Where is America’s most livable city? Forget cost-of-living, quality of education, transportation and economic opportunity. The most livable city is the one with the best sports. For each year of the modern era, starting in 1976, The Sports Notebook has selected one city or part of the country where it was particularly good to be a fan. Below is the recap of how that year unfolded…
The city of Pittsburgh was already riding high in the early part of 1979. In January of that year the Steelers became the first NFL team to win three Super Bowls, defeating the Dallas Cowboys 35-31. The baseball Pirates had contended to the season’s penultimate day the previous fall and were one of the National League’s model franchises in the 1970s. Little did the good people of Pittsburgh know that even better times were still ahead and it would be the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers leading the way.
Willie “Pops” Stargell was manning first base in Three Rivers Stadium, the hideous artificial turf structure that the city’s MLB and NFL franchises shared. Stargell was the leader, both in terms of production and intangibles for the Pirates. Pops was on his way to a 32-home run season that would end with him sharing the National League MVP award with St. Louis Cardinal first baseman Keith Hernandez. Stargell got offensive help primarily from corner outfielders Dave Parker and Bill Robinson, both of whom slugged over .500 in 1979. Parker in particular was a feared player who could do it all and playing rightfield he had a cannon for an arm that commanded respect from baserunners. The Pirates also got contributions from third baseman Bill Madlock and centerfielder Omar Moreno, the speedy leadoff man who hit for average and steal bases. The pitching staff had a future Hall of Famer in Bert Blyleven at the top, with a solid lefty in John Candelaria at the #2 spot. When it came to relief, manager Chuck Tanner could summon Kent Tekulve, a bespectacled submarine-thrower, along with Grant Jackson, Don Robinson and Jim Bibby, the latter of which crossed over between the pen and the rotation.
Even with this talent base, it took the Pirates a long time to get started. This was a problem that had cost them the 1978 NL East title, when they’d fallen 10.5 games behind Philadelphia before starting their rally in the second half of the season. In 1979, it was the Phils and the Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) who got out to quick starts, while the Pirates struggled to a 7-11 record in April. They fell as many as nine games back before May was out and didn’t get to .500 for good until May 29. The team began to stabilize in June and the deficit ranged from four to nine games through the All-Star break. When the Pirates came back from the break, they swept a doubleheader from the Astros and were on their way. With Stargell making the Sister Sledge song “We Are Family” the team’s theme song, Three Rivers was rocking and rolling through the late summer and into September. Montreal was a team on the rise and their 95 wins were second-best in the entire National League. But the Pirates took six of seven head-to-head battles with the Expos in September. Pittsburgh held a one-game lead on the final day of the season and was able to clinch with their own win, while Montreal also lost. With 98 wins, the Pirates were headed back to the National League Championship Series for the first time since 1975.
THE SERIES IN THE STEEL CITY
Western Pennsylvania is football territory, first, last and always and the Steelers were ready for another run of their own. Terry Bradshaw was still at the height of his playing days, years away from being an annoying Fox-TV pregame commentator. Franco Harris was a powerful running back, and Rocky Bleier, a Vietnam war hero turned football player, chipped in valuable carries of his own. The receiving tandem of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth was one of the best in the game. And we haven’t covered the offensive line, anchored by future Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, or the legendary “Steel Curtain” defense, with linebacker Jack Lambert, defensive back Mel Blount and a ferocious front four led by Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood. There was no reason to think the Steelers couldn’t go all the way again.
As the Pirates were making their September push to the NL East title, the Steelers were getting off to a strong start. An overtime escape at New England to start the season keyed a 4-0 start. The second of those wins was the biggest. The old AFC Central division was the Steelers, Bengals and Browns, along with the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans). Houston had made the playoffs in ’78 and reached the AFC Championship Game behind running back Earl Campbell, who joined Dallas’ Tony Dorsett as the league’s bright young stars in the backfield. Campbell had been shut down on an icy field in the previous years’ playoffs and on this September day, the Steel Curtain showed it wasn’t all about the weather. Campbell was held to 38 yards and Oiler quarterbacks Dan Pastorini and Gifford Nielsen were intercepted a combined five teams. Pittsburgh won 38-7 and sent a clear message about who the team to beat still was.
On October 2, the Pirates began NLCS play in Cincinnati in what was then a best-of-five series (not until 1985 did LCS play become best-of-seven). The Reds were no longer the Big Red Machine that won five division titles, four National League pennants and two World Series titles earlier in the decade. Manager Sparky Anderson was gone, let go after the team finished second in 1977-78 and Pete Rose was gone in Philadelphia. John McNamara took over in the dugout, Ray Knight took over at third and while the days of Cincy dominance were gone, they still won 90 games and took the NL West. Johnny Bench had a resurgent year late in his career hitting 22 home runs and another aging Hall of Famer, starting pitcher Tom Seaver came up big. Along with holdovers Joe Morgan, Dave Concepion and George Foster, it was enough to push the Reds over the top.
It was Candelaria and Seaver on a Tuesday night in old Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati and both pitchers were up to the moment. The Pirate scored in the third with second baseman and future major league manager Phil Garner hitting a home run, then Moreno tripling and scoring on a sac fly. The Reds answered with a two-run homer by 30-HR man Foster. The 2-2 score held all the way through nine and into the 11th. After the first two Pirate batters singled, Stargell hit a three-run shot, and while the Reds loaded the bases in their own half of the inning, Don Robinson struck out Knight to end the game. Game 2 the following afternoon also gave the fans extra game time for their money. A pitcher’s duel between Bibby and Frank Pastore was again tied 2-2 after nine innings. Pittsburgh had been in position to close this one out, but back-to-back doubles from the Reds in the ninth inning tied it up. Robinson came in and prevented the winning run from scoring, and then Moreno led off the top of the 10th with a single. He was sacrificed to second by shortstop Tim Foli and singled in by Parker. Robinson closed it out and the Pirates were firmly in command of the series as they headed home.
On a Friday afternoon in Three Rivers, what had been an exciting NLCS ended in anti-climactic fashion. Pittsburgh jumped all over Cincinnati starter Mike LaCoss from the outset. Single runs in the first and second gave way to third inning home runs from Stargell and Madlock. In the fourth, Stargell delivered a two-run double. The final was 7-1. The National League pennant had come to Pittsburgh for the first time since their World Series championship season of 1971 and Stargell was LCS MVP.
That Sunday the Steelers hung 51 points on the Cleveland Browns and beat their division foe in a shootout, but this win was sandwiched between road losses to the Philadelphia Eagles, a good team, and the Bengals, a team who was not very good. At 5-2, there was no reason to hit the panic button, but Chuck Noll’s defending champs weren’t looking the part at this stage of the schedule.
The ensuing Wednesday, October 10, opened up the World Series and the opponent was the Baltimore Orioles, just as it had been in 1971. The Orioles were the best team in baseball, having won 102 games, blown away the AL East and then dispatched the California Angels in four games in the ALCS. Like the Pirates, they had been tested in a playoff series closer than the final result in games might make it appear, but had found a way to win close ones in Games 1 & 2. To win the Series, the Pirates would have to go through a team that had the AL Cy Young winner in Mike Flanagan, and a strong, balanced offense that was led by first baseman Eddie Murray, and had gotten 60 home runs combined from corner outfielders Ken Singleton and Gary Roenicke. When Baltimore came up in the bottom of the first in Game 1 and scored five runs off Bruce Kison, it looked like the rout was on.
It looked that way, but it wasn’t. Pittsburgh came grinding back, held the Oriole bats at bay, ultimately pulled to 5-4. Even though they lost, they hadn’t rolled over. And that carried over into Game 2, a great battle between Blyleven and Jim Palmer, both men with Cooperstown in their future. The teams traded runs in the second, but when Murray drove in his second run of the night in the sixth, it looked like the 2-1 lead might stand up. In the top of the ninth, veteran pinch-hitter Manny Sanguillen hit a two-run single to reverse fortunes and give the Pirates a split of the first two games as the series went back to the confluence of the Three Rivers.
Baltimore kept on coming on Friday night in Pittsburgh. While the Pirates struck early, with an RBI single from Stargell and a two-run double by Garner giving them a 3-0 lead after two innings, the Oriole offense unloaded after that. Leadoff hitter and shortstop Kiko Garcia had four hits, Benny Ayala hit a home run and the Birds didn’t need big nights from their main offensive performers to win this one 8-4. The following afternoon was worse for Pittsburgh. Early on, a Stargell home run began an outburst that built a 4-0 lead. Even when the Orioles immediately came back with three runs, the Pittsburgh relief corps got settled in over the long haul and Pittsburgh took a 6-3 lead into the eighth. Robinson, who’d been so reliable in October, and Tekulve, who had 31 saves for the season, melted down at the wrong time. Baltimore manager Earl Weaver used his almost magical ability to pick the right pinch-hitters and both John Lowenstein and Terry Crowley hit two-run pinch-hit doubles. Six runs later it was 9-6 and it seemed the Orioles had a stranglehold on this series. Pittsburgh’s strong showing on Sunday afternoon , where they fell behind 1-0 to Flanagan after five, but rallied with seven runs in the final four innings, just seemed like a delay of the inevitable. In retrospect, Baltimore missing the chance to wrap it up with the Cy Young winner on the mound and the lead—even a slim one—after five innings constitutes a missed opportunity. But it didn’t seem realistic to expect the Birds to sweep in Pittsburgh and they would surely pick up one of the final two in Baltimore.
The final two games in Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium were teeth-grinding pitcher’s duels that followed a similar pattern. No one could do anything offensively in the first part of the game. Game 6 was scoreless until the seventh, as Candelaria and Palmer battled again, but in the top of the seventh, Moreno, Foli and Parker struck with successive singles that scored one run and Stargell picked up a second with a sac fly. One thing that’s clear in looking back over the Pirates’ postseason results is how effective this team was at making productive outs. The record is filled with references to a ground ball moving someone over or the sacrifice fly getting in the run. The record of the opponents shows men left on base and opportunities missed. The window to win a championship is very small and the Pirates not only did the big things well, they did the little things. Of course after their 4-0 win in Game 6, it wasn’t a little thing that finally swung the tide of the series for the final time. It was the ultimate big blow in the sixth inning of Game 7. Baltimore’s outstanding lefthander Scott McGregor was nursing a 1-0 lead when Bill Robinson singled. It brought up Stargell who lifted a fly ball towards rightfield. The ball got just over the outstretched glove of Singleton and into the seats. It was 2-1 and with the Oriole bats having taken early hibernation, this World Series was all but over. Baltimore never remotely threatened, and the bullpen allowed two more insurance runs on consecutive hit batsman. Pittsburgh had taken the final two games on the road to win the Series, something that as of 2011, hasn’t been done since. Stargell was the Series MVP. And the Pirates were not only a Family, they were World Series champs.
PREPPING FOR THE PLAYOFFS
Now it was time for exclusive focus on the Steelers. They had a Super Bowl rematch with Dallas in late October at home and won it 14-3, thanks to a terrific running effort from Harris, while Dorsett was contained to 73 yards. Another big test came out in San Diego on November 18. The Chargers’ were challenging the Steelers for the top seed in the AFC playoffs and with quarterback Dan Fouts they had the ability to put a lot of points on the board in a hurry. That’s what they did on this day, although the 35-7 Steeler loss was more about a terrible day from Bradshaw, who threw five interceptions, then it was about the Charger attack. In either case, San Diego now had the inside track to homefield advantage in January, a big deal for an offense that would likely be grounded in bad weather in the north.
The AFC Central was still up for grabs when Pittsburgh brought their 11-3 record to the Astrodome to face 10-4 Houston. The Steelers held the tiebreaker, but could avoid having to fight to the final week with a win in this Monday Night game. They didn’t get it. Campbell finally broke through against the Steel Curtain, rushing for 109 yards and that was the difference in a tight 20-17 Houston win. Pittsburgh was still able to clinch the division the following week with a 12-4 record, but with the Chargers also at 12-4, it meant another possible trip west for the AFC Championship Game.
STEEL CITY SUPER BOWL
Before thinking about AFC Championship Game opponents, Pittsburgh had to get ready to play AFC East champion Miami. The Dolphins were only six years removed from their own glory days when they won three straight AFC titles, two straight Super Bowls, one of which produced the only perfect season of the Super Bowl era. But while names like quarterback Bob Griese, running back Larry Csonka and offensive lineman Larry Little were familiar, the team wasn’t as good. At 10-6, it was a nice playoff-caliber club, but the Steelers were Super Bowl-caliber and they played like it. Bradshaw was 21/30 for 230 yards, while the defense held Miami to 25 yards rushing. The final was 34-14 and based on what had happened the day before, Pittsburgh already knew they’d been spared a road trip. Houston’s safety Vernon Perry had intercepted Fouts four times, the Oilers had pulled a 17-14 upset and were coming to the Steel City for an AFC Championship rematch.
The weather wasn’t icy and slick this time, but Campbell didn’t have much more luck running this year then he did the previous season. The Steelers held him to 15 yards on 17 carries. But this year’s Houston team didn’t roll over. They had talent in other areas of their team, notably two excellent outside linebackers in Robert Brazile and Ted Washington, along with a very good secondary, as Fouts would attest to. Perry continued his astonishing postseason play by picking off Bradshaw and taking it 75 yards to the house to give Houston the early 7-0 lead. After the teams traded field goals, Bradshaw got in gear and rifled touchdown passes to tight end Bennie Cunningham and Stallworth to send Pittsburgh to the halftime with a 17-10 lead.
Houston was driving for the tying touchdown in the third quarter when the play by which this game is remembered took place. Pastorini lofted a third-down pass toward the back right corner of the end zone for tight end Mike Barber. He caught it, tried to drag both his feet and get them inbounds. Did he do it and maintain possession? The officials conferred. As NBC, then the network of the AFC, showed repeated replays, even instant replay couldn’t have told anything conclusive. The ruling was incomplete. Houston had to settle for a field goal. And even though there was a lot of game left, it all effectively ended there. Pittsburgh got a field goal of their own and then tacked on an insurance touchdown. They were going back to the Super Bowl, with a ticket to Pasadena.
There wouldn’t be a rematch with the Cowboys in Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach’s final year. As enticing as that sounded, top-seeded Dallas had been stunned by the 9-7 Los Angeles Rams in the divisional playoff on a tipped pass from Vince Ferragamo to Billy Waddy. The Rams then shut out Tampa Bay, who was the #2 seed, in an ugly 9-0 NFC title game. Los Angeles had been consistent contender throughout the 1970s and had a Super Bowl-worthy team several times, even if they kept coming up short. It’s ironic that the most mediocre of their 1970s playoff teams would be whom the Steelers would play.
Los Angeles still gave Pittsburgh fits. They scored an early touchdown, kept the Steeler offense under control and led 13-10 at half. They would intercept Bradshaw three times before it was over, and an upset bigger than any Super Bowl game since Joe Willie Namath guaranteed the 18-point underdog Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts in 1968 seemed in the offing. Even when Pittsburgh reclaimed the lead at 17-13, the Rams came right back and scored on a halfback pass from Lawrence McCutcheon to Ron Smith.
One thing Bradshaw was doing was gunning the ball and his mistakes hadn’t made him gunshy. Trailing 19-17 and the game in the fourth quarter, he stepped back and rifled a deep post to John Stallworth. It was over the receiver’s wrong shoulder, but Stallworth reached back, caught it and stayed on the dead run into the end zone for a 73-yard scoring play. It would be easy to say that play broke the Rams’ back, but the record says otherwise. Ferragamo led his own team right back down the field, but Lambert came up with an interception to kill the drive. Now it was Franco’s time to take over and Harris eventually plunged over from the 1-yard line for a clinching score in a 31-19 game. Bradshaw’s 309 passing yards made him game MVP for the second straight year, but a heckuva case could be made for Stallworth, whose spectacular catch saved the game, or Lambert, who’d been in the middle of things all day on defense and made the key pick.
What mattered to the Steelers though is that they had won their fourth Super Bowl before anyone else even got to three. What mattered to the city of Pittsburgh is that they were now “Titletown.” It wasn’t a bad year all the way around in Steel City sports. The NHL Penguins made the playoffs and reached the quarterfinals. Pitt broke in a freshman quarterback named Dan Marino, won ten games and capped it off with Christmas Day Fiesta Bowl win. But no one did for the city of Pittsburgh what the Pirates and Steelers did in that glorious year of 1979.