Eighty Years and Still Going Strong

Phil Coyne stands in front of the remaining traces of Forbes Field in Oakland, a portion of the stadium’s outfield wall.

Phil Coyne stands in front of the remaining traces of Forbes Field in Oakland, a portion of the stadium’s outfield wall.

words: Sam Noel

photos: Sam Noel

After 80 years — yes, 80 — of ushering for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Phil Coyne’s love for the team and its fans is as strong as ever. He started ushering at Forbes Field right after he graduated from high school.

“That was the thing to do, when you were living at home,” Coyne says. “All the kids from Oakland would come on as ushers.”

Coyne, 98, was born and raised one block away from Forbes Field; when the team moved to Three Rivers Stadium, and later to PNC Park, he moved with them.

Naturally, Coyne’s age is a source of curiosity for many who meet him. Most want to know how he’s made it to nearly a century. He smiles and imparts some sage advice.

“I’ve been saying to this to everyone who asks me how I keep going: two Oreos and a glass of milk before bed,” he says, smiling. “A while back, I got a call from my boss. ‘You got a package.’ So I said, ‘Open it,’ and here he said it was 20 big packages of Oreos.”

Coyne is a library of Pirates memories. On a sunny October afternoon, he takes a reporter on a tour of the site where Forbes Field once stood and explains all of the specs and quirks of the ballpark, showing where the outfield walls stood, where famous home runs were hit and where the park’s bleachers and seats stood.

His favorite Forbes’ moment? Bill Mazeroski’s 9th inning, seventh-game home run to beat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series.

“It has to be. Paul and Lloyd Waner were my favorite players to watch, but that was my favorite moment,” he says.

Brothers Paul Waner, aka “Big Poison,” and Lloyd Waner, aka “Little Poison,” were Pirates stars; each made his Bucco debut in the mid-1920s, and, after stints with other teams in between, both retired from the Pirates after the 1945 season.)

PNC Park is fine, but Coyne still misses Forbes Field. He wasn’t enthralled at all by Three Rivers Stadium, the multi-purpose, cookie-cutter edifice that housed the Pirates for 31 years between Forbes and PNC.

“Mostly ’cause it was closer to home,” he says. “They’re all the same when it comes to the people. But [Three Rivers] didn’t feel like a ballpark.”

Coyne is nostalgic about Forbes Field, but he doesn’t dwell on the past.

“You grew up with it,” Coyne says, relaxed. “Those days have come and gone now.”

Besides, he’s done plenty of living outside of baseball.

During World War II he served in the U.S. Army on the Italian front. Coyne enjoys service to others — whether soldiering, ushering or just being a good neighbor. He wasn’t yet a legend for his longevity when his neighbor Camden Copeland met him.

“Before I knew Phil as a Pittsburgh legend, he was ‘Uncle Philly’ to me and all our neighbors,” Copeland says. “He let little kids put stickers on his face while he pretended to sleep.”

Looking back, Coyne is himself surprised that he has been able to continue as an usher for 80 years. He’s looking forward to more games, more seasons.

“As long as the mind is clear and the legs hold out,” Coyne says, “I’ll be ready to go next year, too. It’s all luck.”