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Famous usher saw it all with the Bucs

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BD talked with Phil Coyne back in 2016. Here are excerpts from that interview.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who had a longer association with the Pittsburgh Pirates than Phil Coyne.

The Oakland native, who died Friday morning at the age of 102, worked as an usher for the team for 82 years, but he began going to games at what was then a relatively new Forbes Field around 1930. Coyne said in an interview in 2016:

“I was 12 years old, and the older kids on the block would take us. Every Saturday was Knothole Day and they’d let kids go in from right field. There were two sections – the last two sections in right field. The lower deck and the upper deck. I don’t remember going to the upper deck. I guess we had too much fun on the first floor.”

Coyne didn’t even have to leave home to feel the ambience of the venerable ballpark, which opened in 1909 and closed in June of 1970 to make way for the ultramodern Three Rivers Stadium. He said:

“I lived about five blocks away from Forbes Field, across the street from MaGee Hospital. You could sit on my back porch and hear the hollerin’ and screamin’ and all that whenever someone hit a home run.”

Coyne’s connection with the club grew even stronger when, at the age of 18, he began working as an usher at Forbes Field – a job he would hold for parts of nine decades. Coyne got in with Gustave “Gus” Miller, who operated a newsstand and also served as head usher for the Pirates from 1909 to the late 1940s. Coyne recalled:

“You went down there and Gus would sign you up as an usher. But there were a lot of ushers. We didn’t even work most of he time. But you were always able to get in. And if they didn’t use you that day, you just watched the game. Most of the older fellas were the ones who would get picked to work.”

Coyne said that one trick he picked up is that he’d go into the ballpark early during batting practice and retrieve foul balls hit in the stands, and then bring them to the usher who was on-duty.

“That guaranteed you would get on (as an usher) the next day. Baseballs were scarce, I guess because of the cost, in those days. When balls would go into the stands during the game, the fans could keep them. But when they came into the stands during batting practice, they’d be turned back in.”

Coyne got to see some great players come and go during the early portion of his tenure with the Pirates, including Hall of Famers Arky Vaughan, Paul Waner and Lloyd Waner, who played just about the entire decade of the 1930s with the club. Another Hall of Famer, Pie Traynor, spent the 1920s and the first half of the ‘30s in Pittsburgh and managed the team from 1934-1939. Coyne said:

“We all loved the Waner brothers. They played so well together. Lloyd caught a lot of balls that Paul should have caught. He was faster. And Arky was a favorite of everybody’s. He played hard and he played every day. A lot of those guys – Traynor on third, Arky at short, Gus Suhr at first, the Waners – they played every day, and they played nine innings every day.”

The 1930s were tough times in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, as it was the heart of the Great Depression. Coyne’s first “real” job was working in a garage on the Boulevard of the Allies. He earned $8.50 a week. He said:

“I worked with the mechanics, handing them stuff. I was 18 or 19.”

From there, Coyne got a job working construction and spent part of that time working on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, portions of which were under construction. He then landed a job with Westinghouse Air Brake in Wilmerding, but when things began heating up overseas, Coyne went into the Army, serving most of his nearly five-year hitch in Italy and southern France.

After serving his country, he got his old job back and spent the next 40 years there, all the while ushering on the side. That was one of the benefits of night baseball.

“You could work in the daytime and work down at the ballpark at night.”

He continued going to the ballpark literally thousands of times before retiring in 2018. He saw more of three different ballparks than most, but when asked to compare the parks, he didn’t have much to say.

“Ushering is ushering, no matter what field it’s in. It’s you and the people who sit in your section. Over the years, I met a lot of people.”

At the time I interviewed Coyne, in the middle of the 2016 season, he wasn’t sure if he’d be coming back for another year, and as it turned out, he came back for two more, officially retiring on his 100th birthday.

“Every year they think I’m not coming back and one of these years I won’t, I guess. But whenever I come back, I get more hugs and kisses than I’ve ever gotten in my life. Word gets around and people come down and take a picture. I have a big following.”

Indeed. Coyne was so well-known that after he hung it up, the Baseball Hall of Fame came calling for his badge and uniform, both of which are on permanent display in Cooperstown.

“Phil will always be a true Pirates legend,” club owner Bob Nutting said in a statement released Friday.

Overall, the Pirates estimated Coyne worked more than 6,000 games, but even he wasn’t sure. “It’s impossible to know,” he said.

It’s a question that would often come up while he was ushering, and Coyne would simply point at the names of Pirates players whose numbers had been retired and say, “I’ve seen every one of them play but Honus (Wagner).”

Coyne couldn’t pinpoint a single most favorite player of his, but mentioned several – Frankie Gustine, Joe Garagiola, Lloyd Waner – as being all-around good guys. He said:

“Joe would sit with us and talk before games, even after he left and was doing other things. And Frankie – I got to know him after he was done playing. He had a little bar in Oakland. He always went out of his way to say hello.”

Coyne witnessed many memorable moments in Pirates history, including Bill Mazeroski’s game-winning home run in the 1960 World Series. But in a TV interview on his 100th birthday, Coyne told AT&T SportsNet’s Robby Incmikoski that his favorite memory was being on hand for the final day of Forbes Field in June 1970 when the Pirates swept the Cubs in a doubleheader.

“Everyone ran out on the field. They stole the bases; they were taking the grass up. I have other memories, too, but that will stand out forever.”