Oct 20, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; General view of the statue of Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris (32) at the Pittsburgh International Airport to commemorate the immaculate reception against the Oakland Raiders in the 1972 AFC Divisional playoff game. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
On City of Champions recently, there have been columns about which Pittsburgh Pirates manager was the favorite of all-time among fans and which Buccos baseball team ranks the most popular.
In that line of thinking, what if you were asked, “who is your favorite athlete of all-time to play any sport in Pittsburgh?” The choices could be many and could cover several sports. The decision on who was the favorite is also extremely difficult since many have left behind such amazing legacies.
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Where would one begin when thinking about the most popular or favorite athlete to grace the fields of Forbes Field, Three Rivers Stadium, Pitt Stadium, Heinz Field, the Civic Arena, the Consol Energy Center or golf courses around the country?
There are names that will just roll off a tongue…Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Mario Lemieux, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Billy Conn, Sidney Crosby, Jack Lambert, just to name a few.
Provided with what might be the top choices below, there certainly may be names not mentioned in this article, but the odds are that of the athletes profiled, one of them would certainly be ranked as an all-time favorite by Pittsburgh Sports fans everywhere.
While many of these sportsters below may not hail from Pittsburgh, some were in fact born in the ‘Burgh and others just came to play in Black and Gold (and in the Penguins case-Blue and White at times). Some of the athletes were team players for the professional or college football teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates, or the Penguins.
Others were individuals trying to claim glory solely on their own talents such as boxing champion Bill Conn or even Olympic skaters like Suzanne Semanick. Semanick hailed from Bridgeville near Pittsburgh and alongside Scott Gregory took home the gold medal while competing in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships something the pair did twice.
But when posed with this question of favorite all-time, most fans will focus on the three major sports, baseball, football, and hockey. So from the group below, a choice of favorite would be difficult to decide on.
Terry Bradshaw. Owner of four Super Bowl titles, Bradshaw is neck-in-neck with Ben Roethlisberger as the greatest Steelers quarterback of all time. Born in Louisiana, his entire career was as a Steeler.
Roberto Clemente. No Pirates fan from the 1960s and ’70s can ever forget what Clemente meant to the Buccos and to the city where he played. Like Bradshaw, he played every season as a Pirate in the major leagues. He grabbed Pittsburgh by the heart and the city fell in love with him and shed tears when he tragically passed way before his time.
Willie Stargell. “Pops.” Say that word in Pittsburgh and immediately who is being spoken of is known. Stargell would rival Clemente for grasping the hearts and love of Pittsburghers everywhere. Fans can tell you that even though they may have never met Willie Stargell in person, they felt like they knew him.
Franco Harris. “The Immaculate Reception” made Franco Harris. Unfortunate as that might seem as Franco made that play in his rookie season and then went on to have a stellar career that landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it is that one play that fans will associate Franco Harris with. He’s a hero in the ‘Burgh for one simple ridiculous play that enabled the Steelers to win their first-ever playoff game.
Mario Lemieux. Easily the greatest hockey player to every suit up in Pittsburgh, Lemieux beat cancer, is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, has won Stanley Cups, awards, M.V.P.s, and will go down as one of the sport’s best. Now he owns the team he played his entire career for. It doesn’t get any better than that for a professional athlete.
Arnold Palmer. Go to Latrobe, Pennsylvania and you won’t just be visiting the Steelers site of their annual training camp but the town that spawned one of the greatest golfers of our time. Arnie is a legend not just in the sport but in Latrobe. In fact, Palmer still has a home there while sharing residency in Orlando, Florida. While Latrobe is not quite Pittsburgh, it is close enough for Palmer to be considered one of Pittsburgh’s own.
Sidney Crosby. Has tried to rival Lemieux as the Penguins’ best ever but probably won’t reach that pinnacle. Has been desperately trying to bring home that next Stanley Cup trophy.
Jack Lambert. “The Count, Jack Splat.” Those are nicknames of the outstanding linebacker for the Steelers who graced the gridiron with intimidation and an intensity perhaps never matched before or since by a Pittsburgh Steelers’ player. In the blue collar town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Black and Gold fans absolutely LOVED Lambert’s style of play and demeanor.
Bill Mazeroski. Born in nearby Wheeling, West Virginia, Maz like Franco Harris is a hero in Pittsburgh for one simple swing of the bat that came in the bottom of the ninth inning in the 1960 World Series that won the championship for the Pirates.
Honus Wagner. Born on February 24, 1875, the greatest shortstop in baseball history lived to the ripe age of 81 where he passed in nearby Carnegie, PA. In the Baseball Hall of Fame, Wagner began his professional career as a Louisville Colonel but for just three seasons. The next 18 were as a Pittsburgh Pirate. For one year (1917), Wagner was the manager of the team he played for. Then from 1933 to 1951 he was a coach. Four years following his retirement in ’51, he passed.
Billy Conn/Harry Greb. Two championship boxers that hailed from the same town. Greb was known as “The Pittsburgh Windmill” and held the light heavyweight title for two years (1922-1923) and then became the world middleweight champion in 1923 a title he held for three years.
Born in Pittsburgh, Greb tragically died from complications following surgery from cataracts and damage to his nose and respiratory tract which caused a heart attack from which he failed to recover. Greb was preparing to open a gym in downtown Pittsburgh at the time of his death at just 32 years of age. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Pittsburgh.
As for Billy Conn, boxing fans will remember him for one single fight against the heavyweight champion Joe Louis. “The Pittsburgh Kid” had moved up from light heavyweight to challenge one of the best fighters ever, this in 1941.
Obviously Louis was heavily favored but Conn put on a boxing exhibition for 13 rounds and was ahead on all judge’s cards. Instead of keeping the same strategy for two more rounds that would have given him the biggest upset in boxing history, Conn went for the kill only to be knocked out himself. His quotes following the fight will forever be infamous: “What’s the use of being Irish if you can’t be thick?”
Tony Dorsett. While he never got the chance to play for his hometown Steelers, running back Tony Dorsett was born in Rochester, Pennsylvania attended Aliquippa High School, and played his college ball at the University of Pittsburgh.
There he became a legend in Panthers football. For those who followed his career will remember well the day he ran roughshod over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish with 303 yards rushing. That came as junior and he capped off that performance against the same team a year later with 290 more. Dorsett would help Pitt win it’s last national championship ever claimed in 1976, their ninth overall.
He would play for the Dallas Cowboys and one season with Denver but landed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Art Rooney Sr. What would this list be without the lovable, original owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers? When Pittsburgh won their first Super Bowl in 1975, the image of Pete Rozelle handing the Lombardi Trophy to “The Chief” is one that is endeared to Steelers Nation’s hearts.
Neil Walker. Finally, another current player appears on this list. Playing second base for this season’s Pittsburgh Pirates, Walker was born in the ‘Burgh, attended Pine-Richland High School, and has earned the nicknames, “Pittsburgh Kid, Hometown Kid, The Real Deal.”
His father Tom also played major league baseball. Tom Walker owns an eerie story that spells out the definition of fate. In 1972, Walker was playing baseball in Puerto Rico and was assisting the great Roberto Clemente in loading the supplies that #21 was about to transport to Nicaragua for earthquake victims there.
The plane became so full that Roberto told Walker to stay behind and celebrate New Year’s eve at home. Walker took him up on the offer and we all know the end result. Had he boarded that plane, Neil Walker would not be gracing the grounds of PNC Park today.
There it is. Some of the most popular and accomplished athletes to be born in and around Pittsburgh and others that established their legendary feats while representing a Pittsburgh Sports team. Pick a favorite, we dare you.