The stadium that made the Steelers winners

In 1980, after a decade of unrivalled success in their new stadium, the Steelers’ founder Art Rooney remarked, “Without the new stadium, we’d never have been winners.”

In 1970, after flipping from Forbes Field, a sports ground designed for baseball, to Pitt Stadium for nearly forty years, the Steelers finally opened a new chapter in their history that ignited the franchise with success.

With the triumphs of the Steelers and the Pirates in the seventies, the stadium became the national showcase for the finest in America’s major sports of football and baseball and brought the unique title of “City of Champions” to Pittsburgh.

The teams’ new home was enveloped in controversy from the outset after the project’s cost spiralled, but in the seventies both teams ignored the external challenges and focussed on winning.

CONTROVERSY AND DELAY

The stadium chronicle began in the mid fifties, while the Steelers were playing in Forbes Field. The Allegheny Conference on Community Development decided that a new stadium should be built.

There were scores of sites suggested – most of them in Pittsburgh’s blossoming suburbia. The committee finally decided on a low-lying 84 acres of wasteland on the northern banks of the Allegheny River. An eyesore made up from a municipal trash pile of rusting track and abandoned warehouses.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority was pressed into service to acquire the land and with $15 million in federal grants plus another $5.5 million each from the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, they succeeded.

With the site purchased, thoughts turned to devising a method to pay for the construction costs. It was decided to cover the outlay by issuing 60-year revenue bonds backed by the city and the county. It was initially calculated that $28 million would be enough.

The chairman of the county commissioners, Dr. William McClelland, didn’t like the idea. McClelland said the people who would profit from the stadium – the Pirates and the Steelers – should pay for its construction. He fought for a referendum insisting that the voters should decide how their money was spent.

McClelland lost the debate and eventually lost his commissioner’s job.

With the county no longer involved, the city in 1964 created the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority – the agency that would plan, design, construct and be responsible for the stadium’s operation. The Pirates meanwhile had sold Forbes Field after being assured they would be in their new home in 1968.

In July 1966, the Stadium Authority opened the bids for a plush 56,000 seat stadium. The lowest bid came in at $38 million, about $10 million higher than the commission had planned because it hadn’t anticipated inflation.

After members convinced themselves that stadium rentals would produce enough rentals to pay for the difference, the Stadium Authority came back with a revised plan costing $32 million. Once again, inflation wasn’t considered.

While the architects devised a more modest stadium, the Stadium Authority reached a “gentleman’s agreement” with the local trade unions that there would be no strikes to hamper the project. That proved to be the impossible dream. They announced the new stadium would be ready for the Pirates opener on April 7th, 1970.

The Stadium Authority advertised for bids. On March 28, 1968, the construction firm Huber-Hunt and Nicols offered to build the stadium for $27.7 million. Added costs rounded the price off to about $32 million.

THE CONTRUCTION BEGINS

Ground was broken on a chilly April 25, 1968, with Mayor Joe Barr manning a shovel.

By April 1969, construction was at least a month behind due to labour problems. Shortly after the Pirates began their final season in Forbe Fields, the Stadium Authority admitted the stadium would not be ready for the 1970 opener, projecting an opening date of May 29 that year.

In the autumn of 1969, there were mass demonstrations at the site by the Black Construction Coalition, which wanted more jobs. A state-wide strike by operating engineers prevented the access roads from getting off the drawing boards. Construction was further delayed by squabbles with the Teamsters’ union.

In November 1969, the Stadium Authority realised that with inflation, it would need another $3 million to finish the project pushing the price tag up to $35 million. The opening was pushed back again to July 16th.

It finally opened July 16, 1970. With 48,846 fans in attendance for the Pirates 2-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, they saw Tony Perez hit the first home run in the stadium to give the Reds the win.

The Steelers played their first game in Three Rivers Stadium on September 20, 1970 – a 19-7 loss to the Houston Oilers. Throughout their 31 seasons in the stadium, the Steelers posted a record of 182-72, including a 13-5 playoff record that led to four Lombardi trophies.

After the building of PNC Park and Heinz Field, Three Rivers Stadium was imploded on February 11, 2001.

My good friend Mike Fabus gave me a piece of the stadium that was retrieved after its demolition. I showed my granddaughter the video of its destruction and told her how rare and precious the lump of concrete I was holding is. She was so impressed that she asked me for a piece. Bless.

The unique photo above was taken by Mike with Dan Rooney as the pilot!

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