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North Hills Monthly

Sports as Much a Pittsburgh Legacy as Steel

Jun 30, 2015 09:43PM ● By Larry Richert
Pittsburgh sports fans unite! We are the best in all of sports, but then again we knew that—it’s just that the rest of the country is finally catching on. But what makes us so special?

That’s a story that dates back to the turn of the last century, when we were a hotbed for jobs for starving Europeans—hardworking, motivated people who wanted something better for their families and risked it all to be here.

For decades, these blue-collar workers labored in the steel mills, making us the steel capital of the world. This was a point of pride, no doubt, but it also came with a price. With smoke billowing from smokestacks on every river bank, the image was that Pittsburgh was a filthy place whose residents were equally dirty. We were described as, “Hell with the lid off.”

During these early days and through both world wars, Korea and Vietnam, people let off steam by enjoying recreational sports, like watching Pirates’ baseball. We now boast five World Series championships, with the first one being won in 1909. In 1933, the Steelers were born, and the Penguins were welcomed into the NHL in 1968, preceded by the Hornets. We had some flashes of pro basketball teams, like the Condors, who became extinct like their namesake.

Boxing was also a very big sport that attracted huge crowds as each ethnic group supported the men who represented their birth nations. Like tempered steel, these fighters morphed into a civic source of pride as they made national news representing Pittsburgh like Billy Conn, John Henry Lewis, Sammy Angott and Fritzie Zivic.

Despite all this, the ‘smoky city’ image wouldn’t die, and the more we heard it, the more it seemed like nothing would ever change. The turning point came, ironically, as the steel industry started a long slide in the mid-1970s. As people lost their jobs and families struggled, sports provided a release that was a welcome diversion from the realities of the day. Out of the ashes rose the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dynasty; an incredible four Super Bowl wins in six years proved to be a rallying point for all of us. Add the Pirates’ 1979 World Series win and suddenly we were the City of Champions!

We walked a little taller and no longer felt like the laughingstock of the rest of the country. I remember my grandmother crying after the first Super Bowl win—a powerful image that showed me that this was more than just a game.

As workers relocated to other states to find jobs, they took with them their pride in Pittsburgh, and a generational transference of their passion for the black and gold. A high school friend of mine, Mike Miller, has been in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, for 30-plus years, but he still bleeds Pittsburgh. He texts me every week during Steelers’ season, and takes great pride in all of the good that this town produces. We are everywhere and have our hardworking, tough, but generous and kind ancestors to thank for it.

Ironically, it was the passing of big steel that helped clean our air. Some amazing people saw a future in our downtown, and a collective effort cleaned up the town. Thanks to our sports teams, the spotlight was on us, and when the Penguins won their first cup in 1992, we were a city transformed. Network television showed ‘beauty’ shots of Pittsburgh, and then Rand McNally knighted us as America’s Most Livable City.

The accolades just kept coming as the skyline continued to improve. The North Shore was transformed into a hotspot of sports and business activity, with a new home for the Steelers and Pitt football, and the best baseball park in the nation at PNC Park. We are now recognized internationally as being, if not the best, among the best sports fans anywhere on the planet. While we know that it’s ‘just sports’ and that there are many serious life issues to deal with every day, it serves as a common bond that brings us together to forget about life for a while…and just have fun.