Peculiar Pittsburgh

‘Nobody thought it could be done:’ How PNC Park slid into its Pittsburgh home

Pittsburghers initially scoffed at the idea, but who’s laughing now?

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It’s perennially listed as one of America’s great ballparks — the Jewel of the Allegheny. Its home team is also perennially underperforming, but that’s another conversation entirely.

At this point, PNC Park is a Pittsburgh institution — regardless of what’s happening in the Pirates front office or on the field. It’s a breathtaking place to indulge in America’s pastime and take in an arguably unparalleled view of Pittsburgh’s skyline.

But the story of PNC Park is maybe one you haven’t heard. And it’s a quintessentially Pittsburgh tale, marked by political ambition, infighting, a struggle for relevancy amid a decades-long economic decline, and a clamorous public debate.

With spring training underway and a home opener that’s less than a month away, we were asked, as part of our reader-driven Peculiar Pittsburgh series, to probe the origins of PNC Park.

Questioner Maddie Gallagher, a lifelong Pirates fan who reflexively pointed out that the team didn’t have a winning season till she was in college, wanted to know about former Mayor Sophie Masloff’s role in the creation of PNC Park and what had been described to Gallagher as a frosty, to say the least, public response. Gallagher asked The Incline:

How did we end up with PNC Park? It was Sophie Masloff’s idea and they laughed at her, right?

We went to an authority on the subject to find out how PNC Park came to be, what Masloff’s role was in its inception, whether anyone thought it funny at the time — and who’s laughing now.

Who’s laughing now?

Before there was PNC Park, there was Three Rivers Stadium — a massive, imposing and objectively homely stadium that was shared by the Pirates and Steelers from 1970 to 2000.

Players hated it. Fans hated/ loved it. It was, in short, a typically polarizing professional sports venue.

But, in 1991, then-Mayor Sophie Masloff decided the Pirates needed their own digs.

“She was roundly criticized,” said Rob Ruck, a sports historian and history professor at Pitt. “Nobody thought it could be done.”

Others wondered whether it should be done, given that Three Rivers Stadium was only 21 years old at the time and still hadn’t been paid off.

Masloff suggested a location that’s pretty much where PNC Park stands today, roughly one-half mile up the North Shore. (Before it was occupied by “one of the best ballparks in America,” the PNC Park site had been industrial, housing coal gasification plants, railroad yards and steel mills. It was originally wetlands.)

Some laughed at Masloff’s idea. Some screamed.

The screaming continued when Masloff’s successor, former Mayor Tom Murphy, advocated for the creation of PNC Park after taking office in 1994.

Supporters of the concept wanted to further showcase the city’s riverfront. There was also a desire — or a need — to keep the Pirates in Pittsburgh. When Kevin McClatchy bought the team in 1996, the MLB stipulated that a new ballpark was a condition of the sale, the Post-Gazette reported in 2001.

“(Proponents) understood that if Pittsburgh wanted to remain a major league city in the eyes of the country, it needed a major league ball club,” Ruck said. “And to lose an institution that had been here since the 1800s, coming after the departure of corporate headquarters and the loss of industry and the loss of population, it would have been a tremendous blow to the psyche.”

But opponents remained just that, questioning the need for a new stadium but mostly who would pay for it. In 1997, voters in an 11-county area “overwhelmingly rejected a half-cent sales tax increase intended to bankroll new stadiums for the Pirates and Steelers, the expansion of a downtown convention center and other projects,” The New York Times reported the following year. (The Steelers decided they wanted a new stadium instead of a refurbished Three Rivers Stadium.)

A backup plan followed, authorizing state funding for the project, the reallocation of existing tax revenue and greater commitments from the teams.

The Pirates raised a portion of their $44 million share through the sale of the new stadium’s naming rights. Per the Post-Gazette: “The announcement that the new park would be named after a bank was booed at a Pirates game; some suggested it ought to be named Jammed Down The Taxpayers Throat Park.”

Play ball 

Construction of PNC Park wrapped in 2001. The first game — an exhibition game against the Mets — was played on March 31 of that year.

The park had taken 24 months to build. That was three months faster than any major league park at the time. It was smaller than most, intimate and stately. It was the Pirates’ fifth home in Pittsburgh.

When Masloff had first proposed the idea and location a decade earlier, it certainly seemed laughable — or outrageous — to some, Ruck said.

“I think people just couldn’t conceive of a footprint for a new ballpark there,” Ruck added.

But now, 18 years after PNC Park first opened, the last laugh may belong to the people who first pushed for it as a means of keeping Pittsburgh relevant and of keeping the Pirates here.

“When you think about it, a baseball stadium with mediocre attendance brings far more people to that area than anything else,” Ruck said. “And the fact that you have 81 games there each year means it’s getting national and international publicity.”

And while the economic impact of professional sports venues versus their draw on public monies will continue to be debated, PNC Park has proven to be the riverfront showcase its supporters always wanted, drawing laudatory headlines and people to town — though maybe fewer than before.

As the Post-Gazette pointed out in a 2018 article about the economic impact of Pittsburgh’s pro sports teams, because of teams like the Pirates, Pittsburgh maintains a higher profile than cities with larger populations but no professional sports teams to call their own.

For Masloff, who has a street named after her near PNC Park and who died in 2014 at the age of 96, this was likely seen as validation or proof, as Gallagher put it, that “she was right all along.”