A Pittsburgh Sports Primer
Baseball, hockey, football and soccer — at any given moment there's a crowd cheering in Pittsburgh. Here's what you need to know to enjoy the City of Champions like a champion.
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Photo By: Riverhounds SC / Chris Cowger
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Photo By: Courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center
Get Geared Up
The first step to enjoying Pittsburgh sports: dress the part. That means it's time to dig around in your closet for your black and gold. These two colors band Pittsburgh's flag, and though a few resisted initially, most of the city's pro teams use the color pairing now. Colleges are the major exception. For example, the Pittsburgh Panthers use a blue-and-gold theme, so grab some blue from the bureau while you're in there. Not your usual colors? Yinzers in the Burgh sportswear store can deck you out in gear for all the hometown teams. And its offerings include an impressive selection of socks for those individuals who opt for a more subtle show of support. Now, let's meet some of Pittsburgh's teams.
The Pittsburgh Pirates
Major League Baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates are one of the oldest teams in pro baseball, winning five World Series titles and nine National League pennants during their 130-year history. The team started as the Pittsburgh Alleghenys but decided on its new name in 1891 after they were accused of "pirating" a player from a rival team. Locals call them the Bucs. You've undoubtedly heard of a few Pirates: Fred Clarke, Willie Stargell, Barry Bonds, Ralph Kiner, Dave Parker, Bob Friend, Bill Mazeroski. Honus Wagner — shortstop from 1900 to 1917 and one of the first National Baseball Hall of Fame inductees — is a famous early-years player, and right-fielder Roberto Clemente played for the team his entire 18-season career (starting in 1955) and is considered one of the best players of all time. The Bucs' biggest rival at any given point is usually one of the other four NL Central Division teams (Reds, Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers), but the Philadelphia Phillies are always good for some healthy home-state haranguing, even though the teams hardly ever face each other anymore. The team mascot is a green parrot, the Pirate Parrot, and PiratesFest is an annual festival geared toward families, with player autograph and photo sessions, games and competitions. On to the ballpark.
One of the neatest things about the Pirates is that the team doesn't need to have a standout season for fans to enjoy a game. PNC Park, a relatively new but classic-style ballpark, sits at the intersection of Pittsburgh's three rivers (the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio) and is dramatically backdropped by downtown Pittsburgh and the Roberto Clemente Bridge. The stadium is consistently ranked the top ballpark in baseball by national sports publications and it's a fantastic spot to truly feel like you're part of the city. Game-day tip: Parking downtown is often easier and cheaper. Plus, you get to walk across the Roberto Clemente Bridge, designated pedestrian-only on game days and filled with musicians and Bucs fans.
A City of Pirates
Fun fact: If you accidentally refer to Pittsburgh's hockey or football team as the Pirates, don't feel bad. Both teams borrowed the baseball team's name at some point in their histories. The Pittsburgh hockey team played in the NHL as the Pirates for five seasons in the 1920s. The football team joined the NFL in the 1930s as the Pirates, changing their name to the Steelers for the 1940 season.
Ice Ice Baby
The Pittsburgh Penguins are the city's beloved pro ice hockey team. Five-time winners of the NHL's Stanley Cup — most recently in 2017 — the Pens got their name from their former dome-y home venue, Mellon Arena, which locals appropriately nicknamed "The Igloo." The team moved to the state-of-the-art PPG Paints Arena across the street in 2010 and Le Magnifique, a bronze statue of Mario Lemieux, the former star player and current owner, welcomes Penguins fans to the venue. Aside from being one of the best hockey players ever, Lemieux is a beloved individual. When the team was in dire straits in the late '90s, he skated in to save them, converting his unpaid salary to equity in the team and becoming part owner. He also oversees the Mario Lemieux Foundation, which supports cancer research and patient care. Iceburgh is the team's penguin mascot of the conventional human-in-furry-suit variety, but the original mascot for the Penguins was a live Humboldt penguin named Pete. The team owner commissioned custom skates for Pete and hired a skater from the University of Pittsburgh to try (unsuccessfully) to teach him to skate. Strange things were acceptable in the 1960s. Teams to avoid complimenting in Pens fan company include the Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Capitals. If you want to get behind the scenes, head to the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, just around the corner from HGTV Smart Home 2020, to watch the team practice. You can find their open practice schedule here.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are more than the city's NFL team — they are an institution that transcends Pittsburgh entirely. The seventh-oldest franchise in the NFL, the Steelers joined in 1933 (as the Pirates), going on to win eight AFC championships and six Super Bowl titles, and are now tied with the New England Patriots for the most Super Bowl wins. As you might expect, the team got the name Steelers from the primary industry in Pittsburgh and has a steelworker mascot, Steely McBeam (named by contest). The Steelers team has fielded so many notable players during its history it's impossible to list a few without upsetting someone. Oh, what the heck: "Mean" Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Mike Webster, Rod Woodson, Jerome Bettis, Terry Bradshaw, Ben Roethlisberger, Lynn Swann, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, Rocky Bleier. Though fans may avoid discussion of the first few decades of the team — let's just say they had some long dry spells in terms of winning — U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Byron White (serving 1962 to 1993) played for Pittsburgh for its 1938 season, which is kind of honorable. Expect Steelers home game days to be intense. Parking lots around Heinz Field and most of North Shore are filled with tailgaters and the entire city is awash in black and gold. Tickets for matches can be hard to procure but if you manage, you can park downtown and ride the free subway (the T) to Heinz Field or park at Station Square and ride the Gateway Clipper Fleet, docking along the Allegheny River in front of Heinz Field. The team considerately offers a game-day guide with activities and events on its website.
The Steelers Dictionary
Moving on to a few Steelers terms you need to know: The Steel Curtain was the team's famous 1970s defensive line that included Joe Greene, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood. The Immaculate Reception is considered one the greatest plays in the history of the NFL and went like so: During the last 30 seconds of the 1972 AFC divisional playoff game, with Pittsburgh trailing the Oakland Raiders, Steelers running back Franco Harris miraculously caught a deflected pass and ran 60 yards for a touchdown, giving the Steelers their first playoff win. Steeler Nation is the collective name for the team's extensive fan base that includes a surprisingly large international contingent who visit the city for games. Steeler Nation has celebrity members too, including Paul Rudd, Snoop Dogg, Michael Keaton and Toby Keith. Local fans often travel to rival cities for games and the ones who stay at home pack Pittsburgh's bars and restaurants with cheers on game days. Last, in order to properly support the Steelers, one must — absolutely must — be in possession of The Terrible Towel.
The Terrible Towel
The Terrible Towel is a gold towel with black lettering (occasionally a black towel with gold lettering) and a Steelers fan staple. It is seen waving in the stands during games and is proudly displayed in Steelers fans' homes and on their persons abroad. It was conceived by former radio announcer Myron Cope and a couple head honchos at his radio station to support the team during the 1975 playoffs. Though a lot of naysayers thought it was a silly idea then, no one's laughing now. The Towel has become synonymous with the Steelers, used to wave the team to victory and surrounded by folklore that explains the team's successes and rivals' failures. If you hear "Renegade" by Styx during the second half of the game, it's a defensive emergency and time to get that Towel waving! Cool fact: Cope gave the trademark for the Terrible Towel to a local nonprofit supporting people with disabilities. It has benefited the organization to the tune of more than $6 million since 1996.
The Pittsburgh Passion are one of the premier teams in women's professional football. The squad debuted in 2002 and has come a long way since that first-season winter of frigid outdoor practices. The Passion play in Division I of the Women's Football Alliance (WFA), one of three professional women's leagues in the country. And the Passion are a pretty big deal as the first female sports franchise to be featured in Sports Illustrated and on ESPN’s Sportscenter. With three undefeated national championships and four divisional championships, the team also holds the longest winning streak in professional football: 28 games in a row. The Passion compete at Joe P. DeMichela Stadium and games are a real community experience, with fans involved in half-time games, dedications and presentations. Originally playing for the team, Minor Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Teresa Conn has been in charge since 2004 as both head coach and co-owner. She may be the heart of the team but she's not the only notable person on the sidelines. Did we mention that NFL Hall of Famer Franco Harris is a team co-owner? He's often there supporting the team with other legendary Steelers.
Unleash the Hounds
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC are the city's professional men's soccer team, playing in the USL Championship, a Division II league. The team celebrated its 20-year anniversary in 2019, advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Hounds play at Highmark Stadium on the South Side, another slick Pittsburgh sports venue where matches are played against the Pittsburgh skyline, this time across the Monongahela River. The Hounds are cheered on by their supporter group, the Steel Army, creating a lively atmosphere at matches with smoke and drums and songs. The club motto (and hashtag) is "Unleash," for obvious reasons. With supporters of all ages, Hounds matches have a fantastic family atmosphere and the players sign autographs on the field after the games. When the Hounds are unleashed in rival territories, several college teams — both men's and women's — play at Highmark Stadium as well.
Three major Pittsburgh universities (plus more than a dozen other schools) pack city fields, courts, rinks and courses with their students. University of Pittsburgh (aka "Pitt") is the most notable, with multiple championship wins in both NCAA Division I football and men's basketball. The university plays as the Panthers and the mascot is ROC, a panther (as you may have guessed). The football program has delivered a multitude of household names in pro sports including Dan Marino, Mike Ditka and Tony Dorsett. Rivalries of the team vary based on season but usually include other Atlantic Coast Conference teams like West Virginia and Penn State. The Panther Pitt is the enthusiastic student section of Heinz Field. The city knows the Panthers have won their game by the gold-and-blue "Victory Lights" shining into the sky from the top of the university's Cathedral of Learning. You'll head to the Peterson Events Center, known as "The Pete," for men's and women's basketball games. The Oakland Zoo is its student section, holding a whopping 1,500 students, and now located behind the benches so it can be seen on TV. With coordinating attire, placards and props, the Zoo is one of the best cheering sections in college sports, recognized as such by national news outlets and sports pundits.
Now that we know a few of the teams, let's turn to some favorite places around town to have a beer (or several) before and after the game. Oh, and sports enjoyment in Pittsburgh isn't limited to those with tickets: If it were, Steeler fans would be in big trouble. Whether you like your libations in an intimate space or a monolithic bar spanning multiple levels, Pittsburgh has a sports destination perfect for screaming at the big screen. Some have regular watch parties: Smokin' Joe's Saloon and Piper's Pub are where to head for Hounds matches. Want to hang out with the Passion after a game? Head to their local, North Star Restaurant & Bar. Pirates fans should visit Redbeard's Sports Bar & Grill on Sixth Avenue. The bar has been supporting Pittsburgh's teams for more than two decades and it's in a great location, just over the Roberto Clemente Bridge. Football fans of both college and pro ball can head to Mario's on the Southside for the neighborhood bar vibe or down the street to Carson City Saloon, which touts itself as the #1 sports bar in Pittsburgh. Whether that's true or not may be a matter of opinion, but it certainly has loads of drink specials and ample space to wave your Terrible Towel along with hundreds of your best friends.
In terms of food, Primanti Bros. is a Pittsburgh team-supporting institution, with fries on the sandwiches and Steel City sports on the TVs and the walls. There are several around town at this point so you're never far. To step it up a notch, Buford's Kitchen is a local favorite for Penguins fans who want a convenient bite before or after the match and don't want to resort to bar food. The restaurant is right across from PPG Paints Arena and offers patrons indulgent Southern fare and kitchen hours to suit match attendees. No tickets? No worries. There are dozens of TVs here, so you won't miss a thing. A consistent supporter of all hometown teams, City Works Eatery & Pour House is one of the most popular bars in town thanks to its 90 craft and local brews on tap to enjoy between shouts at more than a dozen indoor and outdoor HDTVs. City Works features a menu of "classic American food with brilliant chef-driven twists." Or support the Steelers in more ways than one by heading to Jerome Bettis' Grille 36, owned by Pro Football Hall of Famer and Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, aka "The Bus." It's conveniently situated between Heinz Field and PNC Park.
Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum
For a fun indoctrination into Pittsburgh sports history, visit the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. The 20,000-square-foot museum occupies the second and third floors of the Senator John Heinz History Center. Its exhibits cover the three heavy hitters (and punters and shooters) in Pittsburgh professional sports — Pirates baseball, Steelers football and Penguins hockey — but also boxing, racing, golf and more. The museum has more than 70 interactive activities and there's a fabulous artifact for every flavor of sports supporter: Arnold Palmer's signature sweater, Mario Lemieux’s skates and hockey stick, Franco Harris's Super Bowl IX ring and his Immaculate Reception cleats. Pirates devotees will appreciate a recent acquisition: Bill Mazeroski’s uniform and bat from Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. Learn about Pittsburgh's Negro League baseball legacy through the League's dominant teams, the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. And the less prominent heroes have their stories told here too: early college teams and players, the city's Olympians and other national pros who have made Pittsburgh the City of Champions. Did you know Western Pennsylvania can boast more than three dozen national marble champions? We bet you didn't. Final note: If it's just the Bucs you're after, don't miss the Clemente Museum in the Lawrenceville neighborhood. Its collection highlights the life and accomplishments of the legendary baseballer and humanitarian Roberto Clemente.