They don't seem much like Pittsburgh guys. One, Terry Bradshaw, is a Southerner, a Bible Belt country boy who came on so naive that at first he was written off around town as a dummy. The other, Willie Stargell, is a Californian, a black man from the housing projects of the San Francisco Bay Area whose gentle manner and it's-only-a-game philosophy scarcely hold to the standards of a mill town that rates toughness as the prime virtue. And yet each, in his separate and distinct way, exemplifies the yearning spirit of this brawling, sentimental and tough but friendly place.
Bradshaw, for all of his other, now properly renowned skills, is as rugged as anyone who has played in the NFL, a gritty competitor who will boost his bruised body off the turf and bounce back into the melee. Pittsburgh likes that kind of guy. Stargell is a large and powerful man whose apparent nonchalance conceals a fierce inner drive that surfaces dramatically in crises. By the sheer strength of his personality he transformed a baseball team into something of a family—or as the Sister Sledge singing group would have it, "fam-a-lee." And, contrary to the nomadic nature of so many professional athletes, he has made the town where he plays his home. Pittsburgh likes that kind of guy.
But what Pittsburgh likes most about both of these guys is that they are champions, most valuable players in their respective sports. And largely because of them, bumper stickers and billboards all over town now boast that Pittsburgh is "The City of Champions." So it is. Not since New York's Mets and Jets won world titles a decade ago has one city had World Series and Super Bowl winners in the same year. And in this decade, the Steelers have won three pro football championships and the Pirates two baseball titles. For good measure, the University of Pittsburgh was voted No. 1 in college football in 1976, while this year's team won the Lambert Trophy as the best in the East and was invited to play in the Fiesta Bowl. The City of Champions, indeed.
Pittsburgh is no longer the Smoky City, but seen from atop Mount Washington, the cliff on the south bank of the Monongahela just across from the city's revitalized business center, Pittsburgh's dark downtown skyscrapers seem to advance like admonishing shades through the mist and gloom of a late fall afternoon. It is as if the smoke that once billowed up from the mills along the three rivers—the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio—had left the city, Somewhat like London, forever enclouded in the mind's eye. But this is only an illusion created by rain and darkness. Pittsburgh literally hosed itself off after World War II and ceased belching pollution. Still, it may take another generation or so for the city to free itself completely from an image that endured too long. Pittsburgh, wrote James Parton in 1868, is "hell with the lid taken off," a telling allusion, oft-repeated. Anthony Trollope recalled the city as "the blackest place I ever saw." H. L. Mencken, not to be outdone by his vituperative predecessors, saw the ashen skyscape as "a scene so dreadfully hideous, so intolerably bleak and forlorn that it reduced the whole aspiration of man to a macabre and de-pressing joke."
December 24, 1979
"In the old days the lights never went out," recalls Art Rooney, the Steelers' venerated owner, who has lived in Pittsburgh for all of his 78 years. "We'd leave for school in the morning with clean clothes and get there covered with soot."
"When I was a kid," says Myron Cope, the immensely popular Pittsburgh writer and broadcaster, who is 50, "the buildings were so black with soot you didn't know that wasn't their natural color. When the sandblasting started, they turned out to be all sorts of colors—white, gray, beige. All along we thought they were just black."
The dreary past has left Pittsburghers unnecessarily on their guard. Visitors to this year's World Series were frequently taken aback by the defensive posture adopted by residents toward a city the outsiders correctly perceived to be thoroughly attractive, with fine vistas from the hills and bridges, good restaurants and bars and a spiffed-up downtown that has a name of its own, the Golden Triangle. But Pittsburghers, anticipating familiar digs, were inclined either to defend themselves precipitously or to beat would-be detractors to the punch: "How d'ya like the Burgh? Kinda dull, ain't it?" Mayor Richard Caliguiri was so gratified by television's generous coverage of his city during the Series that he was impelled to write Howard Cosell a letter of thanks: "Your laudatory words about Pittsburgh during the Series and the beautiful aerial views of our Point State Park and Golden Triangle were much appreciated by me and the people of the Pittsburgh area. We have worked very hard in recent years to erase the smog and 'smoky city' image of Pittsburgh and portray it as it is—a city of clean air, ethnic charm and scenic beauty."
Modern Pittsburgh is as much a corporate-management center as a blue-collar town. Sixteen companies from the Fortune 500 have their headquarters there, including U.S. Steel, Gulf Oil, Westinghouse Electric Corp., Rockwell International and Alcoa. Only New York and Chicago among American cities are host to more big businesses, and Pittsburgh's population of 520,117 is about one-fifteenth of the Big Apple's. "It's a compact town," says Rooney, who has lived in the same house for 50 years and can walk to work. "It's a very friendly town." Adds Cope, "The vast majority of outsiders come here expecting to dread it. They come away loving it."
Stephen Foster was a Pittsburgher, and so were Gertrude Stein, George S. Kaufman and William Powell. Erroll Garner, Billy Eckstine and Martha Graham hailed from there, and so did Harry K. Thaw, the man who murdered the architect Stanford White. Thaw was once Art Rooney's neighbor. KDKA, the nation's first commercial radio station, started broadcasting in Pittsburgh.
The city has a puckish sense of humor, thus the popularity of such sports oddments as The Terrible Towel, Gerela's Gorillas and Franco's Italian Army. It has its own language—people do not, for example, "hang out," they "loaf," and the simple "you" becomes, in Pittsburghese, "you-uns." You can tell what part of town a person comes from by how he stresses "side," as in North Side. It is a town where the disco tune We Are Family—"get up everybody and sing"—can become the anthem for its baseball team. It is a place so intimate that traffic cops and talk show callers can become overnight celebrities.
Pittsburghers like to call their city a "big small town," with all that implies. "You know everybody," says one of its best-known citizens, the former light-heavyweight champion and not-quite heavyweight champion, Billy Conn, trim and still handsome at 62. "If you do something wrong, everybody knows it. If you do something right, nobody does. I grew up here. The guys I loaf with are here. This is a town you can't wait to leave and you can't wait to get back to. I'm still here."
So is another legendary Pittsburgh fighter, Fritzie Zivic, the former welterweight champ, who only recently retired as a boilermaker. Pittsburgh has a deserved reputation as a great fight town, and not merely because of the teeming altercations that erupt with such regularity in its saloons. In a seven-year span (1934-41) Pittsburgh fighters won three world and American championships—Teddy Yarosz, U.S. middleweight; Zivic, world welterweight; and Conn, world light-heavyweight. And for 12 rounds on the unforgettable night of June 18, 1941, at the Polo Grounds, Conn, weighing, he says, only 169½ pounds, was winning the heavyweight championship from Joe Louis. Then, in the 13th, he gambled on a knockout and was, of course, himself knocked out by the Brown Bomber. His gallant effort gave Conn, the Pittsburgh Kid, a measure of immortality, even outside his hometown. Still, the city's most acclaimed fighter was the remarkable middleweight and light-heavyweight champ of the '20s, Harry Greb, the Pittsburgh Windmill, the only man to defeat Gene Tunney in a professional fight. Greb is yet revered, but an Irish street fighter of a few years back named Joey Diven can become as much of a legend. "Remember the night Joey took on the Pitt football team...."
For many seasons the Steelers themselves enjoyed a richer reputation as brawlers than football players. They could beat you up, but they couldn't beat you. When Bradshaw joined them as a rookie out of Louisiana Tech in 1970, the team had just completed a plainly disastrous 1-13 season. After 37 years in the league the Steelers had not won a single championship, a record of futility not even the Pirates, who once went 33 years between pennants, could equal. The first player selected in the 1970 draft, Bradshaw achieved fame of a sort before he had played a game in the NFL. It was duly reported in the national press that he had set an interscholastic record in the javelin at Shreveport's Woodlawn High and that he had passed for more than 7,000 yards in college. The pro scouting reports made him seem a paragon: a 6'3" 218-pounder strong enough to shake off linemen and quick enough to scramble for touchdowns. More to the point, it was said he could whistle 80-yard spirals. Even his hard-bitten teammates began to see him as a messiah. Initially he proved to be something less.
Bradshaw completed a sorry 38.1% of his 218 passes for 1,410 yards as a rookie. He threw for only six touchdowns and led the league with 24 interceptions. His small-college background had ill-prepared him for reading complicated NFL defenses, so he seemed bewildered much of the time on the field. This, coupled with his country ways, caused fans and some sportswriters to dismiss him as something of a numskull. He suffered further from the presence on the team of Terry Hanratty, an All-America quarterback from Notre Dame, who had been a high school star in western Pennsylvania. Hanratty enjoyed the distinct advantage of being a Pittsburgh guy. Hanratty loafed in the bars and restaurants. He shot the breeze with familiar people. Bradshaw spent his time in church.
"I cannot say that I have always had a special feeling for this place," said Bradshaw recently, relaxing after practice with a large stogie. "At first I didn't understand the people. My bad attitude toward the city was a direct reflection of the bad years I was having on the football field. I've grown up now. I've grown to love this place. I live downtown during the season. I shop there, go to the movies. When I leave Shreveport now, I say I'm going 'home.' "
But home is really the 400-acre ranch he owns in northern Louisiana. He does live in the Golden Triangle during the season, in a penthouse with a view of Three Rivers Stadium, scene of early humiliations, site of current triumphs. He and his wife, Jo Jo Starbuck, the professional ice skater, are scarcely night owls, both being devout born-again Christians, but he is much less reclusive than before. He drives the short distance across the river to the stadium in his Ford Bronco, the mournful melodies of Larry Gatlin—"I've done enough dying today"—issuing from his tape deck. "I drive so slowly," Bradshaw says, chuckling, "that I guess people get mad at me. But that drive is my meditation, my ritual."
Bradshaw realizes that his present popularity with fans who once detested him is ephemeral, that a bad season or two would restore him to disfavor, but neither he nor they contemplate such a profound reversal of form. Bradshaw survived some early setbacks, including a divorce from his first wife and a momentary backslide from his Christian upbringing—"I was a jerk"—to emerge as the NFL's premier quarterback, leading the Steelers to successive Super Bowl wins in 1975 and '76. In the '76 game, Super Bowl X in NFL chronology, he showed his brains and his guts to good effect on a single play, a game-winning 64-yard pass to Lynn Swann, thrown against a well-read safety blitz. Bradshaw hit Swann where the blitzing Dallas safety, Cliff Harris, wasn't, but Harris, in turn, hit Bradshaw the instant he released the ball, knocking him cold. Bradshaw suffered a concussion, but he got up—to resounding cheers. There was no question of his being accepted after that.
He was the NFL Player of the Year in 1978, passing for 2,915 yards and 28 touchdowns, and in the 1979 Super Bowl he was elected the Most Valuable Player after he threw for a record-breaking 318 yards and four touchdowns, one a 75-yarder to John Stallworth. By beating Dallas 35-31 he became the first quarterback in league history to win three Super Bowls. Already holder of Pittsburgh career passing records in five categories, this fall he became the first Steeler quarterback to pass for more than 3,000 yards in a season. Three times this year he threw for more than 300 yards in a game, and he had 26 touchdown passes in leading the Steelers to a 12-4 record and the championship of the rugged AFC Central. And as his coach, Chuck Noll, has said, anyone who still considers Bradshaw dumb should examine his own reflection. Noll, once a messenger guard for Paul Brown at Cleveland, allows Bradshaw to call his own plays, and three world titles would seem convincing testimony to his quarterback's perspicacity.
Rooney, who once complained that so many good quarterbacks seemed to pass right on through the Steeler organization—John Unitas, Earl Morrall, Bill Nelsen, Jack Kemp—exults in the stability Bradshaw has given the team. "He's a great athlete, a classy guy," says the man they call the Chief. A Steeler could ask for no greater accolade.
Pittsburghers would still prefer a more visible Bradshaw, a guy who would loaf a bit in Market Square. But his need for privacy is generally understood. "He took a beating from the fans early," says Cope, whose radio talk show is a barometer of Pittsburgh opinion. "He got worked over so badly he became a kind of recluse for a while. He wasn't a mill worker's guy, a Pittsburgh guy. He was a rancher, for God's sake. But they [the fans] love him because he's a winner and—this is very important—because he's a tough guy. You hurt him and he's back."
And Bradshaw now understands his audience. "The Steelers are the best example of what the city's personality is," he says. "This is a blue-collar, shot-and-beer town. The fans get up for big games. They're like us. They're good, honest working people who come out to be entertained. They lead a tough life, and they like a team with a tough defense because that's where character shows. We have it. We play tough and we play hard. We've got guys with names like Dirt Winston, Mad Dog White and Fangs Lambert. Pittsburgh names. And I tell you, it gets cold up there for our fans those last few games. That gets them all wound up, and they get us all wound up. I don't know how much they identify with me, but I do think at last they've accepted me. Anyway, they're stuck with me." Happily so.
If the Steelers held their fans, even in their losing years, the Pirates have had trouble attracting theirs, even in winning years. It has been variously advanced that Pittsburgh is a football town, that older baseball fans have never forgiven the Pirates for moving from Forbes Field to what is essentially a football stadium and, more prevalently, that there are too many black players on the team—15 blacks and His-panics on a 25-man roster in '79. This last seems a curious theory, because nearly 20% of Pittsburgh's population is black. Roberto Clemente was a black Latin, and Lord knows he was popular. And the man who may be the most beloved player in the modern history of the franchise is also black—Wilver Dornel Stargell.
Whatever the cause for past neglect, Stargell, the 38-year-old Pops of the Pirate family, did more than anyone this season to give his team a new and appealing mystique. It was Stargell who continually reminded the fans that the Pirates were something special, a collection of individuals from disparate backgrounds and cultures who worked together out of respect and even love for one another. And like a benevolent school master, he passed out gold stars to Pirates who performed above and beyond the call. The stars became badges of honor. The Pirates, he argued, were what the United Nations was intended to be. It worked. The fans believed. And winning did not hurt. This season's attendance of 1,435,454 was nearly 500,000 more than last year's and the highest since the last time the Pirates won the pennant, in 1971.
Detractors appeared along the way, of course, but Pirate unity was never broken, and when the team came from a one-game-to-three deficit in the World Series to win it all, there was Stargell, celebratory wine in hand, tearfully embracing on the stage of the press-interview room a member of his own family, his half-sister, Sandrus. Cynics be damned, Stargell was real. Not just Stargell the star, who set a Series record for extra-base hits (seven) and tied the one for total bases (25) and whose last-game two-run homer was the Series-winning hit, but Stargell the person. "He gives a lot of himself to other people and thinks very little of himself," sister Sandrus would say later. "I'd be just as proud of him if he were a steelworker." No one is perfect, Stargell himself would be the first to agree. But this man is genuine.
Somehow he did not look real arrayed in cowboy hat and boots and $9,600 black mink coat while speaking last month to guests of Gordon's Gin at a fund-raising luncheon in Des Plaines, Ill. for the cause he has so fervently embraced, the search for a cure for sickle cell anemia, the blood disease that affects blacks mostly but can afflict persons of Mediterranean heritage as well. The Willie Stargell Foundation, located over a store in the Squirrel Hill area, is a major contributor to such research efforts, and this year Stargell devoted a month of his ordinarily free time touring 13 cities under the sponsorship of Gordon's. The two oldest of Stargell's three daughters have sickle cell trait, which means that though they do not have the disease, they can communicate it to their offspring if the fathers also carry the trait. And a good friend of Stargell's died of the disease a few years ago.
His luncheon talk was relatively brief and refreshingly free of excessive sentiment. Any contributions, he told the gin salesmen, would be used to find a way of "eradicating a form of human suffering, of helping to eliminate something that is dreadful to other human beings." He acknowledged a standing ovation with a wave and a quiet smile and then cheerfully agreed to talk baseball to the businessmen, who swarmed around his gigantic black-coated presence like pilot fish. "I've been in the public-relations business a long time," said Herb Landon, representing Gordon's, "but this man has shown me a whole new world."
Stargell decided to live permanently in Pittsburgh some 10 years ago, because, he says, "I like the warmth of the place." "My brother has been here so long that everyone thinks he's from here," says Sandrus, who herself moved east from Oakland in 1978 to help him in his work with the foundation. "No, no, I tell them, we're Californians."
Stargell was, in fact, born in Oklahoma, and he lived for a time with an aunt in Florida, but he was reared in Oakland and Alameda, the "East Bay." It is an area that has produced a veritable Hall of Fame of black major-leaguers—Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood. Joe Morgan and, more recently, Ruppert Jones, not to mention basketball's Bill Russell.
Stargell's mother, Gladys, and stepfather, Percy Russell, both worked, so Willie did turns as housekeeper, cook and baby-sitter for Sandrus, 10 years his junior. It was a close family, bulwarked by the strong-willed mother. There was some money, but for much of Stargell's childhood the family lived in a government housing project in Alameda. "Wilver was always Mr. Good Guy," says his mother, who lives now in Oakland. "He was such a soft touch he'd give his lunch money away. And he was a better housekeeper than his sister. He had such a drive to succeed."
"I'd walk along hitting rocks with a stick," Stargell recalls, "and people would come up and ask me why I was doing it. I'd say that someday I was going to be hitting a ball with a bat in a big stadium somewhere. They'd laugh and say, 'Man, you're in the projects. Forget it.' "
Stargell did not forget it, although he was not the biggest star on the Encinal high team. That was Tommy Harper, later an outfielder with Cincinnati and six other major league teams. "He was all-everything in every sport," says Stargell. "I could hit, but I was unpolished."
He also suffered from the bad knees that would require surgery in the mid-1960s. And at Santa Rosa Junior College he fractured a pelvic bone when his spikes caught in the grass while he was practicing sliding. Doctors advised him to give up all competitive athletics. Another break could cripple him for life, he was told.
"That was in 1958," says Stargell. "That year I signed with the Pirates. You know, I haven't thought about that injury in years. Wouldn't it be something, wouldn't it be a story if I had to quit after all these years over something that happened 20 years ago."
Stargell has rarely played free of pain since, but his phenomenal resourcefulness has sustained him. In 1977 he began the season with an inner-ear ailment and ended it prematurely, in July, after playing in only 63 games, with a pinched nerve in his left elbow, an injury suffered while breaking up a fight on the field. The next year he hit 28 homers and drove in 97 runs to win the National League's Comeback Player of the Year award. True to his nature, it was an affliction suffered by someone close to him that most affected his performance on the field. In late May of 1976 his wife, Dolores, collapsed at home, complaining of a pain in her head. Stargell rushed her to the hospital, where she underwent immediate surgery for both a blood clot and an aneurism in her brain. He shudders at the memory, saying, "If the team had been on the road, she'd be dead." Dolores recovered, but the anxiety Stargell experienced caused him to lose his impenetrable concentration. He finished the season hitting only .257 with 20 homers.
Stargell holds Pirate career records for homers (461) and runs batted in (1,476). His totals would be even higher had he not played his first 7½ seasons in Forbes Field, with its 400-foot-plus power alleys. In the 61½-year history of that capacious park, only 18 home runs were hit onto its right-field roof or over it into Panther Hollow. Stargell hit seven of them. He is the only man to hit a ball completely out of Dodger Stadium, a feat he has accomplished twice. He has hit four home runs into the third-tier yellow seats at Three Rivers, the only batter to reach that level in rightfield. Supposedly on the wane in 1979, he had 32 homers and drove in 82 runs. In the Championship Series with Cincinnati, he hit .455 with two homers and six RBIs and was named the playoffs MVP. He had 12 hits in the World Series, seven for extra bases, including three more homers, and was again named the Most Valuable Player. To complete the sweep—almost—he was elected co-MVP of the National League with the Cardinals' Keith Hernandez, an honor bestowed as much for his leadership as for his slugging. "He's our stabilizer," his teammate, the illustrious Dave Parker, has said. "And for me, my baseball father."
Stargell's windmill practice swings have become a part of Pittsburgh lore. And so has his enthusiasm for the game and for his teammates. He speaks of them as if they were eccentric relatives: "We got Pancho Villa out there. That's [Enrique] Romo. And [Phil] Garner and Parker. My, the way they go at each other. But you better not talk about either of them to the other. I tell you, a visitor to our clubhouse might be inclined to call the police. You hear music from the hills of West Virginia or, maybe, Panama, rhythm and blues, oldies but goodies, Sister Sledge, naturally. We've got $6,000 worth of stereo equipment. We have the finest hitting coach in baseball—Bob Skinner. And all our pitchers respect Harvey Haddix. [Coach] Al Monchak is Sarge to the infielders. The outfielders pay him no attention. We got everything going in our clubhouse. We win together, lose together. We got the best cardplayer in the world—Grant Jackson. You cannot play casino with that man. Then we got Jim Bibby. His hands are too big for baseball. Jim Rooker, he'll walk in the clubhouse with wild meat dishes. That's probably why we win—we eat so good. Bert Blyleven. He's his crazy self. I'll go out to talk to him during a game and he'll say, 'Get off my damn mound!' His damn mound! Parker, he should have been a comedian, really. We got neighborhoods right in our dugout—the ghetto, where I sit; Park Avenue; Spanish Harlem; and then there's just the low-rent district. Kent Tekulve sits there."
Stargell pauses, laughing at the wonder of so many beloved characters being in one place. "You know, if you respect this game and do what you're supposed to do, it's very rewarding. But if you take it for granted, it will embarrass you. You have to respect whatever you do. Give it up? Sure, I'll have to and I'll know when the time comes." He smiles. "But no one can take away the memories."
Bradshaw was asked, too, about retirement. "I like to think that when I retire, I'll say to myself, 'Gosh, if I could just have one more year, I know I'll get better.' "
Bradshaw and Stargell. Two extraordinary athletes. Proud men with a sense of dignity about their special occupations. Durable and courageous, enthusiastic always. Leaders, above all else. Sportsmen of the Year. And, the final tribute, Pittsburgh guys.