Starkey: Pirates usher a sight to behold
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Those eyes saw Pie Traynor play third base. They saw the 1927 New York Yankees in person. They watched Babe Ruth hit the final three home runs of his career — Nos. 712, 713 and 714 — on May 25, 1935, at Forbes Field.
Those eyes have seen it all.
They belong to Phil Coyne, a 95-year-old Pirates usher, and they sparkle with life as he greets you one morning at an Oakland coffee shop. They require no artificial enhancement, incredibly, despite logging upwards of 35,000 working days.
Coyne does not need glasses or contacts to read a newspaper. He does not need them to escort fans to their seats in Sections 26 and 27 along the third-base line at PNC Park. And he won't need them to lead you on a walking tour of the site of old Forbes Field.
“I'll take you to what was,” Coyne says, “and what ain't no more.”
Those eyes saw …
• A time when the Cathedral of Learning did not exist and Forbes Avenue was a two-way street through Oakland.
“Streetcars both ways,” Coyne says as he squints from across the street in front of Carnegie Museum. “Nine out of 10 players used to take the streetcars to games.”
“Which hospital were you born in?” you ask.
“I don't think they had hospitals then,” jokes Coyne, who arrived on April 27, 1918, into a home on Swinburne Street, one of eight children of Irish immigrants.
“Born in the house then?” you ask.
“Everybody was,” he says.
• The legendary '27 Yankees' sweep the Pirates in the World Series.
• Kids sitting in trees behind the outfield wall, hoping to catch home runs.
• The days when ushers were handed three quarters for a day's work.
Coyne officially began ushering in the mid-1930s, though he remembers doing the job unofficially — along with a lot of other teenagers — before that.
His decades-long, full-time job was as a machinist. He never married.
• Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Lloyd and Paul Waner and Honus Wagner, to name a handful, though Coyne only saw Wagner as a coach.
“He would be all dressed up, sitting next to the dugout.”
• The majestic Forbes Field entrance. In fact, Coyne can see it now. We are standing at the spot, between the Barco Law Building and Posvar Hall along South Boquet Street.
“Right across the street was one of the famous bars: The Home Plate Café,” he says. “The curb lines all around are still the same.”
• Opposing players relax on the front porch of the Schenley Hotel — later converted into Pitt's student-union building — at night. All games were played during the day until 1940.
• Bill Mazeroski's famous home run to win the 1960 World Series. Coyne was working behind the Yankees dugout.
“Part of our job was to keep people off the field,” he recalls. “We didn't even try.”
• Fans lug ice-filled garbage cans into Forbes Field. At one time it was legal to bring beer, so groups would set a stocked garbage can at the end of their aisle. And go to it often.
• The liberation of Naples from the Germans in World War II. Coyne's job was to fire artillery guns. Drafted into the Army in May 1941, he served until 1945.
“Just part of life in those days,” he says.
• Roberto Clemente patrol right field like a Greek god.
You ask Coyne to close his eyes, in front of the preserved section of the right-field wall — still covered in ivy — and picture Clemente at work.
“I see the basket catches, the throws,” he says. “Everybody stood on their base when Clemente caught it. Nobody tried to go from second to third.”
• The Immaculate Reception. Coyne also has ushered at Steelers games since the 1930s. On that particular day, he was working the fourth level of Three Rivers Stadium.
The secret to Coyne's longevity?
“Two Oreos and a glass of milk before bed,” he says, laughing. “That's my baby bottle.”
Coyne lives with younger brother Billy, the last of his living siblings. The people are what keep him coming back to games. He loves the fans and the organization, having struck up a nice relationship with Pirates president (and fellow Irishman) Frank Coonelly.
Retirement is not on the radar.
“When I see you in the football stadium for a baseball game,” Coyne says, “it'll be time to leave.”
In the meantime, the long-stumbling Pirates are playoff-bound.
There is much yet for those eyes to see.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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