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Jim O’Brien -70’spirates-steelers

October 12, 2011

Reunions of ’71 Pirates and Steelers of ‘70s Rekindle Great Memories – Jim O’Brien 

I have often been told I have a nice job.

         Then again, my younger daughter, Rebecca, has often reminded me, “Dad, you never had a real job.”

         Many sports fans through the years have told me they wish they could have tagged along with me and met all the great sports stars I have been fortunate to meet and interview as a sports writer and author.

         I always recognized I was blessed to turn a boyhood fascination with sports and writing into a lifelong career.  Yes, in my own way, I was able to make it to the major leagues in all sports.  

         I was never a one-sport guy.  I covered more sports on all levels than any other sportswriter to come out ofPittsburgh.

         I was reminded of this over the past extended weekend when I spent time in the company of the Steelers of the ‘70s, as well as some of the great players of opposing teams in the National Football League, and the ’71 Pirates.

         These were the ballplayers that made the Steelers the “Team of the Decade” in the NFL in the ‘70s, and produced title teams – four Super Bowl champions and two World Series winners – and prompted sportscaster Howard Cosell to label Pittsburgh“The City of Champions.”

         It stuck and we still like to think of ourselves in that respect.

         Last Thursday evening my wife Kathie and I attended a gala party at Heinz Field for the 34th Annual Andy Russell Celebrity Classic, and then I joined many of the celebrities and participants at a breakfast the following morning at the Club at Nevillewood where a golf outing was held.

         From there, I hustled off to Robert Morris University, where I signed books in my “Pittsburgh Proud” series Friday through Sunday at the 33rd Pittsburgh Sports Card Show that featured the 30th anniversary reunion of the 1971 Pirates.

         I worked at The New York Post from 1970 till 1979 and took pride in thePittsburgh sports successes from a distance.  I was covering all the sports teams inNew York, but I still reveled in the accomplishments of my hometown teams, including the 1976 Pitt national college football championship team.

         I returned home to work for The Pittsburgh Press, where I had worked while in high school and at Pitt, in April of 1979.  I got back just in time to celebrate another World Series triumph by the Pirates in 1979, and to cover the Steelers when they won their fourth Super Bowl in six years.

         Danny Murtaugh had managed the Pirates in 1971, and Chuck Tanner was at the helm of the ship in 1979.  Chuck Noll, of course, coached the Steelers, still the only coach to claim four Super Bowl championships in as many outings.

         And I wrote the first of 20 books I would write about Pittsburghsports achievements when Marty Wolfson and I edited and published Pittsburgh: The Story of the City of Champions.

         Andy Russell has raised over $5 million at his celebrity golf outing for local charities, most recently the UPMC prostate cancer research program.  I remember covering one of his early outings with Arnold Palmer as the co-host at the Latrobe Country Club, and I have attended about 15 of these events ever since.

         The former Steelers present this time were John Banaszak, Craig Bingham, Rocky Bleier, Mel Blount, Emil Boures, Robin Cole, Glen Edwards, Neil Graff, Gordon Gravelle, Jack Ham, Dick Hoak, Bill Hurley, Todd Kalis, Marv Kellum, Louis Lipps, Mike Merriweather, Edmund Nelson, Myron Pottios, Lynn Swann, Paul Uram, Mike Wagner, J.R. Wilburn and Dwayne Woodruff.

         Bobby Bell and Willie Lanier, both Hall of Fame linebackers for the Kansas City Chiefs, were there, along with Isaac Curtis of the Cincinnati Bengals, Pierre Larouche and Phil Borque of the Penguins, Kent Tekulve of the Pirates, Tom Mack, a Hall of Fame center for the Los Angeles Rams, and Billy Van Heusen of the Denver Broncos.

         I particularly enjoyed taking a trip down memory lane with Bobby Bell.  I was stationed at the U.S. Army Home Town News Center inKansas Cityfor ten months in 1965 when the Chiefs were assembling one of the greatest teams in NFL history.  Lenny Dawson, a former quarterback with the Steelers, was the team’s offensive leader andBelland Buck Buchanan were the leaders of the team’s defensive unit.

         I helped out in the press box at Municipal Stadium for home games for the Chiefs and Athletics, a real perk since I was getting about $10 a day in meal money from the Army.  I spent time in the home of Bobby Bell when I interviewed him for a feature story in Sport magazine.   He was sharing the pad with a defensive back named Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, who gained fame for his ferocious hits and went on to star in a series of black exploitation movies featuring fearsome black tough guys and gals (Richard Roundtree and Pam Greer) ala “Superfly” and “Shaft” that were popular with urban audiences in the early ‘70s.   Williamson had once played briefly for the Steelers.

        Belland Williamson were an odd couple, andBellhad a few belly laughs over reflecting on his roommate.

        Bellhas been a regular at Andy Russell’s Celebrity Classic for many years, and is popular with whatever foursome gets him in the draw.  KDKA’s Bob Pompeani, who was a student of mine once upon a time atPointParkUniversity, is the only other member of the media at these outings.  He emcees the auction and plays in the golf outing.  He’s got a green jacket to prove it.  Those who participate in at least ten of the classics rate the same kind of blazer that is given to Masters champions atAugusta.

         I was not as familiar with the ’71 Bucs because I was inNew York at the time as I am with the ’60 Bucs and ’79 Bucs.  It was good to see Gene Alley, Tony Bartirome, Steve Blass, Vic Davalillo, Dave Giusti, Mudcat Grant, Richie Hebner, Jackie Hernandez, Bob Johnson, John Lamb, Don Leppert, Bill Mazeroski, Al Oliver, Bob Robertson, Charlie Sands, Manny Sanguillen, Bob Veale and Bill Virdon.

         I covered the New York Yankees when Virdon managed the team during the 1974 and 1975 seasons.  He is the answer to a trivia question: Who managed the Yankees for two years and never managed one game at Yankee Stadium?  The Yankees played at Shea Stadium, the Mets’ home field, during that span as major renovations were being done on Yankee Stadium.  The venerable ballpark has since been leveled when a new stadium was constructed next door.

         Terry Hanratty, a quarterback for the Steelers in the ‘70s, was the lone Steelers’ player to be signing autographs among all the ’71 Pirates at Robert Morri sUniversity.  Promoter J. Paul Stogner said he wanted to have something for the Steelers’ fans in attendance.

          Jim Tripodi, who operates Diamond Jim’s, a sports card and memorabilia shop in Beaver, is a regular at these card shows.

         “I’m really getting into magazines, sports publications of all kinds and press guides,” Tripodi told me.  “I swear I keep seeing your name in all of them.  I don’t know where you found the time to have two kids.”

         I told him I hustled pretty good in the ‘70s and ‘80s as far as free-lance writing was concerned.  I loved writing about sports stars and seeing my byline in all the national publications.

         Sportswriters weren’t making good money in those days, so I moonlighted and took advantage of all opportunities to get my stuff published and make some money on the side.

         I saved nearly all of that extra money.  The fees for such stories ranged from $50 to $500 in the early years, and got better later on.  I started out making $12,500 a year for editing Street & Smith’s Basketball Yearbook in 1970, and was up to $65,000 for editing three annuals for the Conde Nast Publications by the mid-80s.

         I was able to save about $100,000 for each of our daughters, Sarah and Rebecca.  That included $65,000 earmarked for their college education and $35,000 for their weddings.  I was right on the mark for what I needed for them to go to theUniversityofVirginiaandOhioUniversity, for Sarah and Rebecca, respectively.  Rebecca’s wedding money is still drawing dividends and interest.

         I invested the rest in retirement funds for Kathie and myself.  That’s how you are supposed to manage your money.  That’s why I have little tolerance for the complaints offered by pro athletes these days during the labor contract disagreement in the NFL.

         The players have this sense of entitlement, which is rampant in this country among many people.  With the kind of money they are making they should be stashing away the majority of their money for future use.  When NFL players compare their situation to being slaves I have to question their mentality.

         They say the average NFL playing career is just over four years, yet many of them think they should be set for life and never have to work again.  In truth, if they saved and invested their money wisely they would be set for life.

         I worked for the New York Post for nine years and Street & Smiths’s for 32 years, and The Pittsburgh Press for four-and-a-half years – the average NFL career – and draw a pension from none of them.  I saved and funded my own pension.

         I did what I did because I enjoyed the life.  I remember Dick Young, the best baseball writer ever, when asked why he was a sportswriter, saying, “I don’t want to be a millionaire, I just want to live like one.”  Exactly.  My sentiments, indeed.

         It’s a great life.  The Pirates, Steelers, Penguins and other pro athletes who were in Pittsburgh this past week ought to know that by now.  It was good to see them again.  We were lucky they came our way.

 Pittsburghsports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien has written a series of “Pittsburgh Proud” books that area available at area book stores.  His website is 



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