With a cherished sports legacy, Pittsburgh covers all the bases

06/29/2014 12:00 AM

06/28/2014 7:28 PM

My baseball fanatic friends and I always close the bar at the Rivertowne Brewing Hall of Fame Club after Pirates games at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. We linger for as long as they let us, enjoying the great view of the field and reduced postgame drinks prices. It’s just one of many reasons why we love coming to PNC Park and hate leaving.

Talk to any traveling baseball fan or ballpark aficionado about PNC Park, and they'll speak in reverent tones about the panoramic view of the Pittsburgh skyline beyond the outfield wall. In its 14-year existence, the visually stunning chiseled-limestone ballpark has become one of professional baseball’s most highly regarded cathedrals.

Whenever I visit Pittsburgh, I feel jealous that I’m not a native fan of the city’s sports teams. Some of the most dramatic and memorable moments in professional sports history have taken place in Pittsburgh: Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series; Roberto Clemente’s outstanding performance in the 1971 series; and his 3,000th and final hit the next year, just three months before he died in a plane crash while flying relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Clemente passed the torch as team leader to Willie “Pops” Stargell, who led the Pirates to their next World Series victory in 1979.

The football Steelers have Franco Harris’ improbable “Immaculate Reception,” when he caught a deflected pass and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown in the final seconds of the team’s 1972 playoff victory over the Oakland Raiders. NFL Films chose it as the greatest play of all time.

Pittsburgh’s long sports history is celebrated with statues, monuments, memorials and historical markers throughout the city, as well as some entertaining and enlightening sports museums.

“I don’t think there’s another city in the United States that uses sport as much as Pittsburgh to tell its story to the world,” says Rob Ruck, a sports history professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

In his LinkedIn profile photo, Ruck is posing in front of a preserved portion of the outfield wall at Forbes Field that Mazeroski’s historic blast flew over. The wall segment stands outside the university’s Mervis Hall, which was built on the site of the Pirates’ home park from 1909 to 1970. Pirates fans gather here every Oct. 13 to listen to the radio re-broadcast of the game. Home plate from Forbes Field is imbedded in the floor of the university’s Posvar Hall student union building. And the specific section of the wall that Mazeroski’s home run passed over was restored in 2009 and moved to the Riverwalk area outside PNC Park, near a statue of the slugger himself.

Surrounding PNC Park at four points are bronze statues of Clemente, Stargell, Mazeroski and Honus Wagner. Seven members of the Negro League’s Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays are also honored with sculpted likenesses in the ballpark’s Legacy Square, inside the left-field gate entrance.

Beyond the outfield wall, the Roberto Clemente Bridge looms at the forefront of the horizon, running from left to left-center-field and providing a spectacular vista from the park.

It has been 42 years since Clemente’s death, but you’d be hard pressed to find another player in baseball history who left such a lasting impression on his team and its city. Clemente’s number 21 is still the most popular number on fans’ T-shirts and jerseys at PNC Park.

Outside the right-field wall, which rises to 21 feet, the Roberto Clemente Memorial Park contains a series of cascading waterfalls along the ballpark’s exterior walkway.

Perhaps the greatest memorial to his legacy is the Roberto Clemente Museum. Housed in the old Enginehouse No. 25 in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, about 3 miles from PNC Park, it’s the largest collection of Clemente photographs and memorabilia in one place.

Most of the items on display belong to the museum’s proprietor, commercial photographer Duane Rieder, although some of the more significant objects are on loan from the Clemente family. These include a pair of Presidential Medals of Freedom presented posthumously by President Richard Nixon, as well as Clemente’s 1960 and 1971 World Series rings, his 1967 Gold Glove Award, his National Baseball Hall of Fame replica plaque and his 1961 Silver Slugger Award.

Tours of the museum are available by appointment only, and I made mine at the last minute before arriving in town for an Orioles games at PNC Park. The museum was hosting a private event on the same day, and the assistant director told me that I would have only 30 minutes to see everything. About an hour and a half later, I was drinking wine with Rieder in the museum basement, which functions as a winery and cellar.

“I started making these wines when I found out that Roberto drank only homemade red wine made by the team’s trainer, Tony Bartirome,” Rieder told me.

Less than 2 miles from the Clemente Museum is the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center, where a life-size figure of Harris making the Immaculate Reception greets you on the second floor. Another lifelike figure, of Mazeroski hitting his famous home run, adds a three-dimensional element to the museum’s baseball exhibit, a 40-foot-tall, two-story room adorned with a mural of Forbes Field as it appeared on the day of the seventh game of the 1960 World Series.

An enlarged photo of the Negro League’s Pittsburgh Crawfords adorns an adjacent wall in front of the museum’s Negro Leagues exhibit, which draws particular attention to famed slugger Josh Gibson. A statue of Gibson will be unveiled with the creation of an expanded Negro League exhibit and the relaunching of the sports museum in fall 2015.

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