Steelers training camp opened last week, which on the area sporting calendar marks the unofficial end both of summer and Pirates season.
Sometimes the Pirates resist the changeover by remaining in contention. This year, they’ve done their best to ease the transition by playing themselves into the nether regions of the National League’s Central Division.
For younger generations, this Steelers dominance is the natural order. It’s all they’ve ever witnessed. The Pirates exist mostly to fill the void between the end of one Steelers season and the start of another. Or, more recently, the Pirates have begun to serve as a time filler between seasons of the Penguins.
But I’m here to tell you it hasn’t always been this way.
There was a time when Pirates interest dominated. The Steelers were the fill for the rest of the year, as were the Penguins, who began play in the 1967-68 NHL season, but didn’t have a winning season until 1974-75.
Part of the change in the balance of power between the Steelers and Pirates has to do with the rise in popularity of the National Football League.
The merger of the NFL and the American Football League for the 1970 season consolidated the sport and launched a media juggernaut.
The NFL also branched out from traditional Sunday afternoon games to prime time national telecasts on that and other nights. Media coverage has become intense and plentiful throughout the week both on cable and traditional broadcast networks.
Meanwhile, Major League Baseball shot itself in the collective foot with labor strife, enduring eight player strikes or lockouts in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, with the 1994 example wiping out the entire postseason.
A lot of disaffected baseball fans turned to football, which had just two in-season strikes during the 1980s. Other disputes were settled during preseasons or the offseasons.
Looking closer at the relative dominance of the Pirates and Steelers, the waning of Pirates interest accelerated with the franchise going two decades from 1993 through 2012 without a winning season.
During that stretch the Steelers were perennial playoff participants and won a couple of Super Bowls.
The Steelers missed the playoffs last season. But so did the Pirates, as they had in 2017 and 2016 and almost assuredly will again this season.
It’s difficult to communicate how different it was in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The Pirates inexplicably had won the 1960 World Series, ending a championship drought dating to 1925. They had appeared in the 1927 World Series, but had been swept by the Murderer’s Row Yankees.
After beginning the decade of the 1960s by winning it all, Pirates results were relatively modest in the ensuing nine seasons.
But the Steelers were much worse, hitting rock bottom by going 1-13 in 1969, which ironically was the first year of Chuck Noll as head coach.
In the 1960s or early 1970s, area billboard ads for beer often would feature Pirates players or even the team’s broadcasters.
Bob Prince, “The Gunner,” was a love-him-or-hate-him announcer, full of stories, nicknames and pet expressions such as “we had ‘em all the way,” or “closer than fuzz on a tick’s ear.”
I thought he was the best, a raspy-voiced guy who could weave a rich tapestry during a radio broadcast.
Such was his popularity that one could walk the neighborhoods during the summer and monitor virtually nonstop Prince’s calls as relayed by portable radios being listened to by residents on their porches.
Prince, who broadcast Pirates games from 1948 through 1975, returned briefly in 1985 just before his death. He received three standing ovations from fans on his initial return broadcast.
His partner from 1958 to 1969 was Jim Woods, “The Possum.”
These days the Pirates hemorrhage playing talent in free agency. After the 1969 season, it was announcer Woods who was lost over money. He got a better offer from the St. Louis Cardinals, replacing legendary Harry Caray, who had been canned unceremoniously following that season.
In the early 1970s, the Steelers began to improve, but still their preseason, or early regular season wins, would be noted on Pirates broadcasts the way an older sibling might give a younger brother a pat on the head.
The Pirates would win six division titles and two World Series during the 1970s. The Steelers were even better, winning seven division crowns and four Super Bowls during the decade.
The torch had been passed.
A drug scandal involving the Pirates, plus a lot of losing baseball in the 1980s, cemented the pecking order of Steelers first and Pirates second.
Even a run of three division titles for the Pirates in 1990, 1991 and 1992 couldn’t permanently alter that.
In 2019, fan interest in the Steelers, or even the Penguins, dwarfs that of the Pirates.
It’s hard to envision how that would change.