Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Five Most Important People EVER (And by ever, I mean in Pittsburgh Sports history)

Let's face it, the Internet loves countdowns. Pittsburgh loves sports. This list was just bound to happen.

So lets eschew the superfluous adjectives and get right to it.

5. Barney Dreyfuss

Don't be ashamed if you had to Wikipedia Barney Dreyfuss. In case you didn't know, there are quite a few reasons why Dreyfuss appears on this list.

1. He brokered the deal that sent Honus Wagner, Rube Waddell and others from Louisville to Pittsburgh, permanently altering the course of baseball in Pittsburgh. It was quite a badass move. The Louisville team was about to fall victim to league contraction, so Dreyfuss purchased the Pirates, then proceeded to trade four relative no-names to Louisville for Wagner, etc., all while knowing full well that the Louisville team was about to fall into oblivion. Awesome.

2. He pretty much came up with the idea for the World Series.

3. He oversaw the construction of Forbes Field, which forever changed the layout of the city, and in particular Oakland and the University of Pittsburgh. Forbes was also the first three-tiered steel stadium in the US. Prior to the first game at Forbes Field, Dreyfuss stood at the gate, shaking hands with all who entered.

4. The hat. Seriously.

4. Chuck Noll

Frankly, it was harder to put Noll on this list than I thought it would be. Not that it's Noll's fault, it's just because Pittsburgh is that awesome.

But seriously, remember how good the Steelers were before Noll came along? You don't? Oh yeah, that's because they SUCKED. The Steelers of the 1930s-1960s were pretty much how the Pirates are now: Jokes. The first decision Emporer Chaz made as head coach was to draft Joe Greene, one of the only people in NFL history who has 6 Super Bowl Rings (all with the Steelers).

Perhaps his most telling statistic (other than his four Super Bowl Titles): From 1969 to 1974, Noll drafted NINE Hall of Famers. That's not a typo. Noll almost AVERAGED drafting two Hall of Famers a year over that span. That's completely insane. Okay, fine, maybe it wasn't too difficult to put him here.

3. Roberto Clemente

Definitely the most heartbreaking figure in Pittsburgh sports history. And who knows exactly what baseball in Pittsburgh would be like now had Clemente not left us at such a young age.

Much is made about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, and deservedly so. However, I'd argue that Clemente was more important in regards to the ethnic makeup of the sport. Clemente was not the first Latin player in the league (that distinction belongs to Esteban Bellán), but he was the game's greatest Latino ambassador. Clemente's success, along with his unmatched off-the-field work, changed the landscape of the game. Baseball has become the Latin American pastime, in great part due to Clemente's impact on his native Puerto Rico and the rest of the region.

I haven't even mentioned the fact that Clemente is regarded as one of the greatest all-around players in the history of baseball, but yeah, the stats and championships speak for themselves.

2. The Rooney Family

I know, I know. I can't believe I put them here either. The family that is often pegged as the greatest owners in NFL history. And without the Steelers and the Rooney family, Pittsburgh would look much different. The Steelers have the most Super Bowl Championships, and are often regarded as the greatest franchise in the NFL.

....But they weren't always. The Rooneys are often put up on a pedestal by Pittsburgh fans, however, the first 35 plus years of the franchise's existence were a complete disaster. What changed the fortune of the franchise was the hiring of the fourth most influential person in Pittsburgh sports history, Chuck Noll. It's very difficult to gauge where the Rooney's influence ends and Noll's begins.

And unfortunately, in recent years, the image of the Rooney's has taken a hit. The Ben Roethlisberger saga, among other team issues, has somewhat tarnished the way that people (mostly those outside of Pittsburgh) look at the Rooney family.

All that being said, they are undoubtedly the patriarchal family of Pittsburgh, and likely will be for the decades to come.

1. Mario Lemieux

In sports history, it is a rarity for one person to single-handedly save a franchise.

Mario Lemieux has done it.

Three times.

In 1983, the Penguins were flirting with bankruptcy for the second time in the past 10 years. Many observers thought the end was near for the Penguins. Cue Le Magnifique. Super Mario was there for the taking (since the Pens tanked the end of the 1983 season), and Pittsburgh had a new favorite son. It didn't take long for Lemieux to endear himself the Pittsburgh faithful, scoring on his first NHL shot, and more importantly to the team, putting fans in the seats.

Lemieux had perhaps the most turbulent playing career that any major sports star has ever had. He battled severe back issues (so severe he couldn't put his own skates on) and a bout of Hodgkin's disease, which could have cost him his life. No matter the injury issues, many experts put Lemieux in the same category as Wayne Gretzky, some even saying Lemieux was the better of the two. Super Mario lead the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1990-91 and 1991-92.

That was the first time Lemieux saved the team.

Late in Mario's career, he was faced with one of the strangest circumstances that a professional player has ever fallen into. By the end of the 1990s, the Penguins were almost $100 million in the red. They declared bankruptcy (again) in 1998, after asking Lemieux and other players to defer their salaries (which they had been doing for quite some time). By the time the Penguins filed for bankruptcy, Mario was the team's largest creditor. Rather than demand his money, Lemieux turned the $30 million he was owed into equity and bought a controlling stake in the organization, becoming the majority owner, President and CEO of the Penguins.

And by the way, Lemieux ended up repaying everyone whom the previous owners had not.

Then came the third and (hopefully) final time in which Lemieux propped up the Pens. After several years of struggles and declining attendance, along with a failed sale of the team, Lemieux managed to fight off the pressures to move the team elsewhere, bartering for the agreement that inevitably gave us the Consol Energy Center. At the time, Lemieux was widely criticized for visiting with Kansas City, though it has since come out that Lemieux's reason for the visit was to put pressure on Pennsylvania to authorize the new arena.

For all of these reasons, it's hard to argue that Mario Lemieux ISN'T the most influential and important sports figure that Pittsburgh has ever had. When you analyze the totality of what Lemieux has done, it's nearly mind-boggling.

We love you, 66.

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