"George was a giant of the game, and his devotion to baseball was surpassed only by his devotion to his family and his beloved New York Yankees," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "He was and always will be as much of a New York Yankee as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and all of the other Yankee legends."
Steinbrenner summed up his brash, ultra-competitive persona with six words -- "Breathing is first, winning is second" -- and a sign in his office that read, "Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way."
People feared him, revered him, learned from him, and sometimes couldn't stand to be around him. But when asked about the kind of legacy the man known simply as "The Boss" is leaving behind, it all pointed back to one common theme.
"Greatness," former Yankees outfielder Darryl Strawberry said on ESPN's SportsCenter. "Nothing but greatness. When people finally look back, now that he's passed and his day has come, and they look back at what he built for the New York Yankees ... remarkable. The impact that he's had on baseball, the impact that he's had on young people, the impact that he's had on other people's lives -- there is a man that's resting today, that can rest in peace, that took his life on and did tremendous greatness with it, and gave it back to help people that struggle to show them the way."
Steinbrenner almost singlehandedly returned the Yankees franchise into prominence when he inherited it 37 years ago. In doing so, he was entertaining, controversial, impatient, impulsive, revolutionary, and as a surprise to those not close to him, caring.
He was suspended from the league twice -- in 1974, after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice for making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's election campaign, and in 1990, when he allegedly hired Howard Spira to dig up dirt on Hall of Fame outfielder Dave Winfield. He changed managers 20 times and hired more than a dozen general managers. And countless other times, Steinbrenner clashed with front-office executives, coaches and players who didn't perform up to his expectations.
But then there was All-Star Andy Pettitte at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, talking during a press conference about the Bible verses Steinbrenner gave him before playoff starts. And Derek Jeter, reminiscing about how "The Boss" shockingly knew his name and gave him hope as an 18-year-old in rookie ball.
"It's tough, because he's more than just an owner to me," Jeter said, echoing the thoughts of so many past and present Yankees. "He's a friend of mine. He will be deeply missed."
Declining health problems reached a head when Steinbrenner passed away at about 6:30 a.m. ET in Tampa, Fla. He is survived by his wife, Joan; sisters Susan Norpell and Judy Kamm; children Hank, Hal, Jennifer and Jessica; and his grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements will be private, but there will be an additional public service, with details to be announced at a later date.
"I remember a man driven to succeed," Dodgers hitting coach and former Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly said. "He was the owner, 'The Boss' and No. 1 fan of the Yankees. Our relationship was built on mutual respect. I will never forget and always be grateful for how he treated me and my family, both during my playing days and after I retired."
On Jan. 3, 1973, Steinbrenner led a group of businessmen in purchasing the Yankees from CBS for a net price of $8.7 million. At that time, as former outfielder Dave Winfield described, the Bronx Bombers were an "also-ran organization." Five years later, though, they were champions once again. And today, the franchise is worth more than $1 billion.
"George Steinbrenner forever changed baseball, and hopefully some day we will see him honored in baseball's Hall of Fame as one of the great figures in the history of sports," said Red Sox principal owner John Henry, a former minority owner of the Yankees.
"I think the owners, whether it's expressly or not, measure themselves against [Steinbrenner]," added Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio, who grew up in the Bronx and was a diehard Yankees fan. "We try to emulate that desire to win every year, no matter what."
In Steinbrenner's 37-year tenure, the Yankees posted a Major League-best .566 winning percentage (3,364-2,583-3) while winning 11 American League pennants and leading all of baseball with seven World Series championships.
"He stirred up a lot of controversy, but he always knew how to win, and how to find a way to win," said longtime manager Jack McKeon, whose Marlins beat the Yankees in the 2003 World Series. "His passion was to win, regardless of the cost. He built probably one of the greatest organizations in professional sports."
Sporting News named Steinbrenner the No. 1 "Most Powerful Man in Sports" in '02, while Forbes Magazine has consistently listed the Yankees as the most valuable franchise in baseball.
Steinbrenner appeared in self-effacing Miller Lite commercials with Martin, was a recurring character on the hit sitcom "Seinfeld," hosted "Saturday Night Live," frequently found himself on the back page of the New York tabloids and is probably responsible for that catchphrase Donald Trump now uses as part of a hit TV show -- "You're fired!"
"George Steinbrenner was too complex a person to adequately describe in a short statement, but he was a great friend of mine, and he will be missed," White Sox and Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf said. "His impact on the game cannot be denied."
Steinbrenner also launched the YES Network, which gave the Yankees a whole new revenue stream and has been one of the nation's most-watched regional sports networks for the past seven years.
"He was truly the most influential and innovative owner in all of sports," former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said. "He transformed baseball and sports broadcasting with the YES Network and brought New York seven World Series. Beyond that, he made the Yankees a source of great pride in being a New Yorker."
Underscored within the fiery demeanor was Steinbrenner's charitable endeavors. He gave millions to worthwhile causes, but asked for no recognition in return.
Steinbrenner earned the Tampa Civitan Club's "Outstanding Citizen" Award in 1993, and the Tampa Law Enforcement named him "Citizen of the Year" in '98 for funding a scholarship for children of slain law-enforcement officers. He was honored as "Outstanding New Yorker" in '97 and was credited in 2009 by the Museum of the City of New York as one of the "New York City 400," recognizing "people who have helped create the world's greatest city since its founding in 1609."
"I think sometimes that's what people don't understand about him -- he cares about people," said Strawberry, who recalled Steinbrenner's visit to the hospital while he was recovering from cancer.
"He was like a father I never had. A great father to encourage me and to be there, and when I got knocked down, he was still there to pick me up. I have nothing but great respect for him and praises for him, and I will always be grateful to him for the opportunities he's given me to be a part of the Yankee family."
The last couple of days have been rough for the Yankees family. On Sunday, legendary Yankee Stadium public-address announcer Bob Sheppard died at age 99. Then, two days later, Steinbrenner passed away.
His last full season as Yankees owner, however, ended in fine fashion, as the club Steinbrenner poured his heart and soul into moved to a majestic new ballpark and claimed its 27th World Series championship.
For a man who put winning a close second behind breathing, there is no better ending.
"He was a giant in our game, and he built an empire," Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda said. "All he was was a winner. He wanted to give the fans a winner, and that's exactly what he did."