Sulzberger, grandson of Adolph Ochs, who bought the Times in 1896, became publisher unexpectedly in 1963 when his older brother-in-law, Orvil Dryfoos, died after only two years in the position. Even Iphigene Sulzberger said in her autobiography the decision to put her 37-year-old son in charge was a gamble.
Nicknamed "Punch," a name bestowed on him in infancy by his father, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the younger Sulzberger had a reputation as a lightweight.
In 1963, the Times was in financial trouble, battered by a long New York newspaper strike and a decline in overall newspaper readership. Sulzberger made hard decisions like closing a western edition Dryfoos had started.
Sulzberger also transformed the New York Times Co. into a publicly held corporation in 1969.
Sulzberger put his stamp on the Times in many ways, from making the final decision to publish the Pentagon Papers to starting special sections of softer news to attract new readers. He sometimes sent memos signed "A. Sock," like one that inquired in response to an eel recipe "Why can't our food pages have something on them that most people like?"
Sulzberger attended most afternoon news meetings but his editors said he was there not to dictate the paper's coverage but to keep on top of what it was doing.
"His confidence in the people he chose to trust was almost total," said Max Frankel, one of five executive editors under Sulzberger. "He did not want to edit the paper, plain and simple. He was there to adjudicate disputes and to set standards and values."
Sulzberger was born in 1926, the only son in a family that already had three daughters. After an undistinguished career at a series of private schools, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines, serving in the ranks in World War II and as an officer in the Korean War.
After World War II, he graduated from Columbia University. He later worked for the Times as a copy editor and reporter and in comparatively low-level jobs on the business side.
Sulzberger stepped down as publisher in 1992, succeeded by his son, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Sulzberger gave up his corporate positions in 1997, with his son becoming chairman while a non-relative, Russell Lewis became chief executive.
Sulzberger's first marriage ended in divorce. He was remarried and widowed twice.
He is survived by his son, two daughters and two sisters.