'Yoi!' Heinz History Center program to honor Cope

| Friday, Jan. 29, 2016, 8:57 p.m.

Former New York Times sports writer Murray Chass recalls walking into his father's home in Squirrel Hill and hearing a “shrieking, wild” voice coming from the radio.

“Good grief, what are you listening to?” Chass recalls asking his dad.

“Oh, that's Myron Cope,” his father answered.

It was Chass's first encounter with the broadcasting side to a man he had come to respect and admire as a writer. As a wordsmith, Cope inspired Chass to “be as good as I could be.”

Chass will deliver the keynote talk at “Yoi! Remembering Myron Cope” on Jan. 31 at the Senator John Heinz History Center, Strip District. The program will examine a man who was a prize-winning print journalist, but probably is better known for his colorful broadcasting career.

He is the announcer who punctuated the airwaves with “yoi!,” “okel-dokel” and “you betcha!”

But he also was the creator of the Terrible Towel, the banner that has flown above Pittsburgh Steelers seasons since 1975. The towel has raised more than $5 million for the Allegheny Valley School, the Coroapolis site for those with intellectual and physical disabilities.

“Myron was a one-man show,” says Bill Hillgrove, with whom he broadcasted Steelers football games on WTAE radio from 1970. Hillgrove will be the master of ceremonies for the program.

But Cope's role in Pittsburgh goes beyond sports, says David M. Schlitt, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the history center.

Cope created a mindset that earned him kinship “regardless of whether it was in a Jewish family in Squirrel Hill, an Italian family in Bloomfield or a Slovenian family down in the Mon Valley,” he says.

Cope's immense sports knowledge merged with a wacky sense of humor that allowed him to be “deep and silly at the same time,” Schlitt says.

Schlitt, who has been at the history center for only six months, put together the event as a way of introducing the Jewish program and its archives to those who are unaware of it.

It will be a multimedia event with talks from Schlitt, Chass and Hillgrove along with films and photos from Cope's career.

Cope (1929-2008) was born as Myron Sidney Kopelman and had his name changed by an editor early in his newspaper career.

The University of Pittsburgh graduate didn't stay long in daily journalism, moving to a freelance life in the mid-'50s.

He became known for his profiles. His 1963 look at Muhammad Ali — then Cassius Clay — won the E.P. Dutton Prize for best sportswriting in the nation.

In that era, he and George Plimpton bore the title of “special contributor” in Sports Illustrated. That magazine also chose Cope's piece on Howard Cosell as one of its top stories when it celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Chass feels bad that most Pittsburghers think of Cope only as a broadcaster.

“They missed it,” he says of Cope's writing. “He had a wonderful voice in his writing — as distinctive as the voice on the air.”

Pittsburgh-native Chass joined The New York Times in 1969 and retired from it in 2008. He now has a sports website: murraychass.com.

Cope's renown in sports journalism led him to begin broadcasting Steelers football in 1970. When he retired from that role in 2005, he held longest tenure with one team in NFL history.

Hillgrove says Cope always was prepared for his work in the booth. For each game, he would bring an inch-thick stack of index cards with notes on players or statistics. He used few of them, and Hillgrove says he once asked him why he bothered.

“You never know when a game is going to be a dud,” he quotes Cope as saying, “and I gotta keep it interesting.”

Hillgrove says Cope's color in his language and behavior “struck a chord with listeners, much like Howard Cosell did.”

He was a real character to work with, Hillgrove says. He recalls how Cope often would jump out of his seat in excitement at a game. That action was a bit risky because bulky TV monitors were in place above them.

“One day, we came in and they had covered the TV with foam rubber,” Hillgrove says. “I told him they might have to line the whole room with rubber. And he just gave me his Myron laugh.”

One of Cope's most lasting achievements was the creation of the Terrible Towel, which originated in 1975, when Cope urged fans to wave gold dish towels at a Steelers playoff game.

The history center's Schlitt says Cope knew it was hokey but was proud to be what he called a “gimmick guy.”

In 1996, Cope turned over rights to the Terrible Towel to the Allegheny Valley School, which his autistic son, Danny, had attended.

Dorothy Gordon, chief development officer for the school, says Cope was a strong supporter of the site's mission and made the “personal decision” to make sure it would receive royalties from the towel forever.

“Allegheny Valley School was surprised and incredibly grateful for Myron's generosity,” she says. “Our gratitude and pride in being the beneficiary of the towel only continues to grow.”

Boston-native Schlitt learned about Cope from a friend from Mt. Lebanon. Schlitt says he became fascinated at Cope's popularity and his Cosell-like forthrightness concerning Pittsburgh sports.

“He put forward this ‘say-what-you-mean' nature in whatever he did,” Schlitt says.

He sees the Cope story as dealing with the Jewish culture in a way that is not weighed down by religion or tradition but in some ways representative of it.

“It is a new type of ethnicity,” he says.

Bob Karlovits is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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