Witness to MLB history: 101-year-old Phil Coyne even saw 'The Babe'
Phil Coyne (center), now 101, at the St. Patrick's Day parade in Pittsburgh in 2019. Courtesy Ed Doyle

Witness to MLB history: 101-year-old Phil Coyne even saw 'The Babe'

In a nine-decade career ushering at Pittsburgh Pirates home games, 101-year-old Phil Coyne witnessed the grand achievements of baseball royalty: Babe Ruth’s final three home runs; Bill Mazeroski’s World Series-winning walk-off blast in 1960; and Roberto Clemente’s stellar play in right field.

Because of his advanced age, Coyne says he may not make it to a Pirates game this season. If so, the Pittsburgh native has thousands of baseball memories to hold tight. 

Opening day has always been a favorite day for Coyne, who retired at 99 in 2018 after 81 years as an usher. The Pirates were to open at home Thursday against the Reds, but all MLB games are postponed indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Whether it was in the stands or in the bleachers, that was always the big day, just like it is today,” said Coyne, whose ushering career spanned three Pittsburgh ballparks — Forbes Field, Three Rivers Stadium and the Pirates' current home, PNC Park. Coyne's first opener came not as a fan, but as an usher at Forbes Field in 1937.

Coyne, who attended his first Pirates game in 1930, grew up in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, within walking distance of the ballpark. With all Pirates games scheduled during the day in that era, many of his classmates skipped school to watch the Bucs. Not Coyne.

"When we were 15, 16, 17, the kids would take off to go to the opening game," said Coyne, whose parents would never approve of such behavior. "But I was always scared of that.”

Phil Coyne, here at the Pirates' 2019 opener as a fan, ushered at Pittsburgh home games for 81 seasons. He retired from ushering in 2018, when he was 99. Courtesy Melissa Franko

The 1937 Pirates included future Hall of Famers Arky Vaughan at shortstop, pitcher Waite Hoyt and brothers Paul (“Big Poison”) and Lloyd Waner (“Little Poison”) in the outfield. They were managed by another future Hall of Famer, Pie Traynor, whose playing days were largely over.

The Waners, career .300 hitters, were Coyne’s favorite players. “Lloyd was a lot faster, so he could cover a little more territory than Paul, but Paul was the better hitter,” he said. “They were just two guys that I grew up with, let’s put it that way... I broke into baseball with the Waner brothers.”

At the home opener against the Reds on April 23, Coyne worked in the nosebleed section in right field: “That’s where you always started when you were young like that.” The game — won by the Pirates, 4-3, before 21,000 fans in 41,000-seat Forbes Field — featured a brawl between the teams. But what Coyne remembers most about the game was the spectators’ attire.

“It was mostly men with their straw hats,” he said. “I don’t know if everybody had to have one, but it was mostly straw hats in those days.”

Coyne loved old Forbes Field and its quirks: ivy-covered outfield walls, a short porch in right field (299 feet) and a cavernous center field (457 feet), where few batted balls ever reached. “They used to take the batting cage and put it in center field during the game, behind the flagpole,” he said. “That’s how deep center field was.”

Coyne recalls when Honus Wagner, the Hall of Fame shortstop, served as coach for the Pirates from the 1930s to early 1950s. "The Flying Dutchman" really didn’t do much coaching, Coyne remembered. Instead, he mostly sat on a chair on the third base side at Forbes Field. 

Of the more than 6,000 MLB games Coyne has witnessed, two stand out. The first was a game on May 25, 1935, when an overweight, over-the-hill Ruth hit homers No. 712, 713 and 714 of his career.

The front page of the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph sports section on May 26, 1935, trumpeted Babe Ruth's remarkable, three-homer game. Ruth played for the National's League's Boston Braves in 1935, the final season of his 22-year big-league career.

It was Kid's Day at Forbes Field, before he became an usher, so he didn’t have to worry about being disciplined by his parents for attending the game. Ruth played for the Boston Braves in the final season of his illustrious, 22-year career.

The last home run was the most memorable, as it was the first ball to clear the roof of the towering right-field grandstand at Forbes Field. "... the fans came out of their seats as they heard the loud report that started the rocket towards the roof," the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph reported the next day. Coyne and his friends left the ballpark to try to find the baseball.

“I don’t know whoever got the ball," he recalled, "but there were a couple hundred of us down there.”

The other game he remembers best was on Oct. 13, 1960, when Pirates second baseman Mazeroski hit a home run to beat the heavily favored Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series. Coyne was working as an usher on the third base side, near home plate, when Maz hit Ralph Terry's 1-0 pitch over the left field wall.

“The people went wild," said Coyne, still sharp in his second century of life. "… normally, in a regular game, we would keep the people from going over the rails. But that day, the people crossed the rail before I did. That was a wild day. You won’t find many days like that.”

Coyne finally attended an Opening Day as a fan last season. He didn't stay for the entire game against the Cardinals. Instead, the lifelong bachelor spent the bulk of his time chatting with another fan, Melissa Franko, whom he had met for the first time.

“He was pretty much a celebrity,” Franko said. “Everybody was coming to see him and talk to him. People wanted to come and get selfies of him." (In 2017, the Pirates even held a "Phil Coyne Day" at PNC Park.)

With opening day on hold and Coyne's age limiting him, his remarkable MLB run may finally be over. But he has cemented his place as a legend in Pittsburgh.

Joe Smeltzer is a senior at Waynesburg University in Southwestern Pennsylvania majoring in journalism. His interests include current sports, as well as the history of sports and anything related to The Beatles. You can follow him on twitter @joesmeltzer775.

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