Can a Sports-Crazed City Turn a Theater Person into a Baseball Person?

Shannon Reed thought she knew what kind of fan she was, until she moved back home to Pittsburgh.

Shannon Reed | Longreads | October 2017 | 16 minutes (3,891 words)

 

All Pittsburghers, even those who can’t be bothered with baseball, know what happened on October 13, 1960: the Pirates’ second baseman, Bill Mazeroski, hit a walk-off home run, which shot over the left field fence of Forbes Field in Oakland, and into history, securing for the Pirates the World Series in the seventh game. In the photos of Mazeroski rounding third and heading for home, the joy is palpable, as teammates and fans rush toward him, arms extended, faces actually aglow. Forbes Field, where the game was played, arches upward in the background, almost like a sanctuary; apt, because that home run was miraculous. The city exploded with happiness.

I was born 14 years too late to witness it, but grew up in a Pirates-loving household two hours east of Pittsburgh. People in Johnstown still talked about Mazeroski’s miracle in the late 1980s. My dad went to a banquet then at the Holiday Inn downtown at which Mazeroski received an award. Dad took to recapping his conversation with the slugger as often as possible in the weeks following it, and people always listened intently, as though some great wisdom were being passed along, instead of a simple exchange of pleasantries.

But I rolled my eyes every time he told the story. Back then, I thought Mazeroski’s triumph was ancient history, something vaguely important, but that had happened a long time ago on a field far, far away. I was busy defining myself as a theater kid, so Pittsburgh’s allure was in the promise of high school drama club trips to see touring Broadway shows at the Benedum Center downtown. I liked baseball well enough, more than any other sport, having played catcher on a Little League team for a few years. But still, I wasn’t especially keen on it, even when the Pirates made it to the postseason in 1990, 1991, and 1992.

Even though great baseball was still happening in Pittsburgh, it seemed to me at 16, 17, and 18 that the best days of the sport in the city were far behind. This, I know now, is what history does. It telescopes, so that dozens of years compress into one memory, while the present moves serenely forward at its usual stately pace. The thousands of past years you did not experience blend together, while those in your own recent past are distinct as memory. Thus, I saw the Pirates’ days of triumph, long before I was born, as history, while my then-present awareness of the team, with their parade of good and bad games, fair and foul seasons, were memories that couldn’t compete with past glories frozen, triumphant, in time.

But when I enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh in 2012, suddenly the history of Pirates baseball became real to me. Walking around the campus one day I stumbled upon the actual physical remnants of those glory days. From 1909 to the 1970 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates had played on Forbes Field, and now its back wall, flag pole, and home base are preserved on Pitt’s campus, an athletic shrine in the heart of an academic neighborhood. The carefully preserved fragments immediately reminded me of the abandoned, disintegrating cathedrals, abbeys, and chapels I had visited in Ireland. Great wonders had been glimpsed here, seen by the community, but now all was quiet.

* * *

Forbes Field must have been something else, once upon a time. Barney Dreyfuss, the Pirates’ team owner in the early 1900s, purchased the land for it, adjacent to the iconic Pittsburgh sites of Schenley Park and the main branch of the Carnegie Library, with financial help from Andrew Carnegie himself. Designed by Charles Wellford Leavitt, Jr., the stadium Dreyfuss paid for was three tiers of concrete and steel. It was the first of its kind at a time when wooden stadiums dotted the nation, and entrepreneurs were still trying to figure out how to make money off of baseball. Its innovations included a sort of green room for the umpires, a clubhouse for the visiting teams, and ramps to help move spectators more easily through the stadium. The steel framework was painted light green, the roof red, and the beige terracotta designs spelled out signage reading “Pennsylvania Athletic Club.” On opening day, over 30,000 people packed into the stadium, and the announcers, overwhelmed by the vast immensity of the field, had troubled estimating how far hit balls had traveled. After the game, a weeping Dreyfuss told assembled reporters that it was the happiest day of his life.

Forbes Field, 1954. (AP Photo)

Now, though, it’s a ghost field, a lost cathedral. I learned that the University of Pittsburgh bought the land from the Pirates in 1958, agreeing to allow the Bucs to use it until they had a new place to play. In 1970, the Pirates — and the Steelers, who had also occasionally used the field — moved to the brand-new Three Rivers Stadium on the North Shore of the city. And in 1971, Pitt tore down Forbes Field. Giant, Brutalist-style university buildings were built where it had been, with Forbes Field’s home plate tucked into the ground floor of one of them as a shrine, allowing those with very good imaginations — or actual memories of what had been — to stand in the middle of a soaring academic foyer and imagine Bill Mazeroski stepping up to the plate on a fateful day in 1960. I found that I could stand inside at the plate, students buzzing by, and imagine a pitch and a swing, then the crack of the hit ball, before making my way through the foyer, out a double set of doors, across a busy intersection, to a piece of the left-field wall, where I turned to imagine that ball flying toward me.

Even though great baseball was still happening in Pittsburgh, it seemed to me at 16, 17, and 18 that the best days of the sport in the city were far behind.

There are places on this planet, I believe, where the ground has been hallowed. It’s absorbed some specific feeling — trauma, joy, change — and radiates it back to those visiting, even hundreds of years later. I’m not alone in this belief; it’s why people visit Pearl Harbor; the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem; those bombed or abandoned cathedrals across the ocean; and, less majestically, the home plate and left-field wall that used to be part of Forbes Field. The only way to absorb a certain kind of understanding is to stand in the spot where history happened.

* * *

Forbes Field is gone, but its steadfast companions remain. Schenley Park drifts greenly away from campus, while the Carnegie Library is a bustling destination for every age. And Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning remains, too. Standing 42 stories in its distinctive Late Gothic Revival style, it’s visible from miles around, thanks to a location on a vast lawn that is surrounded by much shorter buildings. Pitt Chancellor John G. Bowman came up with the idea for it in 1921, writing of a “tower singing upward that would tell the story of Pittsburgh.” The eventual building was dedicated in 1937, with a mandate both much narrower and much broader. The idea of telling the story of Pittsburgh is long gone, and instead the Cathedral’s mission ends up being less about the city’s history and more about being an actual cathedral: a gathering place for the community, where the sacred and common intertwine.

The Cathedral used to be adjacent to Forbes Field and now stands as the centerpiece to Pitt’s sprawling campus. A handful of older people I’ve met remember gathering on the Cathedral’s high-up balconies to watch the Bucs battle their rivals on the field far below.

The Cathedral of Learning (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

When I arrived at Pitt, I knew as little about the Cathedral as I did about the Bucs. I was still a theater person, with that same vague response to baseball, neither especially interested nor bored. Coincidentally, I had left Western Pennsylvania for college in Ohio in 1992, the last year the Pirates would be playoff contenders for two decades. All I heard about them from then on were complaints from my father and brother, which seemed even more distant after I moved to New York to get a graduate degree at NYU, and ended up staying for years. As I went about my life in Brooklyn, the Pirates might as well have been preserved in amber, along with bobby sox and poodle skirts, or stonewashed jeans and spiral perms.

In New York, you had to be one thing. You could be into opera, or Colonial history, or exotic birds, or a million other things, but you had to specialize. The offerings of the city are so dense and comprehensive, and the city so demanding with its crowds, subways, and sheer size, that there’s no time to be more than one kind of person. I fully committed to being a Theater Person (the grown-up version of that theater kid). I ran from the experimental theaters in SoHo to Broadway, and made my living writing plays and teaching theater. There was almost no time left to take in any sports for the 14 years I lived there. The staff at the theater publishing company I briefly worked at went to see the Mets once, and I remember feeling surprisingly at home and content as I watched the rituals of the game unfold. But I very rarely went back.

In 2012, when I flew to Pittsburgh to interview at Pitt before joining their MFA program, it was easy to ignore sports for the 36 hours I was there. I took in a show at City Theatre, the city’s celebrated incubator of new works, and interviewed with another theater company. “It’ll be easy to be a Theater Person here,” I thought. I vaguely noticed that almost everyone I passed, even at the theaters or on campus, was wearing something black and gold, the colors of the Steelers, Bucs, and Penguins, but this didn’t concern me. Instead, I stood at the edge of the Commons Room on the first floor of the Cathedral, peering up at the vaulted ceilings and across the half-acre space at dozens of students intently reading. Here, I knew, books, writing, education, and the arts were valued. When Pitt offered me the position, I said yes.

After I decided to move, my brother, who had also gone to Pitt for a graduate degree, warned me that sports were a thing in the ‘Burgh. I nodded: sure, I knew that. In what big city were sports not a thing? We had Baseball People in New York of two varieties, three if you counted the Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor league team. It would be fine. There were Theater People in Pittsburgh, as well. To each their own.

When I enrolled in the MFA program the University of Pittsburgh in 2012, suddenly the history of Pirates baseball became real to me. On campus one day I stumbled upon the actual physical remnants of those glory days.

I hadn’t discovered the back wall of Forbes Field yet, hadn’t stumbled upon the photograph of the Cathedral and the baseball stadium yet, didn’t yet know that a walk through any array of office cubicles at Pitt would reveal Terrible Towels (a hallowed Steeler fan tradition) draped behind countless desks, hadn’t noticed that something like 80% of the cars here have a team logo on them. I hadn’t marked an October 13 by quietly walking around the faithful observers reliving the Mazeroski home run where the ballpark used to be. I didn’t grasp what sports meant to Pittsburgh yet. I didn’t really understand what my brother was trying to tell me.


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It wasn’t until I moved here that I began to see. Of course, at first, everything around me was new: people, commutes, books, tasks. But slowly, I began to experience the city. When I took public transportation to a show at the Symphony, the sign on the bus’s front reminded me to cheer, “Here We Go, Steelers!” Next to me at the concert, a man sat attentively listening to a violin solo, his Penguins jersey neatly pressed. Grad student friends who worked three jobs somehow found the means to pay for cable so that they could watch the games. My church cut short an event so we could get home in time for the opening kickoff. In the schools where I presented workshops, from Hazelwood to Washington, rows of children sat in black and gold.

I was charmed, but confused until I understood what my brother had been trying to tell me. People joke that “Pittsburghese,” with its “yinz” and “farwood” and “sammichs,” is the local dialect, but actually, it’s sports. And if I wanted to live here, I needed to learn to speak it. But I don’t really care about football, and actively dislike hockey, so I resisted. I was a Theater Person. Theater! That was my jam!

And then, the Pirates got good again.

* * *

PNC Park, the Pirates current home, is the first they don’t have to share with any other sports team in the city. Sure, they rent it out for an occasional event or concert, but the ballpark is theirs alone, with the Steelers’ Heinz Field just a stone’s throw away on the North Shore, which lies across the Allegheny River from downtown Pittsburgh. Downtown is hemmed in by those famous three rivers — the Ohio, the Allegheny, and the Monongahela; placing PNC on the North Shore was justified as a way of boosting businesses in that area, a proposition that seems less true the further from the stadium one travels. The stadium has proven to be a mixed bag for city residents. It serves as a cathedral, of course, and one that I find astoundingly accessible when compared to the epic trek to any New York City stadium. But it has also increased traffic, congestion, and the number of drunken fans in a previously quieter section of the city. And sometimes it seems to serve only members of its congregation instead of being a cathedral for all.

Yet, despite a distinctly terrible name, PNC is beloved among baseball’s congregants, and is widely considered to be one of the best stadiums in the country. Opened in 2001, it was designed to harken back to classic ballparks, perhaps as a rebuke to Three Rivers Stadium, about which, the best most fans could say was that it was “functional.” From many seats at PNC, you look out across the ball field to the river, crossed by the Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol, and David McCullough Bridges, and then to the beautiful downtown Pittsburgh skyline.

The Pittsburgh Pirates play the Montreal Expos, Monday, July 19, 2004, at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. (AP Photo/Mark Genito)

On a visit home from Brooklyn, I made my first visit to PNC with my dad and brother. I was much more enthralled by the view than by the game. As the sun set, the buildings glowed, golden and pink, and I barely noticed that the Pirates were behind by 10 points in the seventh inning. I was 28, and it was a beautiful night in a big city, and I almost didn’t care that I could barely follow what my father and brother were talking about — batting averages, maybe? It didn’t matter. I was content to be there.

There are places on this planet, I believe, where the ground has been hallowed. It’s absorbed some specific feeling — trauma, joy, change — and radiates it back to those visiting, even hundreds of years later.

I spent the fall of 2012 and winter of 2013 settling into my new home in Pittsburgh. I made it to a performance in nearly every theater and branched out to the symphony, local art galleries, and a dance concert. I went for hikes in the nearby state parks, and saw the architectural marvel that is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. I visited coffee houses and restaurants. And it seemed as if I kept meeting the same people over and over, running into friends I knew from the MFA program at the opera, and spotting artist acquaintances at a nearby state park. I was beginning to see that Pittsburgh was a place where you could be more than one kind of person. When I heard the buzz that the Pirates were looking good for once, I was interested, remembering the happiness I’d felt at baseball games in the past. I knew I could surely use that feeling of contentment again, in my busy, stressful life. But I was scared of the way sports seemed to encompass some fans in Pittsburgh. Could I just dip my toe into baseball fandom? Could I learn to speak the real Pittsburghese?

Of course, the answer is yes. My father and brother swept into town one Spring evening in 2013 and I joined them in what one does if one is a Reed and going to a baseball game in the ‘Burgh: you load up on meats and carbs at Max’s Allegheny Tavern, a long-running German restaurant on the North Shore, and then you park close to The Pittsburgh Fan, a sports merchandise store on Federal Street, across from PNC, where you buy a new T-shirt or hat. After that stop, it’s a straight shot past the Roberto Clemente statue and into the ballpark, where every seat is pretty good.

Even after a mere six months back in the ‘Burgh, I had already developed a defensiveness about the city, the result of too many well-meaning New York friends telling me, consolingly, “I hear it’s really very nice there, now that the steel mills have closed.” But even I was surprised at how pleasant it all was: the warm Spring night, the diversity of the crowd, an interesting game shaping up in front of me, my dad and brother already chowing down on hot dogs, even though we’d just eaten. Pittsburgh, looming familiarly, spread out across from us. I could see the roof of the theater I’d been at a few nights before, and knew that the decorative brick facade of Heinz Hall was hiding just out of sight. There was a buzzing sound from the boats on the river. Next to me, a man explained to his grandson that they would have to stand soon for the national anthem. I looked over the field, and felt a strange sense of relief: no play was going to be performed, and I did not need to have an opinion about the set, direction, or players. I could just watch, lazily, not a Theater Person, and certainly not a Baseball Person, but just…a Pittsburgher, it seemed, someone who could appreciate the skill of anything, without being a maniac about it. This felt lovely.

The Pirates won. And when I went back a few weeks later, this time with a friend, they won again. As it turns out, they started to win a lot, and I liked it. Real fans of a team love them whether they win or lose, I know, but I wasn’t yet a real fan, I guess. I liked it when we won. I still do. I like to be in a crowd that leaps to its feet cheering. I like it when the players run off the field happy, pointing out and up at us, as if we helped somehow, the cathedral of baseball lit up around them, neon green in the darkness. Good baseball wasn’t ancient history in Pittsburgh anymore; it was happening, now. Lots of things were happening in Pittsburgh now, actually, and some of them were very good, indeed.

I started going to games more regularly, then leaving them on the television in the background at home once in a while, then making sure I’d be home to grade papers so I could watch. I lined up dates to go to PNC. I grew my collection of gold and black clothing. I became a person who knew a few stats — such as that 2013 was the Pirates’ first winning season since 1992 — and then a person who knew all of the players’ names, and then someone who could tweet reasonable opinions on the players, of the sort that merited a reply from a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review sports writer. Last Christmas, my brother gave me a Pirates baseball hat, the first I’d owned since I played Little League, 30 years before. I still feel as if I’m pretending when I wear it, but you know what? No one ever calls me on it.

Pittsburgh has many problems. It grieves me especially that some of my African-American students do not feel the same freedoms that I do, nor assume their opportunities extend beyond fields of play. I think often of Forbes Field, and the Cathedral of Learning, and PNC Park, never forgetting that full integration has only been a given at the last of them. History telescopes, but some memories linger far past the lifespans of those who made them.

But I find hope in one thing that the city does well, and that is to provide cathedrals for us to gather. We show up a community, and, together, we go about our business of worshipping, thinking, sitting, reading, watching, whatever it is we feel called upon to do. Eventually, by being together, we may grow into people of tolerance who understand that we’re all fully human. None of us need to specialize — although we certainly can if we want to — but we can all be Theater People, or Baseball People, or whatever else catches our fancy, all at once. We are flawed, broken people. But we love our teams, and one of our teams is humanity.

I could just watch, lazily, not a Theater Person, and certainly not a Baseball Person, but just…a Pittsburgher, it seemed, someone who could appreciate the skill of anything, without being a maniac about it.

I know this is true because of what happens on October 13th when, year after year, fans gather at the old flagpole to listen to a broadcast of Mazeroski’s game. At the 2015 event, an announcer led the crowd in a moment of silence for Yogi Berra, who had died a few days before. In 1960, the Yankee catcher had watched Mazeroski’s homer sail away, along with the Yankees’ World Series dreams. Bowing their heads, modern-day Bucs fans saluted him as an icon whose sojourn in the ordinariness of the present had finally come to an end. He was now consigned to history, to be winnowed into a few stories and moments. Then the announcer said, “They say you can’t turn back the clock. Nonsense. We will.” As the audience stood among the bits and pieces of the old field, listening with anticipation to a re-broadcast of the entire game, they did.

Let history telescope us, as it will, a fact I am all too aware of this season, for my father has attended his last Bucs game, slipping out of this life just a day after watching the team sail towards their third post-season in a row in 2015. This season, our second without him, as my brother and I went back to Max’s, then The Pittsburgh Fan, then the game, we missed our dad. I always miss him. My mother comes along to the games sometimes now, because she, too, has grown to love the Bucs, even in a not-great season like this one, and she, too, misses the guy who first brought us all to PNC. We will stay Baseball People at least partly because Dad was, too, and this will connect us, even as history continues to telescope him further and further away from us.

But while I am sometimes sad at PNC Park and sometimes miss those days of easier fandom when I was on my feet and cheering a win more often than not, I also feel that familiar contentment that comes from watching a game unfold. Because in Pittsburgh, despite our pride in a past both glorious and difficult, as well as in the cathedrals we built back then, we know we can only live in the present. And even though a mediocre season is just ending, it won’t be long before the boys of summer will be back on the North Side, getting ready for batting practice to begin.

* * *

Shannon Reed is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh whose writing credits include The New Yorker, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Buzzfeed, The Washington Post, LitHub, and many more. This essay was written with the support of the Creative Nonfiction Foundation’s Writing Pittsburgh project.

Editor: Sari Botton