I would say that George Steinbrenner ranks as one of the three most influential owners in the history of major league baseball.
1. BARNEY DREYFUSS (1865-1932)
It is an embarrassment to anyone concerned that this man was not inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame until 2008, some 76 years after his death.
For there is absolutely no question that he was the single most important non-participant in the sport from the turn of the century until the day he died. He was not the commissioner, but he was the man everyone in baseball consulted on any matter of business, administrative procedure, and, yes, talent evaluation He was, quite simply, The Smartest Man In Baseball, and he also may have been the most honorable.
He owned the Pittsburgh Pirates, and before that, the Louisville Colonels. A German immigrant, he started out as a brewery employee who took a liking to baseball. He became the most indispensable man in the game.
Sam Bernstein summarized Dreyfuss' influence in a SABR piece awhile back:
"Between 1895 and 1932, Dreyfuss was in the middle of every important decision facing professional baseball, including syndication, contraction, league conflicts, the Federal League, scheduling, and, of course, the scandal arising from the 1919 World Series."
He mentioned scheduling. Barrney Dreyfuss made up the schedule for both leagues. He did not mention that Barney Dreyfuss created the World Series by issuing a challenge to the Red Sox in 1903 and then by devising the rules and provisions by which the games would be played.
Dreyfuss constructed baseball's first steel-frame, triple-tiered ballpark, Forbes Field, in 1909. This was totally innovative.
He invested money for his players, promising to absorb any losses. But my favorite Barney Dreyfuss factoid is this: When the time came to issue the checks for having played in the 1903 World Series to his Pittsburgh Pirates, he made them out not to the players themselves, but to the wives, mothers, sisters or significant others. Gotta love that.
He towered over the game. There has really never been anyone like him.
2. WALTER O'MALLEY (1903-79)
It's very simple. He altered professional sports forever by moving the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles, and by dragging Horace Stoneham and the New York Giants at the conclusion of the 1957 season. True, the Rams and 49ers existed in LA and San Francisco, but the NFL was relatively small potatoes in the 50s. Baseball was King.
O'Malley has been routinely vilified for having done this, and people who really ought to know better should have done their homework. Look, O'Malley wasn't cuddly. He was a hard-edged lawyer and not exactly the life of the party. But it has been documented to my satisfaction, anyway, that the real villan in the Dodger scenario was the omnipresent Robert Moses, who thwarted O'Malley's plans to build a new park in Brooklyn because he had grander designs for that property.
By moving to the West Coast, he opened up the final frontier and he set in motion all the expansion forces, in all sports, that have changed the landscape forever. Remember that until 1958 major league baseball was not played west of St. Louis.
O'Malley also built Dodger Stadium in 1962, and a case can still be made that a finer park has never been constructed. Prices were kept low for more than 30 years. The franchise was run in an exemplary manner.
3. GEORGE STEINBRENNER (1930-2010)
You've read and heard it all by now. There is little I can add. I just love the idea that a) he had no idea what Larry Lucchino was referring to with the "Evil Empire" crack and b) he thought that Seinfeld's George Costanza character was named after him, and wouldn't hear otherwise.