Great moments in Pittsburgh sports history: 1970-1989

The Post-Gazette’s Out of the Archives: Sports is a photographic tour through the city’s rich sports history. From the Penguins’ Stanley Cup championship this past June to the Pirates’ World Series victory in 1909, fans can both learn by peering decades into the past and relive more recent glory by flipping through dozens of vivid images that bring these iconic moments back to life. The Steelers, Penguins and Pirates are featured prominently, but some of the best moments from the college and high school ranks also make the list that shows why Pittsburgh is one of the best sports towns in America. Today, in Part 2 of a five-part series, we look at the top moments from 1970-1989. Past: Early days.


Going out in style | Jan. 20, 1980 | Associated Press

The Steelers’ 1970s dynasty wasn’t broken up the way great championship teams are these days. There were no salary-cap casualties, no major losses through free agency. Many of the big names remained in place for years after the championship run ended. For that reason, the 1980 Super Bowl looks different now than it did in the moment.

The day after the Steelers defeated the Los Angeles Rams, 31-19, to win their fourth championship in six seasons, the Post-Gazette’s six-column headline boldly declared: ‘Four down, ‘80s to go.” There was no sense of finality as Terry Bradshaw carved the Rams up for 309 yards and two touchdowns to win the game MVP award. No one was worried about keeping Franco Harris, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann as the trio combined for four scores. The win was a moment of pure jubilation like the three titles that preceded it.

We know now that it was the team’s last title for a quarter-century. That prominent retirements in the following decade were too much for even the great Chuck Noll to overcome. But it’s appropriate that the Super Steelers’ last great triumph wasn’t burdened by any of that, instead a celebration of the amazing decade.

They were family | Oct. 17, 1979 | Associated Press

The Pirates epitomized cool in 1979. They sported pillbox caps and flashy all-black and all-gold uniforms. They had a funky theme song — “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge.
They were also really good. Coming off a three-year playoff drought, the club won 98 games to claim the National League East title and then advanced to the World Series against Baltimore. From there, they mounted one of the best comebacks in Pittsburgh postseason history.
Down three games to one in the best-of-seven set, Pirates pitchers led by Kent Tekulve and John Candelaria yielded just two runs in the final three games, all victories. On offense, 39-year-old Willie Stargell picked up seven extra-base hits, including the game-winning homer in the sixth inning of Game 7 to clinch not just the championship but MVP award as well.
Paired with the Steelers’ Super Bowl win earlier in the year, Pittsburgh’s “City of Champions” label was born in style.

Going on the offensive | Jan. 21, 1979 | Associated Press

The Steelers’ first two Super Bowl victories were all about the Steel Curtain. The team’s dominant defensive line led a unit that smothered opponents to the point that an offense with a Hall of Fame pedigree often got second billing.

Terry Bradshaw and Co. flipped that script en route to championship No. 3 in 1979. The quarterback played arguably the game of his life, passing for 318 yards and four touchdowns as the Steelers won a 35-31 shootout against Dallas in the Super Bowl. Lynn Swann and John Stallworth had big games, too, combining to haul in three of those scoring passes while becoming the first receiver duo in Super Bowl history to gain 100 yards each through the air.

It wasn’t exactly a coming-out party for an offense that had already accomplished a lot. But it proved that the Steelers’ dynasty could win on the big stage in just about any way necessary.

When Pitt was it | Oct. 17, 1976 | Associated Press

The late 1960s and early 1970s were not kind to the Panthers. Three successive head coaches combined to post a 22-68 record from 1964 to 1972. Then two transformative figures arrived in 1973, when Johnny Majors took over as coach and Tony Dorsett stepped on campus as a highly touted running back prospect from Hopewell High School.

A championship soon followed. Dorsett dominated opposing defenses en route to 2,150 yards, 22 touchdowns and the school’s first Heisman Trophy win as a senior in 1976. And the team Majors built around him was almost as good, as the Panthers piled up 11 regular-season wins to earn a trip to the Sugar Bowl.

That’s where both men went out in a blaze of glory. Dorsett gained 202 yards in 32 carries in his final college game to lead his team to a decisive 27-3 win over No. 5 Georgia. Soon after, voters placed the Panthers atop the final Associated Press poll, giving the Panthers their first national championship since the 1930s.

Dorsett went on to a stellar career in the NFL, and Majors took over his alma mater, Tennessee, before returning to Pitt in the 1990s.

Swann dive | Jan. 18 1976 | Associated Press

One of the most famous plays in Steelers history didn’t amount to a hill of beans.

With his team trailing the Dallas Cowboys, 10-7, late in the second quarter of the 1976 Super Bowl, quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back to throw deep in his own territory. He launched a long pass down the middle of the field, and Lynn Swann did the rest. The receiver sprawled to make an incredible diving catch that went for 53 yards into Cowboys territory.

That proved to be the play everyone remembered as Swann set a Super Bowl record with 161 receiving yards and the Steelers came back to score a 21-17 victory and win their second championship. What most don’t remember: The catch itself didn’t really figure in the outcome as Roy Gerela missed a field-goal attempt later in the drive.

Defense won championship | Jan. 13, 1975 | Associated Press

The 1975 Super Bowl was ugly in the best way for the Steelers. The offense struggled for most of the game, gaining just 333 yards and scoring just 16 points against the Minnesota Vikings’ “Purple People Eaters” defense.

Good thing the “Steel Curtain” was probably never stronger than it was that day.

Even with linebackers Andy Russell and Jack Lambert out injured, the defense dominated quarterback Fran Tarkenton and the Vikings. It yielded just six points, nine first downs, 17 rushing yards and 119 total yards while forcing five turnovers to give the Steelers their first Super Bowl championship with a 16-6 win.

A hero’s welcome awaited coach Chuck Noll and the team when they arrived back in Pittsburgh. Little did anyone know a dynastic run was just beginning.

An open-air igloo | Aug. 22, 1974 | PG Archives

The Civic Arena was fairly antiquated by the time it closed in 2010, but it was a revolutionary facility when it opened in 1961. The building’s retractable roof was the first of its kind at a major sports facility.

It was a feature that didn’t come in handy too much during hockey season, when it was too frigid outside to open a window let alone a roof. But it added some remarkable versatility at other times of the year.

Here, the arena’s roof is open for a home match for the Pittsburgh Triangles, the city’s short-lived World Team Tennis squad. Through the years, the arena was also home to professional indoor soccer, arena football, lacrosse, roller hockey teams and basketball teams, including the ABA’s Pittsburgh Pipers, who won the league’s 1968 championship.

Franco’s run for glory | Dec. 23, 1972 | Harry Cabluck/Associated Press

For those who didn’t live through it, the Immaculate Reception is probably the moment they most associate with the Steelers’ 1970s dynasty. It’s really more of an origin story, though.

The franchise was still two years away from winning its first Super Bowl in 1972. In fact, it had not even recorded a playoff win in its history to that point. Simply playing host to the divisional-round game against the Oakland Raiders that Dec. 23 was a big deal.

For that reason, Franco Harris was carrying more than just the outcome of a big game when he scooped up a deflected pass and streaked into the end zone for a miraculous touchdown that gave the Steelers the lead with just seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. He was carrying a team’s tortured past to the ash heap of history.

No wonder so many people still claim they were there all these years later.

Clemente leaves his lasting image | Sept. 30, 1972 | Edwin Morgan/Pittsburgh Press

Roberto Clemente had accomplished pretty much everything he could in baseball by the end of the 1972 season. He’d made 15 All-Star teams and won an MVP award, 11 Gold Gloves, four NL batting titles and two World Series. Only one milestone eluded him: 3,000 hits.

He became the 11th big leaguer to reach that magic number in what proved to be his last regular-season game in Pittsburgh, cracking a double against the New York Mets’ Jon Matlack in the fourth inning of a 5-0 win. As the number “3,000” flashed on the Three Rivers Stadium scoreboard, Clemente doffed his cap to acknowledge the crowd.

The moment captured by Pittsburgh Press photographer Edwin Morgan soon became iconic. The Pirates’ season ended unceremoniously with a loss to Cincinnati in the NLCS. Then Clemente died in a plane crash during a relief mission to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.

In an instant, that simple gesture at second base became the poignant goodbye to a city that adores him to this day.

When the Bucs were boomin’ | Oct. 17, 1971 | PG Archives

The Pirates offense couldn’t be stopped in 1971. Led by Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Manny Sanguillen, the lineup dominated the National League, helping the Pirates ride a late-season surge to a division title, then an easy three-games-to-one victory in the NLCS.

The defending champion Baltimore Orioles, however, proved to be a worthy opponent in the World Series. Led by Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, the AL champs frustrated the Pirates, holding them to three runs or fewer in four of the seven games in the series.

Fortunately for the Pirates, they had an ace to deploy in Game 7. Starter Steve Blass — now a broadcaster for the team — allowed just one run on four hits in the deciding game, while Jose Pagan drove in the winning run in the eighth inning to give the Pirates a 2-1 victory and their fourth world championship. Clemente was named series MVP after hitting .414 and driving in eight runs.

4 Comments

  1. Mildred Pfeifer
    5/22/2018
    Reply

    What wonderful memories!! Thanks for publishing them.

  2. Mark Fleischmann
    5/22/2018
    Reply

    Great to re-live these times. I was at 4 of these events including The 1980 SB, Clemente’s 3,000 hit, the Immaculate Reception and the Triangles match as a ball boy.

    Thank you PG for a great series of articles!

  3. John
    5/22/2018
    Reply

    At 73 I have seen all of these great moments of the 70’s & 80’s, plus what I feel maybe the best was Maz 60’s homerun.

    Now I wonder @ my age will I ever see another World Series win??

  4. TIM BROWN
    5/24/2018
    Reply

    I was there 12/23/72 in the upper deck at Three Rivers with my Buddy & Brother for the Immaculate Reception game. My buddy looked down but I saw the play all the way. I was beating on my buddy when Franco caught the ball and saying “He get the ball, He get the ball.
    the Two of us were there on 9/29/72 & 9/30/72 for Roberto’s almost 3,000 hit that was an error by Ken Boswell on Friday then the real 3,000 hit on Saturday against Jon Matlack.

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