In 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates were the most integrated team in major league baseball. That year on Sept. 1, the Pirates made history when they fielded the first all-Black lineup in the history of the major league.
Throughout the years, the city of Pittsburgh has produced a long list of legendary sports moments. From celebrated players Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and Dave Parker to the popularity of Pittsburgh’s two Negro-league teams, the contributions of African-Americans in baseball blazed trails for minorities in all professional sports arenas.
This year, at their annual African American Heritage Sports Luncheon, the Pittsburgh Pirates recognized a current day trailblazer: Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin. With one Super Bowl victory already under his belt, Tomlin has added his mark to the pages of Pittsburgh’s sports history.
“When I found out the gist of what was going on with the Pirates and what they were doing this weekend, I was truly humbled,” said Tomlin.
The Pirates’ Heritage Weekend promotes the team’s community contributions as well as the contributions of African-Americans in Pittsburgh. Serving as keynote speaker at the luncheon on June 8, Tomlin related the bonding experience he had watching the Pirates play the night before with his sons.
“That’s what sports is; it provides those moments of growth for fathers and sons,” Tomlin said.
On Jan. 22, 2007, Tomlin became the sixteenth head coach of the Steelers and the first African-American head coach in the history of the Steelers franchise. Two years later on Jan. 29 2009, he won his first Super Bowl victory as head coach, making him the youngest head coach to do so. He follows in the groundbreaking footsteps of other Pittsburgh greats like Clemente who was one of the first Black players for the Pirates and by far the team’s best player in history.
“There’s a rich history here of African-American contributions, of using the sports vehicle to make a difference in the community,” Tomlin said. “Because I am African-American I hope that inspires others, I hope that creates opportunity for others, because that is important. I embrace that.”
Some attribute Tomlin’s hiring to the “Rooney Rule,” a mandate created by former Steelers owner Dan Rooney, requiring teams to interview at least one minority candidate when filling coaching vacancies. However, this claim has been disputed by Rooney who said the Steelers had already interviewed another minority candidate prior to Tomlin.
“Through sports, I never thought there was anything I couldn’t achieve,” Tomlin said. “In essence, my charge is to show people they can do things in any endeavor. Sport just happens to be mine.”
Each year, the Pirates Heritage weekend serves as a three-day long celebration with promotions and special events that focus on honoring and recognizing African-Americans in baseball while celebrating the African-American culture in the Pittsburgh community.
“When you take a look at the early Pirates, there are so many African-American legends who made an impact,” said Chaz Kellem, manager of diversity initiatives for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “With our selection of Coach Tomlin as this year’s speaker, we wanted to make sure we showed loyalty to the Pittsburgh sports community, especially with him being a young coach and one of the first African-American coaches.”