poke fun at himself. He hosted "Saturday Night Live," clowned with Martin in a commercial, and chuckled at his impersonation on "Seinfeld."

He gave millions to charity, often with one stipulation, that no one be told who made the donation.

The Yankees paid off for him, too, with their value increasing more than 100-fold from the $8.7 million net price his group paid in January 1973. He freely spent his money, shelling out huge amounts for Derek Jeter, Reggie Jackson, Alex Rodriguez, Torre and others in hopes of yet another title.

"Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing," Steinbrenner was fond of saying. "Breathing first, winning next."

One of the most recognized team owners in American history, Steinbrenner's sporting interests extended beyond baseball.

He was an assistant football coach at Northwestern and Purdue in the 1950s and was part of the group that bought the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League in the 1960s.

He was a vice president of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1989-96 and entered six horses in the Kentucky Derby, though he failed to win with any.

To many, though, the Yankees and Steinbrenner were synonymous.

His fans applauded his win-at-all-costs style. His detractors blamed him for spiraling salaries and wrecking Major League Baseball's competitive balance.

Steinbrenner never managed a game, as Ted Turner once did when he owned the Atlanta Braves, but he controlled everything else. When he thought the club's parking lot was too crowded, Steinbrenner stood on the pavement — albeit behind a van, out of sight — and had a guard personally check every driver's credential.

Steinbrenner made no apologies for bombast and behavior, even when it cost him dearly.

He served two long suspensions: He was banned for 2½ years for paying self-described gambler Howie Spira to dig up negative information about Winfield, and for 15 months following a guilty plea in federal court for conspiring to make illegal campaign contributions during the Watergate era.

"I haven't always done a good job, and I haven't always been successful," Steinbrenner said in 2005. "But I know that I have tried."

New York, NY - Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.