Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in April 2018 and is reprinted here by permission.
When New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died in 2010, having presided over the franchise for 37 years and seven championships, his obituary in the New York Times credited him for taking over a “declining Yankees team” and building it into a powerhouse. Most Yankee fans would agree, just as they might shudder at the mention of the “CBS Years,” the eight seasons (1965-1972) when the Yankees were owned by Steinbrenner’s predecessor, the Columbia Broadcasting System.
This is understandable. When CBS bought the club they had won 14 AL pennants in 16 seasons. After zero pennants in eight seasons, CBS sold to Steinbrenner, and a few years later they started winning pennants again. But is this view fair?
The “CBS Years” coincided with an unusual period in baseball history, when money meant the least. Once Jacob Ruppert bought the Yankees in 1915 they were always well positioned when team had stars to sell – like Babe Ruth. Just as importantly, until the creation of the amateur draft in 1965 the Yankees could use their money and their prestige to land the best minor leaguers and the top amateur talent, helping them stay on top for decades. “Hello son, how’d you like to play for the New York Yankees?” For 50 years, this was a pretty powerful pitch.
In November 1964 Del Webb and Dan Topping, who had run the Yankees well for more than 20 years, sold 80% of the team (and eventually the other 20%) to CBS for $14 million. The purchase was part of a concerted diversification effort for CBS — in this period they also purchased magazine publishers, toy companies, and the electric guitar company Fender. Like CBS, the Yankees were a famous and successful enterprise, and its continued success would only further enhance CBS’s brand.
CBS made no changes in management. Topping stuck around as team president, and Ralph Houk as GM. And just like that, the Yankees fell to sixth place, their worst record in 40 years. Could CBS have hurt the team so quickly?
In fact, the team declined for the same reasons most teams decline: injuries (Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Jim Bouton), and aging (especially Elston Howard). The collapse was “shocking” because they were THE YANKEES, who had finished over .500 for 39 consecutive seasons. What was shocking was not the sudden decline, but the fact that the team had been able to retool and reload for 40 years without decline. But realistically, when Maris, Howard, Whitey Ford and Mantle got hurt and/or old at the same time, team could be expected to fill such huge holes.
In addition, their young players – Bouton, Joe Pepitone, Tom Tresh, Al Downing, Phil Linz — many who had shown such promise in the early 1960s, did not maintain their early gains.
After another bad year in 1966, CBS named Mike Burke club president, and Burke hired the well-respected Lee MacPhail as GM. Burke was a dashing figure, especially compared with the staid and conservative Yankees. “I won’t be satisfied,” he said, “until the Yankees are once again the champions of the world.” MacPhail began a total rebuild, discarding Hector Lopez, Roger Maris, Clete Boyer and Pedro Ramos, receiving mainly untried in return. Ford and Howard both moved on during the 1967 season, and Mantle a year later.
So now what? How to do you rebuild a dynasty with no ability to sign scores of amateurs and no free agency? You do what the other 19 teams were trying: development, and shrewd trading. And patience.
Ever so slowly, the Yankees began coming up with talented players. Mel Stottlemyre was the one youngster from the 1964 team that did not disappoint, starring into the 1970s. Outfielder Roy White debuted in 1965 and by 1968 he was an underrated star. Pitcher Fritz Peterson came up in 1966 and won 109 games over the next eight seasons. Righty Stan Bahnsen won 17 games and the Rookie of the Year Award in 1968. Bobby Murcer, an infielder shifted to center field, became one of the league’s best players by 1969. All of these players would have fit in on the great 1950’s teams just fine. The 1968 club finished 83-79 and in fifth place; two years later they finished second at 93-69.
So how did they draft? In 1965, the first year of the draft, the Yankees nabbed Bahnsen in Round 4 but had less luck the following year. In his first year in charge, MacPhail had the number one overall pick in 1967, but their selection of Ron Blomberg highlights the difficulty of selecting the right players.
The Yankees struck gold in 1968, taking catcher Thurman Munson with the fourth pick in the draft. The Yankees also drafted outfielder Charlie Spikes in 1969, pitcher Doc Medich in 1970, pitcher Ron Guidry in 1971, and pitcher Scott McGregor in 1972. By the early 1970s the Yankees farm system had gone from a weakness to a strength.
In 1970 the Yankees offense featured three stars from the system: White (22 home runs, .293), Murcer (23 homers), and Rookie-of-the-Year Munson (.302), destined to be their cocky leader. The club also featured three very good home grown starters — Stottlemyre, Peterson, and Bahnsen — and a great bullpen of Lindy McDaniel, Jack Aker and Ron Klimkowski (all acquired in MacPhail trades).
The Yankees could not catch the great Orioles of this period, but they had become a relevant team.
MacPhail made his best two trades in 1972, one just before the season and one just after.
In March the club swapped singles-hitting first baseman Danny Cater and minor-league infielder Mario Guerrero to the Red Sox for relief pitcher Sparky Lyle. Lyle became a sensation, finishing 9-5 with 35 saves and a 1.92 ERA. By August he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the Yankees were in the pennant race. “You know,” MacPhail said late in the season, responding to his disgruntled fan base, “the Yankees are in a strange spot. They are not competing against the Tigers, Orioles and the rest of the league. They are competing against ghosts and that’s a battle you can’t win.”
In November MacPhail dealt four of the farm system’s recently developed players — Charlie Spikes, John Ellis, Rusty Torres, and Jerry Kenney — to the Indians for third baseman Graig Nettles and reserve catcher Gerry Moses.
Nettles was a perfect fit for the club: a defensive star who hit with power from the left side, a skill particularly valued in Yankee Stadium with its short right field porch. Spikes was the big prize for Cleveland, a 21-year-old slugger and the jewel of the Yankees revamped system. MacPhail resisted giving him up, but it was the only way to get Nettles.
Burke made his most lasting contribution to the future of New York and the Yankees when he came to a deal with Mayor John Lindsay for the city to thoroughly remodel Yankee Stadium. The 50-year-old ballpark had been deteriorating for many years until Burke had the interior and exterior painted in 1967. Five years later he talked Lindsay into backing a $24 million renovation, the same cost the city had borne to build Shea Stadium for the Mets in 1964. Burke had leverage – he had been aggressively pursued by officials from New Jersey who successfully lured the football Giants at the same time. Burke would have none of it. “Yankee Stadium is the most famous arena since the Roman Coliseum,” he said.
The renovation ended up costing the city more than $100 million (largely due to major road redesign), but Burke can be said to have saved the Yankees for New York. The additional revenues from the revamped ballpark would be critical in helping underwrite the team’s aggressive approach to the coming free agency.
As the calendar flipped to 1973, many observers believed that the Yankees were the best team in the AL East and in position to regain some of their former glory. The club had added Nettles and Matty Alou to a strong offense. They had three excellent starters and a great bullpen. Burke and MacPhail were finally poised to take the last step on their journey, in their sixth year in charge. Odds makers in Las Vegas made the Yankees the 9-5 favorite to win the AL East.
In January 1973, CBS sold the Yankees to a group led by George Steinbrenner. “CBS came to the conclusion,” said a spokesman, “that perhaps it was not as viable for the network to own the Yankees as for some people. Fans get worked up over great men, not great corporations. We came to the realization, I think, that sports franchises really flourish better with people owning them.”
There is no denying the success that followed, nor that Steinbrenner’s single-minded obsession with winning pennants was a big part of that success.
But the team he bought was one of the most talented in the American League, one that most observers believed was ready to win. What’s more, the team was about to open its renovated ballpark, thanks to Mike Burke and CBS, and would once again lead the league in attendance year after year.
Finally, the dawn of free agency meant that Steinbrenner could use his large market advantage in ways that CBS could not. A new era was coming, and it was playing right into the Yankees hands.