Three Rivers Stadium: At The Beginning

I have this little Forest Gumpian thing going on with my life. I maybe have not accomplished too much personally, but on more than one occasion, I have been in the vicinity when big things happen.  And so it was with Three Rivers Stadium.

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I was a witness to its opening night; its first baseball game, and even more important, its first football game. It didn't seem like much at first, just a meaningless preseason game; but it initiated changes to how the game of professional football is presented that has had an impact that carries on to this very day. Not just in its effect on Steelers football, but also the reach and popularity of the NFL itself. Of course, we who were lucky enough to be there didn't have a clue. I am guessing that nobody else involved at the time did either.

It's the summer of 1970, and I am a freshly minted high school graduate searching for some extra cash as I prepared to enter college at the other end of the state in the fall.

(Editor's Note: Click through to that link above and read about Mr. Cole and his story as a PGH kid trying to walk on at Temple. It's a great read by and about the person behind we've come to respect, appreciate and enjoy so much here on BTSC over the years. Perhaps wait though until after reading this, as it's a lengthy read. -M. Bean-)

Fortunately for me the biggest addition to the civic entertainment landscape in nearly a decade was opening. The opening of Three Rivers was a bit behind schedule, but was opening soon enough that I would be able to make some money working at the new stadium. As a bonus -- a more important perk for a young sports crazed athlete -- I would get to be a part of my hometown city's sports history.

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Three Rivers was a lot of years in the making. Conversation concerning a new sports stadium in Pittsburgh began before I was born. Forbes Field, home of the Pirates was the oldest facility in the National League. But even at an advanced age there was much to recommend the place. It was located on the University of Pittsburgh campus right on the edge of Schenley Park. Except for a small area in right field there was no seating in the outfield between the foul lines. The scenery beyond the ivy covered brick walls was the park with the Cathedral of Learning looming in the near distance.

The downside was a seating capacity well below 40,000, no dedicated parking, none of the amenities of a modern ball park such as the big electronic scoreboards. The situation was more dire for the Steelers who were essentially homeless. They divided their time between Forbes Field and Pitt Stadium. Negotiations dragged on for years but ground was finally broken in 1968 with completion scheduled in May 1970. The facility opened on July 16th  right after the All-Star Game. I was one of dozens of additional vendors that were needed to serve the 50,000+ venue.

Three Rivers was not unique in the style or timing of its existence. Pittsburgh was one of several municipalities that would construct what came to known as cookie-cutter stadiums. What they had in common was that they were multi-purpose in their design, enclosed, and bowl-shaped structures with plenty of concrete on not a whole lot else. Other cities that constructed similar facilities at roughly the same time were St Louis (Busch Stadium - home of the baseball and football Cardinals), Cincinnati (Riverfront Stadium - home of the Reds and expansion Bengals) Atlanta (Fulton County Stadium - home of the Braves and Falcons), and Philadelphia (Veterans Stadium - home of the Phillies and Eagles) It is also worth noting that all these stadiums fell out of favor at approximately the same time. All have been destroyed.

 
Truth be told, Three Rivers was still not complete on that first night. This was reflected in what would be my daily routine in the weeks I worked there. I had access to a car, but the stadium's parking lots were largely non-existent. Rather than dealing with the daily hassle of finding parking in downtown Pittsburgh on weekdays, I opted to ride the 82 Lincoln into town, and then walk across the Fort Duquesne Bridge, or what had been known for years as the Bridge to Nowhere. Bless you Rege Cordic wherever you are.

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I made my way into the bowels of Three Rivers, the dark and dank dregs of the stadium that served as a home-base of sorts for the vendors. Our boss was a dour looking man named Mack who was generally well liked by all despite his depressing appearance and unwavering no-nonsense manner. Mack was wearing part of the answer to a great mystery in the Pittsburgh community. The Pirates would be unveiling new uniforms as part of the move to their new digs. It took me several minutes to realize that the brown mustard colored baseball cap with the black ‘P' that Mack was wearing was part of that uniform. (The '70s mark the time of an ill-advised and tragic marriage between Americans and polyester. The Pirates' uniforms were one of the first steps taken down that terrible road.)

Tumblr_ksjvttjely1qz83wwo1_500_mediumI learned a few important things before we even began work on that first night. Vending was a commission only business. A newbie like myself is immediately confronted by a choice -- union or non-union. This a pragmatic choice, not philosophical. If you went union you would get a 25% commission, while the non-union commission was only 10%. However, with the union seniority determined assignments, while non-union was literally first come first served.

Arriving about two hours before game time I ended up being assigned to selling peanuts in the centerfield upper deck. Since this was opening night and  a large crowd was coming, this wasn't so bad. There would be nights when there were only about 50 people occupying the entire upper deck foul line to foul line when, say, the San Diego Padres were in town. There would be days when I would arrive at the ball park at 1pm for a 7:30pm game in order to get a plum assignment such as selling ice-cold Cokes to the thirsty patrons seated in the ground level box seats.

As it was, nothing could spoil opening night at the new stadium.  The city's still large and productive populace descended on the new venue from all over the city. Regardless of what 'class' fans identified with, new friendships were quickly and easily formed by Pittsburghers who were proud of the new ear in the city's professional sporting landscape. 

The vendors who were assigned to the upper deck stood on the high perch of the ramps to watch uncharacteristically large crowds trudge in from the neighborhoods of the surrounding Northside -- arriving first by ferry, then walking across the bridges to Three Rivers.  

As daylight melted into dusk, the stadium lights illuminated the scene to the level of daylight. I was surprised that the bowl filled but not quite to capacity. At the beginning of the game the players did not take the field together but were introduced individually, running out in their frumpy polyesters. The game was a good one; the Pirates were a very good team that would make it to the World Series the following year. However, they were matched against a very good Cincinnati team that would make the World Series that year. The Reds would win a very close game.

My routine quickly crystallized over the coming days. I would spend my mornings working out in preparation for my walking on to my college football team. I would arrive at the stadium between 1 and 2pm to submit my card. Enough guys had caught on that there were quite a number of us hanging out during the afternoon. Turned out that a disproportionately large number of us were current or former high school football players and the hours passed quickly as we shared stories about games, coaches, triumphs and humiliations. In the later afternoon we would sit around outside waiting for the players to arrive. Actually, most of us were just waiting for one player.


Dock Ellis.

Dock-ellis-1971-via-the-sporting-news-200x323_mediumEllis was the Pirates' ace pitcher, capable of giving up double digit runs in a few innings or throwing a no hitter. We would eventually catch site of his forest green Cadillac El Dorado. Ellis would be leaning so far toward the armrest that only the very top of his head was visible.

"Hey Dock!"

"What's up Dock!"

He would respond with a fist salute that would be returned by a platoon of vendors. We would be ready to go to work from that point.

That was the routine for baseball.

But there was something else coming up. Our schedules showed that the Steelers had a preseason game coming up on a Friday night in August. I immediately made an important and irreversible decision. I was not going to attempt to sell anything while that football game was going on. I was going to watch the game as a spectator. I spent a good amount of time thinking long and hard about how I would get this done. I kept my plans to myself.

On the day of the game I showed up for work like I normally would. I did not turn in my work card, so technically I was not there. I did not change into my vending clothes. Without fanfare I walked upstairs about an hour before the gates opened to the public. There were lots of people around. Lots of folks came up to check out the configuration of the stadium for football, something that hadn't been seen before. The key for me was to find a seat in a location where there would be some extra seats and to do it before the ushers took up their positions. I chose the field level seats that would be right behind the visiting team's bench. I then chose the farthest section to right, placing me right next to where the Clairton High School Band would be seated throughout the game.

I chose well. What surprised me is that I would soon be joined by about four of my fellow vendors. Each had made the decision that I had and each had found their way to this particular spot. We sat close to each other but not together. Nobody noticed that we were there or bothered us. We were able to enjoy a landmark football game in peace.

I mentioned earlier that this was a significant game with some long term ramifications. Here's why:

  • It was the Steelers first game at a place they could truly call home. They were no longer the stepchild.
  • Prior to that day the Steelers had never played a preseason game at home. In those days it was not unusual to have preseason games played in places such as Morgantown, WV. Or Lexington Ky.
  • It was a night game. Night games were rare in the NFL. At night and at home was pretty much unheard of. Pitt Stadium didn't have lights.
  • Index_mediumIt was Terry Bradshaw's first game. It is fair to say that television exposure was so limited in those days that like me, most of the people who witnessed his performance was seeing him play for the very first time.
  • It was a sellout, or very close to it. This was noteworthy for several reasons. First, the Steelers of those days did not typically sell out. The annual matchup against the Browns usually sold out, but that was because a lot of folks came down from Ohio. More significant, this was a team that had won one game the previous year, not an incentive for much excitement. The Pirates as I had mentioned before were having trouble filling the stadium even though they had what was universally acknowledged as one of the best teams in baseball at that time.
  • The game was nationally televised. It was an intriguing matchup. Bradshaw was not just Pittsburgh's #1 draft choice, but he was also the #1 player taken overall. He was matched up against the New York Giants and their quarterback at the time, Fran Tarkenton, a popular television draw. But that wasn't all.

As we were waiting out the hours before the game, three men emerged from the entrance to the Steelers locker room. They were tall, all wearing the yellow blazers associated with ABC Sports. They walked across the field and up the stands into the football press box. They were Keith Jackson, Don Meredith and Howard Cosell. Though it was a Friday night, this would be the very first broadcast of what would go on to known as Monday Night Football, which brought the game into prime time and created a phenomena that changed both the viewing and social habits of Americans for years.

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As for the game itself. Pittsburgh easily dominated the Giants. Bradshaw was impressive but not as impressive as the running of the tandem of Frenchy  Fuqua and Preston Pearson. They were still two years away from their first playoff game and four years from their first Super Bowl, but it was clear to everyone present that the team under the direction of Chuck Noll had turned a corner and would be good soon, and for many years to come. I didn't know at the time that it would be forty years of relative excellence. Franco_one_medium

At the time, I would have never believed that that I would never spend a complete summer in Pittsburgh again. I also wouldn't have guess that Three Rivers would last only thirty years before the next upgrade, half the shelf life of Forbes Field.  I was enjoying life and optimistic that the best was yet to come for my two favorite teams. But I didn't know that the reputation of the city would take such a historic turn over the course of the decade -- on and off the field.

I did know one thing -- as we were leaving the Stadium that night, my companions and I were all smiles. (I had even gotten the phone number of one of the young women on Clairton's band.) We may have been the closest of friends, but we all were excited by the Steelers' impressive debut at Three Rivers. 

And we all agreed.....these guys are gonna be good.

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