As Pirates begin playoff run, longtime workers remember ballclub's greater days
One usher started working for the Pirates the year after Babe Ruth retired.
Another saw Maz hit his famous homer at Forbes Field, met his wife-to-be at Three Rivers Stadium and hopes to work the first playoff game in PNC Park.
A ticket-taker of 43 years carries a photo album brimming with pictures of her and famous guests, including Sophie Masloff, Vera Clemente and Ben Roethlisberger.
A union boss who started as a batboy in 1953 confesses that he wondered if he'd ever again see winning baseball in Pittsburgh.
“Every day we all get a little bit older, and I have a lot more days behind me than in front of me. I truly wondered if it'd ever happen, if I'd ever see another winning season. And now here we are — it's happening,” said Joe O'Toole, 73.
“I'm elated. I really am. I have as much pride in the team as anyone else.”
Their 20-year losing streak over, the Pirates play postseason baseball this week. They will face the Cincinnati Reds in a wild-card game at 8 p.m. Tuesday in PNC Park. The winner will advance to the National League Division Series on Thursday.
Although a generation of fans is experiencing meaningful fall games for the first time, others stuck with the team for decades. They stood at ballpark posts, ready to share stories of the Waner brothers, nicknamed Big Poison and Little Poison, the 1960 World Series, the Lumber Company and graceful feats of the most beloved Pirate ever, Roberto Clemente.
Five of the longest-tenured Pirates employees shared their stories.
Tony Grieco, usher
Names roll off Tony Grieco's tongue as if he watched the legends play yesterday.
“I was there when (Bill) Mazeroski hit the homer in the World Series, when Tony Kubek got hit in the throat (by a bad-hop grounder in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series),” Grieco said while watching the 2013 Pirates take batting practice. “Rip Sewell, he used to throw the blooper ball — it was like the St. Louis arch. He would lob it in there; I mean, it would go up 20 feet or higher. And you never knew when it was coming. The fans loved that.”
Grieco, 80, started working games part time in 1950 at Forbes Field. He worked the information booth at Three Rivers, where he met his wife, and today is behind home plate.
Like countless old-timers, he insists Clemente was the best.
“At Forbes Field, I used to go sit out in right field where he was playing. Tickets cost one dollar back then,” Grieco said. “He was a showman, just a great player. He had one of the great arms in baseball, and that goes for today. I seen him throw a baseball from right field to home plate, and I tell ya, it was a strike.”
Fans forgot the glory days during the 20 years of losing. They entered the park in a foul mood, Grieco said, and poor play on the field didn't help.
“People would come in and say, ‘They stink! They're terrible! I'm going to give up my tickets.' I used to get thoroughly disgusted listening to it, but I didn't say nothing because it wasn't my business. ... Now they get mad because they can't get tickets.”
Robert Taylor Sr., usher
The Pirates were down by a couple of runs in a night game in the 1970s when Willie Stargell walked to the plate.
“Stargell, he had a chicken restaurant up on the Hill, and when he hit a home run, everyone in the restaurant got free chicken,” recalls Robert Taylor Sr., 66, an usher who started working home games in 1970, when Three Rivers opened.
“So Willie comes up, and (announcer) Bob Prince says, ‘If Big Will hits one out now, you can spread chicken all over the Hill (District) and send me the bill.' And what did Willie do? He hit it out. Yes, he did! And Bob Prince paid for all that chicken. It was unbelievable.”
Taylor said he adored Stargell, the cornerstone of the “Lumber Company” Pirates, known for big bats and winning baseball. The prettiest thing he ever saw on a baseball field was Clemente hitting a triple.
“He'd come around first and by the time he's heading for second, he's in high gear,” Taylor said. “His arms are flailing, and his back arm is so low, it's almost hitting the ground. Then he slides into third and pops up. Nothing like it — I'm telling you, he was amazing.”
Nearly all fans who pour into Taylor's first base line section stop to say hello or hug the big usher with a roaring laugh.
“Here's the thing,” he said. “You try to talk to these people, to tell them about all the great things you've seen. And you try to do it without getting teary eyed, but you can't. There are things you don't forget. ... Stargell. Clemente. I mean, you just don't forget.”
Joe O'Toole, union boss
Joe O'Toole started as a batboy at Forbes Field and became president of the ushers union in 1998.
This year, he said, he feels more like a fan than an employee.
“I check the standings all the time. I watch the complete game when they're away. I listen on the car radio when I'm going somewhere,” O'Toole said. “Everywhere I go, I see people talking about the Pirates, and that wasn't always so.
“It's such a pleasure this year. It will be a thrill to see even one playoff game here. The more the merrier, of course.”
Audrey Studer, greeter
Audrey Studer, a smiling little lady with bright red hair, greets regulars by name, and they respond as though she were family.
She won't reveal her age, only that she has greeted fans and taken tickets at ballpark suite entrances for 43 years. She's a familiar face to fans, including celebrities who pose for photos with her.
She opens her photo album and beams while telling the story of Vera Clemente, Roberto's widow, who asked a few years ago if she could be included in Studer's collection of images.
“She was in a wheelchair and she said, ‘I'll stand up for you,' ” Studer recalls. “I said, ‘No, no, I'll come down to you.' She was so gracious. That sort of made my day.”
Fan enthusiasm this year is different, Studer said.
“Before, we were just put aside and forgotten about; now, we're looking forward to the playoffs. The Steelers, the Pens — they'll get their crowds. But right now, all that's on hold.”
Phil Coyne, usher
When Phil Coyne started working for the Pirates in 1936, a gallon of gasoline cost 19 cents. Pittsburgh was recovering from the historic St. Patrick's Day flood, and two brothers — future Hall of Famers Paul and Lloyd Waner — roamed the outfield.
“I was born and raised in Oakland, right next to Forbes Field,” said Coyne, 95, the oldest usher in the ballpark. “I started when I was young, (and) I've been at it ever since.”
A cult hero of sorts, he threw out the first pitch before the last home game of the year.
“We've got something no other ballpark in America has: a 95-year-old usher,” said Cameron Hairston, a PNC Park security guard. “And we're talking about a 95-year-old usher who's on point ... who handles his business.”
Coyne waves off such flattery. He's more interested in the Pirates handling their business.
“Other seasons, you're just waiting for the end to come,” he said. “But this season ,we're not ready for it to leave, you know. ... Oh, it's special. I'm always with the Pirates. Nine times out of 10, they don't let me down.”
Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.