PITTSBURGH — Phil Coyne, the longtime Pirates usher who followed the team from Forbes Field to Three Rivers Stadium to PNC Park, died Friday morning at the age of 102.
Quick to share a smile, Coyne was an instantly recognizable figure in Pittsburgh’s ballparks for 81 years and a Pittsburgh institution even beyond his tenure as an usher. He worked more than 6,000 games from 1936-2018, when he finally retired weeks before his 100th birthday.
“Phil was and always will be a true Pirates legend,” Pirates chairman Bob Nutting said in a statement.
How deep was Coyne’s connection to baseball in Pittsburgh? Having been raised in the city’s Oakland neighborhood, he was in the stands at Forbes Field when Babe Ruth hit the final three home runs of his career in 1935. He worked his first game as an usher at the age of 18 — the same year baseball inducted its first Hall of Fame class — when Pirates manager Pie Traynor was running out a lineup that included Arky Vaughan and Paul Waner, who was one of Coyne’s favorite players in franchise history.
Coyne was born on April 27, 1918, during the final months of World War I, the eldest of eight children of Irish immigrants. He grew up a block away from Forbes Field, and lived there throughout his life. He never married, but he was beloved by a large extended family that showed up at PNC Park to support him when the Pirates celebrated his 100th birthday.
Coyne was working behind the visitor’s dugout for his favorite moment at Forbes Field on Oct. 13, 1960, when Bill Mazeroski made baseball history by hitting a walk-off home run against the Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series. Forbes Field was special to Coyne, but when the Pirates moved to Three Rivers Stadium and eventually PNC Park, Coyne moved right along with them.
At the beautiful ballpark along the north shore of the Allegheny River, Coyne — called “Philly” by those close to him — covered Sections 26 and 27 down the left-field line from the day it opened. He was there on Oct. 1, 2013, when the Pirates returned to the postseason after 20 years of losing. Interviewed by Craig Sager during the National League Wild Card Game broadcast, Coyne took in all the fans clad in black and proudly said, “Tonight is their night.”
“Philly really was truly grateful for every Pirates fan who ever came up to him and shook his hand, gave him a hug or even asked for an autograph,” said Dan Coyne, Phil’s nephew, in a statement. “He really loved interacting with the fans and felt the kindness from everyone at the Pirates family over the decades. On behalf of the entire Coyne family, we are thankful for everyone’s support during this time.”
Coyne’s yellow Pirates polo shirt, black Pirates cap and identification badge are on permanent display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
“For the next 82 years and more than 6,000 games until his official retirement ceremony on his 100th birthday, Phil was so much more than an usher to us and our fans,” Nutting said. “As a testament to his life of service to the game of baseball, his Pirates uniform and identification badge remain on permanent display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.”
Coyne began serving as an usher after graduating from high school. He worked full-time as a machinist, performing his usher duties on the side, before retiring in 1980. But he remained an usher at Steelers games until he was 98 and for the Pirates until he was 99. His only extended break from baseball came during World War II, when he was serving in the U.S. Army in the Italian campaign.
Coyne remained warm and energetic, even in his ninth decade in the stands, showing no signs of slowing down until he finally decided to retire. As former Pirates president Frank Coonelly noted at the time, however, “Legends never really retire.”
Dan Gilman, a former Pittsburgh city councilman, used that same word to describe Coyne on Aug. 29, 2017, which the city declared to be Phil Coyne Day.
“Phil’s a legend, to put it simply,” Gilman said.
Coyne’s age, resilience and dependability prompted many questions. How did he live such a long life? How did he keep showing up to work? What kept him going? Coyne would always smile and say the secret was his two Oreos and glass of milk before bed.
When the Pirates invited Coyne to PNC Park for his 100th birthday, they celebrated accordingly. In left field, not far from his sections, one concession stand offered the “Phil Coyne Classic,” a footlong hot dog with mustard and relish (the way hot dogs should be served, Coyne would say), a souvenir soda and a sundae with vanilla ice cream and two Oreos.
“As we celebrate his life and the many fond memories we all have of Phil, our thoughts are with the entire Coyne family and his many, many friends,” Nutting said in his statement. “He was and will forever be a member of our Pirates family.”