George M. Steinbrenner and Edward I. Koch were the two bosses of New York during the 1980s: one controlled the city and the other its beloved baseball team. Although their backgrounds were very different – Koch was a Bronx born son of immigrant Jews, while Steinbrenner descended from a long line of blue-blood Cleveland patricians with German ancestry – both men exemplified the no-nonsense, outspoken persona of a New Yorker, so, naturally, their worlds collided on more than a few occasions.
Of all former New York City mayors, none is associated more closely with the Yankees than Rudolph Guiliani, who regularly manifested his lifelong love of the pinstripes during his tenure at Gracie Mansion. However, Koch, who passed away today at the age of 88, arguably had a much greater impact on the team’s history.
Throughout the 1980s, George Steinbrenner, who had grown dissatisfied with the Yankees’ home in the Bronx, began flirting with other municipalities about a potential move. Not only did Steinbrenner implicitly threaten to flee Koch’s birthplace of the Bronx, but even more blasphemously, he was reportedly considering a possible move to Jersey. Granted, the Boss was tied to Yankee Stadium by a lease that extended until 2002, but that didn’t stop him from exploring options, including legal means to break the commitment. Luckily, it never got that far. In November 1987, hizzoner and the Boss agreed to extend the lease until 2032, which, at the very least, bought the city enough time to keep Steinbrenner appeased until it came time to build the new Yankee Stadium.
He’s not doing a Gorbachev. He’s not laying down demands comparable to Star Wars.” – Mayor Ed Koch, talking about George Steinbrenner’s negotiating position, AP, October 27, 1987
Interestingly, Koch’s ability and willingness to negotiate with Steinbrenner was the second time during his administration that he prevented the Yankees from fleeing the Bronx. In 1983, the team made tentative arrangements to open the season in Denver, Colorado. Under a veil of concern regarding the incomplete status of Yankee Stadium renovations, the Boss abruptly decided to move the team’s traditional opener in the Bronx to Mile High Stadium, which boasted 20,000 more seats than the House that Ruth Built, not to mention a fan base hungry for baseball that was prepared to buy them all. Citing the city’s lease, which required the Yankees to play every single home game in the Bronx, Koch sued to prevent the team from abandoning the Big Apple for a Rocky Mountain High. Acting Justice Richard S. Lane of the New York State Supreme Court agreed with Koch, and the Yankees’ road show was canceled.
The Yankee pinstripes belong to New York like Central Park, like the Statue of Liberty, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, like the Metropolitan Opera, like the Stock Exchange, like the lights of Broadway, etc. Collectively they are ‘The Big Apple.’ Any loss represents a diminution of the quality of life here, a blow to the city’s standing at the top, however narcissistic that perception may be.” – New York State Acting Justice Alan Lane, quoted by the New York Times, January 11, 1983
As the basis for his decision, Justice Lane argued that the Yankees had intrinsic value to New York, and taking them out of the city for even a short period would harm its way of life. A disgruntled Steinbrenner bristled at the decision, but made sure to note the gravity of the judge’s remarks. “The Yankees and their fans…have to be pleased to learn from the Court…how important the New York Yankees are to the City of New York,” Steinbrenner told reporters. However, flattery wasn’t foremost on his mind. “I certainly hope the City will remember this the next time we commence negotiations,” he added. If mayors down the line felt hamstrung in negotiations with the Boss, well, they could thank Justice Lane for that.
When Koch wasn’t battling the Boss to keep him from leaving town, he was boasting on his behalf. In August 1980, Koch welcomed his fellow Democrats to Madison Square Garden for the party’s national convention, and, seized by the wheeling and dealing for the nomination, placed a wager with his counterpart from Baltimore. At the time, the Yankees held a narrow lead over the Orioles for first place, but a big five-game series in Baltimore was looming. So, while Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts tried to win over delegates from President Carter, Koch and Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer made a deal of their own. If the Yankees won the upcoming tilt, Koch would receive a smorgasbord of Baltimore’s ethnic foods, but if the Orioles came out on top, hizzoner would have to send a basket of apples picked on the farm of Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau. Like Senator Kennedy, Koch lost the bet when the Bronx Bombers dropped three of five, but, in the process, he helped revive an old practice that would once again become an annual World Series tradition.
Mayor Schaefer got to enjoy his apples, but New York had the last laugh when the Bronx Bombers held off the Orioles to win the division. Unfortunately, however, there wouldn’t be a parade that year. In fact, under Koch’s administration, the team would be greeted by ticker tape at the end of only one season, 1978, his first as mayor. So, even though hizzoner’s influence on the future of the Yankees in New York was a positive one, ultimately, by the standards of a franchise that measures its success in rings, Koch wasn’t doing very well.