ESPN 30 for 30: The House of Steinbrenner (2010)

Directed by Barbara Kopple

I was born, raised and currently reside in the city of Columbus, Ohio. This is a significant piece of information when it comes to my viewpoint and personal experience of a documentary chronicling “The Boss”, George Steinbrenner, who was the long time owner of the New York Yankees baseball club before passing that title on to his son and soon thereafter passing from this earth. For as big as the sport is, and as big as the Yankees themselves are, I wonder how many people knew that the Columbus Clippers were the Yankees AAA team from 1979-2006, which means I am familiar with the franchise. I can even boast the story that my dad once ran into Steinbrenner himself while at an Ohio State basketball game. No, seriously, he ran into him, like physically.

Steinbrenner took control of the Yankees in 1973, bringing the storied franchise World Series victories in 1977 and 1978, but after that the Steinbrenner years became a struggle of control between Steinbrenner and himself really, as he went through managers like most people go through toothbrushes (well, those with agreeable hygiene anyway). The team slumped through the 80s and even early 90s until, after a short ban on Steinbrenner, the Yankees and their famed boss came back to win the Series in 1996, followed by a three peat from 1998-2000. He carried the franchise like no other owner in the history of the game and became perhaps the most visible owner in sports. But new controversy was spawned after the Yankees moved from the “House that Ruth Built”, Yankee Stadium (b. 1923) an historical monument if there ever was one, to the new Yankee Stadium in 2009. They quickly christened the new stadium with a new championship, but high ticket prices and the demolition of original Yankee Stadium kept some fans complaining anyway.

Before beginning the series, this was one of the ones that caught my eye for a few reasons. The first was simply the fact that it comes from the same filmmaker that made one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, Harlan County U.S.A., which was directed by Barbara Kopple. It was also intriguing for being about not only baseball, but the Yankees. For one, I hate the Yankees, but that is simply because I despise their success, but I am not blind enough to be able to tell that they are perhaps the best franchise in any sport ever. 27 World Series championships speak for themselves, but the legends abound from Ruth and Gehrig to DiMaggio and Mantle and even today with Derek Jeter. So how can all that culminate in such a pedestrian film?

I think most of the problem comes from the clear lack of focus in the film. Harlan County, U.S.A. was a film captured in the moment. Kopple did it masterfully, but here she seems to be waiting for something that never really comes. There is something built into the story of the closing of something as storied as Yankee Stadium which evokes emotions, especially for someone like me who is essentially in love with the game. But Kopple tries to cover too many things in too little of detail to make a meaningful investigation into the tenure of George Steinbrenner. It takes twists and turns like it has no idea which way it is, or should be, going.

Steinbrenner is a great character, and was a great ambassador of the game as troubled and controversial as he was. I can’t say I like the fact that he spent as much as he did on the players and teams which brought him and the Yankees championships and pennants. I think Moneyball, and the real team the film was based on the Oakland Athletics, proves that there is a difference between teams that seems unfair. As for Yankee Stadium, I am completely fine with the fact that they built a new one. Baseball is a business and there is money and convenience to be had in new state of the art facilities. But at the same time I do not agree with the original Yankee Stadium being demolished. It is just s significant as any other historical building which is protected by the government. And as a history guy, I can at the very least appreciate all of the history which happened in that venue. I just wish a better film could have come together to honor it.

** – Poor


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