Detroit /Pittsburgh connections
The Detroit-Pittsburgh sports rivalry did not begin with the Red Wings and Penguins meeting in back-to-back Stanley Cup finals the past two seasons. These cities, separated by approximately 280 miles, have a sporting history that has intersected several times over the past century.
Not often noted is that a strong Pittsburgh Pirates franchise is the reason why the Tigers are in Detroit.
By the time that the American League and National League had battled for two years as rivals, the Pirates were a strong club with Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke and a vibrant fan base. The Tigers were a team in search of an identity and fans.
So when the two leagues finally signed a peace agreement in Cincinnati on Jan. 10, 1903, part of the accord included the stipulation that each league’s franchises remain where they are and that a majority of teams from each league must agree to a franchise’s move.
That was put in place specifically to stop the Tigers from being moved to Pittsburgh as an American League challenger to the Pirates. The National League was already fighting for fans with AL rivals in Chicago, New York, St. Louis and Philadelphia and didn’t want a fifth divided city.
The Tigers, of course, soon blossomed in Detroit. By 1909, they had won their third consecutive AL pennant and faced the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series – a playoff format agreed to verbally at that 1903 meeting, but not one considered as important as keeping Pittsburgh a one-team town and thus not written down and signed.
The Pirates won a seven-game Series that has lived for a century as a classic. Pittsburgh shortstop Honus Wagner outdueled Detroit outfielder Ty Cobb, including a famous tag at second base that split the Tiger’s lip.
Detroit and Pittsburgh literally fought each other in 1941 when their boxing representatives, Joe Louis and Billy Conn, met for the heavyweight title.
Conn was a light heavyweight, giving up 25 pounds to Louis. But the smaller Conn fought tremendously and was ahead on all scorecards through 12 rounds of the fight, staged at the Polo Grounds in New York. The 13th round, however, proved unlucky for Conn, who was caught by a Louis right to the jaw. Conn was thus knocked out at 2:58 of the 13th, failing to take the heavyweight title from Detroit’s Louis.
In 1946, Tiger Hank Greenberg led the American League in home runs and RBIs, the fourth time for each statistic that Greenberg led the circuit. But Greenberg turned 36 in the off-season and was traded to Pittsburgh in a deal that shocked Detroit.
Greenberg’s arrival marked a turnaround for the Pirates. The franchise altered its left-field fence for the power-hitting righty, putting in a double bullpen at Forbes Field that cut the left-field line distance from 365 to 335 feet and the left-center power alley from 406 to 355.
Originally known as Greenberg Gardens, left field at Forbes Field was renamed a year later in honor of Greenberg’s 1947 roommate, Ralph Kiner. Although Greenberg retired after his one season in Pittsburgh, his legacy lived on in Kiner, who won seven consecutive National League home run titles, crediting Greenberg for part of his success.
In 1958, after leading the Detroit Lions to three NFL championships in six years, quarterback Bobby Layne was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Thus began the Curse of Bobby Layne, who was credited with saying that the Lions “would not win for 50 years” upon being traded.
It’s been 50 years and the Lions haven’t won. They have the worst winning percentage in the NFL over the past 50 years. They haven’t been to a Super Bowl.
Layne didn’t accomplish much in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers went on to win six Super Bowls. In 2006, the Steelers won Super Bowl XL in Detroit’s Ford Field. Jerome Bettis, a Detroit native, was a key player on that squad. Pittsburgh-area native Kevin Colbert was the Lions’ professional scouting director for 10 years before becoming the Steelers’ director of football operations. Colbert was instrumental in drafting Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu.
One odd connection between Detroit and Pittsburgh was the two-sport career of Dick Groat. Famous for playing second base and being the NL MVP for the champion Pirates of 1960, Groat is lesser known for his basketball skills. The Pennsylvania native and Duke graduate also played the 1952-53 season with the Fort Wayne Pistons, averaging 11.9 points per game.
In 1991, the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup in franchise history – the first of two straight titles. Scotty Bowman was the Penguins’ director of player development in 1990-91 and then became the team’s head coach in 1991-92 when Bob Johnson fell ill. Bowman had future Red Wing Larry Murphy as a key member of his team. Murphy is one of 12 members of the Penguins’ ring of fame at Mellon Arena. Bowman left Pittsburgh and became the Red Wings’ head coach, winning three more Stanley Cups before leaving the bench.
Jim Leyland played baseball in the Detroit Tigers’ minor-league system and went on to be a manager on the Tigers’ farm. Leyland’s major-league debut, however, came as skipper of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Leyland led that franchise to three straight NL division titles in the early 1990s.
By 2006, Leyland was manager of the Tigers and in the World Series with home-field advantage won by the AL’s victory in the All-Star Game at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. The Tigers, who also had Pittsburgh-area native Sean Casey in the lineup, went on to lose in five games to St. Louis.