SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
December 24, 1979
In these seasons of Pittsburgh's conspicuous content, that once "intolerably bleak" city hails Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell as singular heroes, as do we
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December 24, 1979

Two Champs From The City Of Champions

In these seasons of Pittsburgh's conspicuous content, that once "intolerably bleak" city hails Terry Bradshaw and Willie Stargell as singular heroes, as do we

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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."

"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.

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