Updated: Thursday, December 7, 2017, 10:32 AM
PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh and Philadelphia share a common first letter, a commonwealth and little else.
Philly’s got more people, more land, more attitude. Statistics suggest it’s more expensive and more stressful to live here. We’ve got more history, more theaters and restaurants and 1.6 million more TV-viewing households.
But in the one comparison that matters most, at least to all the sports-crazed residents at either end of Pennsylvania, the Steel City holds a sizable edge.
During the last half-century, as sports have evolved from mere pastimes into civic obsessions, Pittsburgh has won more than twice as many major professional championships as Philadelphia, 13-5.
That lopsided advantage in victory parades defies easy explanation. After all, Pennsylvania’s second-largest city has just three teams to Philadelphia’s four and far fewer of the resources that typically spell sports success.
In an era when media revenue is vital for any franchise, Pittsburgh’s TV market is small, the 24th largest in the U.S. (Philadelphia’s is No. 4). At 303,000, its seriously shrunken population is one-fifth the size of Philadelphia’s. It’s smaller than all but one Major League Baseball city, all but one NHL city, all but three NFL cities.
Those shortcomings have impacted its sports teams, especially the Penguins and Pirates, financially challenged franchises that on numerous occasions have threatened to leave for Seattle, Kansas City, St. Petersburg, Fla., or other greener pastures.
And yet Pittsburgh produces champions the way it once did steel.
“When you consider that we’re about half as big as we were in 1960, and then you think about the championships our professional teams and Pitt football have won over the years, it’s pretty impressive,” said Rob Ruck, a history professor at Pitt.
Now, as Pennsylvania’s two NFL teams, each with the best record in its conference, head toward a possible Super Bowl showdown, that championship disparity figures to come under increased scrutiny.
While Philadelphia is better-known nationally for the irritability of its fans than the quality of its teams, those 13 championships since 1968 (Steelers 6, Penguins 5, Pirates 2) have helped Pittsburgh, dubbed the “City of Champions” by broadcaster Howard Cosell in 1979, forge a new identity.
“Think of Pittsburgh when Cosell made that comment,” said Ruck, who has authored several books on the city’s sports history. “Our economic base was crumbling and would get worse. Even though working in a steel mill was dirty and dangerous, being the Steel City gave people here an identity. When those jobs went away, there was an economic and psychological depression.
“But as that identity faded, sports became the story that Pittsburgh told of itself to the world. It’s a story about people who work hard, play hard and persevere. We grabbed that identity and it has stuck with us.”
Sports is not an exact science and championships are as likely to be the result of luck as careful planning. But when looking at Pittsburgh there are some organizational traits that jump out.
The Steelers, for example, prize consistency and loyalty. They’ve been owned by one family since their inception and coached by just three men since 1969. (The Eagles have had seven ownership groups and, since ’69, 13 coaches.) The Pirates tapped into Latin American and African-American talent long before the Phillies and other rivals. The Penguins, despite twice declaring bankruptcy, have drafted astonishingly well and become part of the fabric of a city with little hockey history.
If titles are as much the byproduct of what happens off the field as on, then considerable credit has to go to two men connected with the franchises that have won the bulk of those championships over the last 50 years — the Steelers and Penguins.
Bill Nunn was a black sportswriter in Pittsburgh who persuaded the Steelers to tap into the largely ignored talent pool at the nation’s historically black colleges — a strategy that built the foundation of the teams that would win four Super Bowls between 1975 and 1980.
Meanwhile, Mario Lemieux not only led the Penguins to two Stanley Cups as a player, but as their owner has been largely responsible for keeping them in Pittsburgh and getting them the arena that has helped them capture three more.
Many here also point to the city’s fan base as a factor. Though Pittsburghers might not be quite as overtly passionate as Philadelphians, they’re much less likely to jump on a struggling team or athlete.
“They’re more generous than Philly fans,” said Randy Roberts, a Pittsburgh native who teaches history at Purdue and has edited a book on Pittsburgh sports. “They will not turn on you as fast as Philly fans. Sure, there are examples where they boo people, the way they did with Terry Bradshaw early on. But generally they are good and loyal fans.”
Forty years ago, it was Philadelphia and not Pittsburgh that seemed on the cusp of a sports explosion. At the end of 1976, when America’s downsized Bicentennial celebration was coming to an end, things were looking up in Philly.
For its tormented professional sports fans, that year had been an unprecedented delight.
Three All-Star Games were played here. The Phillies made it to the postseason for a first time in 26 years and drew a record 2.5 million to Veterans Stadium. The Flyers reached a third straight Stanley Cup Finals. The Eagles hired Dick Vermeil. The 76ers signed Julius Erving.
Meanwhile, 350 miles to the west, Pittsburgh, whose famous broad shoulders were sagging badly in a declining economy, was not so upbeat.
After two straight Super Bowl wins, the Steelers were routed in the AFC title game. The Penguins were bankrupt and rumored to be moving. The Pirates won 92 games but few seemed to care as attendance dipped by 250,000. As for Pittsburgh’s NBA team, there was none.
As he stood recently on Pitt’s campus, very near the spot where Bill Mazeroski’s Game 7 home run won a World Series for the 1960 Pirates, retired construction worker Mike Nowak said that at that time he feared the Steelers might be the only team left standing.
“Back then mills were closing every week, people were moving south, it was bad,” said Nowak. “Attendance at games was bad, too. It didn’t look like there was going to be enough people left here to support all three teams.”
The most troubled franchise then was the Penguins, who in 1975 had declared bankruptcy and threatened a move to Seattle. But two years later, developer Ed DeBartolo bought them and the relative financial stability that followed resulted in two Stanley Cups.
But by the late 1990s, with the outdated Civic Arena as their home, the Penguins, under new ownership, were in trouble again. Owner Howard Baldwin had committed tens of millions to players’ salaries and when creditors demanded $90 million, he didn’t have it.
One of those big contracts belonged to Lemieux. Sensing an opportunity, he converted the $32.5 million owed him into ownership equity. With the popular star at their helm, the Penguins were later able to coax a new arena out of city officials.
“It was the only way Lemieux was going to get what he was owed,” said Ruck. “There was no way the city was going to be able to fund a new place. After that, casino gambling was approved in the city, creating a revenue stream to fund the [construction] bonds. Since then the Penguins have done a great job with marketing and the draft.”
In 2004, with the draft’s second overall pick, the Pens selected Evgeni Malkin. Then, after a season-long lockout in 2004, they got the No.1 pick in the 2005 draft lottery. With it, they took Sidney Crosby. Three Stanley Cups have followed.
Finding it increasingly difficult to compete in the era before baseball had any revenue sharing, the Pirates nearly left town in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. Another civic-funded ballpark and baseball’s luxury tax saved them.
“When Kevin McClatchy bought the team in 1996, he said he’d keep them in town on one condition, that they get a new ballpark,” said Ruck. “And with the help of the mayor and a financing structure that included a 1 percent additional sales tax, they got PNC Park.”
The Pirates, whose last title came in 1979, also were pioneers in baseball’s integration. In the late 1970s, for example, when 18 percent of big-leaguers were black and 11 percent Hispanic, the Pirates once fielded a team comprised entirely of those players. In fact, on Sept. 1, 1971, the Pirates became the first Major League Baseball team to field an all-black starting lineup, and it was against the Phillies at Three Rivers Stadium
“We’ve had some problems through the years. No place is perfect,” said Vince Wilson, a fan from nearby Monroeville. “But by and large there haven’t been many racial issues with our sports teams. I think from as far back as Roberto Clemente coming here, Pittsburgh has been seen as a fairly hospitable place for minority athletes.”
Bill Nunn’s influence
Through it all, the Steelers, owned by the Rooneys, an Irish family whose roots run deep on Pittsburgh’s North Side, have been the city’s sports foundation. But it wasn’t until the team sought help from Nunn, a native of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, that they became a powerhouse.
“There were a couple of amazing things that happened in those days,” said Roberts. “No. 1, they got a really good coach when [in 1969] they hired Chuck Noll. There’s a story of how when after Noll showed up, all the players were trying hard to impress him. He said, ‘Look, I know you hustle. I know you play hard. The problem is you’re not very good.’ The next year only a few were left. He systematically remade that roster.
“No. 2, the Steelers were less race-conscious than other teams. They really went out and scouted black players, particularly those from the historically black schools. They got a ton of players that no one else was grabbing.”
And the man who helped them do that was Nunn, then the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s leading African American newspapers. Each year, that paper selected an all-American football team from the historically black colleges. As part of his research, Nunn traveled to the schools.
“He’d stay in the presidents’ homes,” said Ruck. “He was plugged in. He saw players that the rest of the NFL was ignoring and he knew them better than anyone.”
The Rooneys, who historically maintained close ties with the black community, read the Courier. When in the early 1970s Nunn, who died in 2014, wrote something critical of the Steelers, they invited him to a meeting.
“Not long after that he went to work for the team part-time and then full-time,” said Ruck. “That’s when they began to draft and sign players from those schools, guys like John Stallworth, Donnie Shell, Mel Blount.”
While the rest of the league was integrating gradually, the Steelers went full-bore. Half of their 1975 Super Bowl championship team was black.
“Historically black athletes have thrived here, going back to the [Negro League baseball’s] Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, to players like Josh Gibson and Roberto Clemente,” said Ruck.
And through the years, many of those who starred on Pittsburgh teams were locals. Gibson: Honus Wagner, Jack Ham.
“There’s a rootedness here, especially with football,” said Ruck. “The best thing about sports is when you’re playing. But the next-best thing is when someone you know is playing. Through the years, that’s happened an awful lot in Pittsburgh.”