By Jim O’Brien
Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers or everything you hear on your favorite sports talk shows.
Memorial Day was a delightful day for sports fans in Pittsburgh who were pleased to see the Pirates crush the Miami Marlins in South Florida, 10-0, with Gregory Polanco hitting a grand slam, something Andrew McCutcheon has yet to achieve, and Jeff Locke pitching a three-hit complete game shutout.
But please don’t call Francisco Liriano by “Frankie” or say “Happy Memorial Day.” When a guy has a great name such as Francisco or Roberto you don’t spoil the day by referring to him as Frankie or Bobby. And Memorial Day is a day of reflection not celebration.
One of the radio sports talk shows dwelt a good deal last Monday on the story line that if the Penguins were to win the Stanley Cup in five games – as many local pundits are predicting – or even seven games it will mark the first time since 1960 that a Pittsburgh pro sports team will have won a championship at home.
An official in the front office of the Penguins had peddled the story line that there had been a 56-year drought between a Pittsburgh team claiming a championship with the final game at home.
That is simply not so. A knowledge of Pittsburgh sports history will tell you as much. There were three Pittsburgh pro sports teams with that distinction since the Pirates won the World Series in the seventh game with the New York Yankees at Forbes Field.
Bill Mazeroski’s home run, on the second pitch – a slider by Ralph Terry – that cleared the left field wall next to the scoreboard and into the first paragraph of Maz’s obituary, was the game-winner against the mighty Yankees. The New York team outscored the Pirates, 55-27 in the series, but the Bucs prevailed in the deciding game. The Yankees also out-hit the Pirates by 91-60 while dominating the series but still came up on the short end of the stick. “They scored all the runs,” said Gino Cimoli of the Pirates, “but we won the World Series.” An earlier three-run homer by Hal Smith that put the Pirates temporarily in the lead in the eighth inning was referred to by the broadcaster as “a home run for the ages.” But it was not to be so.
Smith entered the game in the eighth inning when Smoky Burgess, the Bucs’ other catcher, suffered an injury.
The Pittsburgh Hornets, who preceded the Penguins by a year, won the Calder Cup for winning the American Hockey League championship at the Civic Arena in 1967. They swept the Rochester Americans in four games, the third and fourth victories coming on home ice.
Yes, the American League is a minor league, but its players were professional hockey players. They were paid to play the game. So they qualify as a professional sports team. Jack Riley, the general manager of the Penguins at their outset, feared that hockey fans in Pittsburgh might be disappointed with the team because the talent level might not be as good as the Hornets had in their final season of existence.
It was the sixth time the Hornets had won the Calder Cup, their very existence halted after Duquesne Gardens was leveled several years before the Civic Arena was built and again when the National Hockey League expanded from six teams to twelve for the 1967-68 season. The Hornets won the title on April 30, 1967.
That’s the same season that the Pittsburgh Pipers won the first championship claimed in the American Basketball Association. The ABA wasn’t then the equal of the National Basketball Association, but the Pittsburgh Pipers played in a pro league. They, too, were paid to play the game.
They beat the New Orleans Buccaneers, led by James Jones, Red Robbins, Larry Brown and Doug Moe, by the score of 122-113 before a full house at the Civic Arena.
They were led by Connie Hawkins, the MVP of that first season and the playoffs as well, who would later be the first player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. I was on the nominating committee for the Basketball Hall of Fame at the time and solicited endorsements successfully from the likes of Cotton Fitzsimmons, Bill Sharman, Lenny Wilkens, Richie Guerin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and others.
Hawkins was followed from the ABA ranks into the Hall of Fame by Julius “Dr. J” Erving. Hawkins liked to say, “I was Dr. J before Dr. J.” Make no mistake that the ABA wasn’t a major league. Fifteen of its players and coaches have been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Hawkins was the first Pittsburgh-based player since Charlie Hyatt of Uniontown and his Pitt coach, Dr. Clifford Carlson, were honored in the charter class of the Hall of Fame in 1959. Fifteen players who played in the ABA have been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and there are a few others – such as James Jones, George McGinnis, Zelmo Beatty and Willie Wise – who should be so honored.
Okay, so that’s at least two pro teams that have won titles here in Pittsburgh.
Don’t forget Frank Fuhrer’s Pittsburgh Triangles in World Team Tennis. This was a pro team for sure. In its first year, for instance, the team was coached by and captained by the great Ken Rosewall of Australia, a Hall of Fame tennis champion with several majors in his resume.
The Triangles won the 1975 WTT championship, led by 21-year-old Vitas Gerulaitis, the MVP in the championship series. He and Evonne Goolagong led the Triangles to victory over the Golden Gaters. The Pittsburgh tennis team lost the first game played in San Francisco, and then won the next two games of the best-of-three series at the Civic Arena. Peggy Michel, Kim Warwick and Mark Cox were also members of that WTT championship unit that claimed the Bancroft Cup. The Triangles posted a league-best 36-8 record that year.
These three teams were not included in a list of Pittsburgh championship teams in an article some years back by Ron Cook, and he refused to count them when I brought their championship achievements to his attention.
Gerulaitis grew up on Long Island and once did me the favor of conducting a free clinic at the Baldwin (L.I.) Tennis Club where I did free-lance work in publicity and promotion while covering sports for The New York Post. He came to New York a day early to do so and stayed on for a league match at Nassau Coliseum with the New York Sets.
I arranged for WTT teams to practice in Baldwin, where we lived for seven of our nine years in New York. WTT stars such as Billie Jean King, Virginia Wade, Cat Stevens, Chris Evert, the Armitraj Brothers from India practiced there and posed for photos with club members. Bobby Riggs conducted a free clinic there, and Bobby Nystrom and Garry Howatt and Bert Marshall of the Islanders frequently played tennis there, as did Dr. J and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, two of the most gifted and entertaining pro basketball players of their era.
The Islanders and Nets combined forces to conduct free clinics in the parking lot of the Baldwin Tennis Club.
Another Frank Fuhrer enterprise, the Pittsburgh Spirit of the Indoor Soccer League, competed at the Civic Arena. They never won a championship but they did outdraw the Penguins, with an average crowd of 8,000 compared to the hockey team’s 6,000 average during the 1983-84 season.
On a collegiate level, Pitt won the national championship in college football in 1976 by winning its final home game over Penn State at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. The No. 1 ranking was established during the regular season and not by bowl game results. The Panthers beat the University of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
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As the Penguins were about to play the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup final series, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook floated the possibility that Penguins’ goalie Marc Andre-Fleury might be traded during the off-season for some team’s first-round draft pick.
I’d rather keep Andre-Fleury, himself the first overall pick in a previous NHL draft. He’s been the Penguins’ most reliable player the past three season. Matthew Murray has been sensational in replacing Andre-Fleury after he had concussion-like syndrome, but the Penguins to have two top-flight goalies next season when they could again contend for the Stanley Cup championship.
Mike Sullivan brought several key players with him from Wilkes-Barre that have given the team great balance between experienced players and younger prospects. It’s not fair to Marc-Fleury to toss him into trade talk so casually.
The Penguins gave up their No. 1 choice in this year’s draft in a trade to get Phil Kessel from Toronto Maple Leafs. I’d rather have an experienced goal-scorer such as Kessell than a No. 1 draft choice, unless that No. 1 draft choice was Marc Andre-Fleury or Mario Lemieux or Sidney Crosby.
Speaking of not believing what you read, Google the profile of Anthony Hamlet and you will find discrepancies of hyperbole in his resume. When he was first announced as the new superintendent for Pittsburgh Public Schools, the headlines referred to him as a former or ex-NFL player.
It reported that he had played for the Seattle Seahawks and the Indianapolis Colts in the National Football League and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I Googled his name because I am suspicious of such claims, especially in paid obituaries.
Sure enough, it turns out that Hamlet had gone to training camp with those three pro teams but ended up on injured reserve in all three cases and was released before the start of the regular season.
Hamlet is not the first to believe he played pro football because he spent time on injured reserve or the practice units. The NFL and the CFL do not count that toward service time in their respective leagues. It doesn’t get you a pension. You may be able to spin tales about days spent in the company of real professional football players whose names people would recognize, but it doesn’t count when all is done.
I tipped off David Schribman, the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, about Hamlet’s false claim, and the P-G did a follow-up story about “the discrepancies” in Hamlet’s resume. College sports coaches have gotten fired for providing false claims in their job applications.
You don’t have to be in the education business to be sure to check your facts.
This should be some summer for sports fans hereabouts. The Pirates and Penguins are providing plenty of excitement these days, to be followed by the U.S. Open at Oakmont in a few weeks, and then the Olympic Games in Rio in August.
Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien has written 23 books in his Pittsburgh Proud series. And that’s a fact. Twenty of those were self-published. He has sold nearly 260,000 books altogether.