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As the world knows by now, George Steinbrenner died today. The longtime owner of the New York Yankees was 80 and leaves behind a legacy of championships.
This afternoon I put together a gallery of Associated Press photos showing Steinbrenner over the years. What struck me was that roughly half the images of Steinbrenner were in black and white, half in color. It’s increasingly rare for a celebrity to die whose career is marked at least in part in black and white images.
Compare Michael Jackson, whose death last year was commemorated almost exclusively in color photos. But Steinbrenner made his mark in sports beginning in the 1960s when he took control of the Cleveland Pipers basketball team. That was toward the end of the black-and-white era in the media. Even through the 1970s, most of the images Americans saw in newspapers were black and white.
Then, in the early 1980s, along came USA Today. The national daily splashed with color essentially forced most American newspapers to begin printing in color. I was working in Wisconsin at the time, and I recall editors and publishers saying that adding color was in no way a response to USA Today. I never believed them for a minute.
Steinbrenner’s remarkable career straddled the black-and-white and color eras. Looking back on those B&W images, I see more impact in them because they are so atypical of the digitally delivered profusion of color images that we take for granted today.
Each of those B&W images came from a roll of film souped in a darkroom, often in the dank underbelly of some aging stadium in Detroit or Cleveland or Chicago. Only the best images were printed.
Through it all, Steinbrenner stood out, a leader so brash he ended up as a caricature character on one of the most popular situation comedies of all time, “Seinfeld.”
As someone who’s lived most of his life in American League markets outside New York, I’ve spent most of that time rooting against and occasionally cursing the Yankees. But as with Reggie Jackson, we only defied Steinbrenner because he was a winner. The respect was grudging, but it was respect.