Phil Coyne: A winner in and out of the ballpark

By Joe Smeltzer

Phil Coyne’s longevity made him a celebrity.

He spent more time as a Pittsburgh Pirates’ usher— 81 years— than most people spend on planet earth.

Coyne’s tenure started in the heat of the Great Depression, and lasted through 12 US Presidents and five American wars.

He saw Babe Ruth’s last three home runs in person, and was still working at the ballpark as Mike Trout entered his prime.

In April of 2019, I had the honor of talking with Coyne and a few of his family members for an assignment in one of my college journalism classes, taught by Pittsburgh sportswriter and radio talk show host Joe Starkey.

I submitted the article, and got positive feedback on it. For whatever reason, I never published it anywhere.

Coyne died today at 102, a day after the Pirates home opener and on the 20th anniversary of both PNC Park’s first regular-season game and the death of Willie Stargell. Coincidentally, he passed away on the same day as another famous Phil, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. To celebrate Coyne’s memory, here is the piece I wrote almost two years ago.

***

For 81 years, Phil Coyne spent his springs, summers and early falls climbing steps.

 Up and down. Back and forth.

From the days of the Paul and Lloyd Waner to Andrew McCutchen, Coyne walked the steps of Forbes Field, Three Rivers Stadium and PNC Park as an usher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. This gave Coyne a job he loved and that eventually made him a national celebrity in 2013, when he was interviewed by Craig Sager of TBS after his beloved Pirates beat the Cincinnati Reds for their first playoff win in 21 years.

Despite mastering the routine of going up and down the steps, the reason Coyne decided to retire as an usher after the 2017 season was, ironically, because he has a fear of falling.

Coyne said, “I tell my feet ‘how come you don’t listen to my head?'”

As Coyne approached his 100th birthday last year, he finally started to, in the words of his nephew, Tom Foley, “feel his age.”

He now uses a cane.

He has a hard time balancing, to the point where Coyne said he’s fallen three times in the past year-and-a-half, and he’s seen the damage a slip can cause.

“My brother fell one day, and that was the end of him,” he said. “Then my brother-in-law fell, and that was the end of him. That’s why I’m trying to be as careful as I can.”

***

Mentally, Coyne still has it.

He is coherent. His voice is lively, and although his family has a history with Alzheimer’s disease— his father succumbed to it at just 61— Coyne’s memory remains sharp.

 “Sometimes I get scared at how far back I can remember,” Coyne said. “My father couldn’t remember the last time he ate.”

Coyne remembers watching Babe Ruth’s last three home runs as a 17-year-old in 1935, and his memory of that day isn’t limited to seeing “The Sultan of Swat” in the flesh.

He remembers the day of the week (Saturday).

He remembers the promotional event (Kids Day), and he recalls, in detail, all three homers.

“The first ball went into the first level (of the right-field stands),”  he said. “The second home run went to the second level.  The third time he got up, he hit it over the roof, out of the ballpark altogether.”

“The roof” Coyne is referring to was the right-field roof of Forbes Field, which nobody had ever hit a ball over before “The Babe.”

For the most part, Coyne’s body remains strong as well. He said that, despite having to use a cane, he’s in solid physical condition overall.

“I’m in perfect health, but my balance… they say all I have to do is fall once and hit my head, and it’s done,” Coyne said.

Coyne discusses his fear with Foley, who he sees at least once a week.

“He’s seen a lot of when people fall and break their hips,” Foley said. “A lot of times, that changes their lives forever. So I think it was time for him [to retire], although I know he misses it.”

Coyne only came back to PNC Park once in 2018, when he was honored by the Pirates April 27. That evening’s events included Coyne’s sections—26 and 27—being named in his honor, a speech by Pirates play-by-play announcer Greg Brown, as well as recognition from the Baseball Hall of Fame, where Coyne’s shirt and ID badge now reside. While the evening was magical, for Coyne’s niece, Trisha Coyne-Doyle, it came with sadness, both for Coyne and those closest to him.

“I think it was bittersweet even for him,” Coyne-Doyle said. “But he just rolls with it. He’s so happy just to be alive still.”

While Coyne is content with life without the ballpark, he acknowledges how much he loved his job.

 “It was the best thing in the world,” he said. “You couldn’t wait to get to the game, meet everybody and do your job.”

Foley said “Uncle Philly”, as he is known to family, still strives to be active in Oakland, the section of Pittsburgh where he grew up and still resides. Despite limitations– he can no longer use a ladder— Coyne does what he can to keep busy during the day.

 “He’s always helping and eager to help with household projects, [whether it’s] construction or somebody putting a new spring door on,” Foley said. “He’s very knowledgeable and very helpful with things.”

***

Foley and Coyne-Doyle’s memories of their uncle expand beyond the park. Foley, whose grandfather passed away when he was barely old enough to remember, saw Coyne as a grandfatherly figure with a fun-loving personality.

“When Uncle Philly was watching you, it was always an adventure,” Foley said. “You were getting on a streetcar and going somewhere, or we painted something, and we probably had more paint on us than whatever we were painting. He was always the fun uncle.”

Coyne-Doyle’s father, Pat Coyne, was Phil’s first cousin and grew up across the street from him. She remembers “Uncle Philly” from family gatherings such as Christmas parties. While most of her relatives kept to themselves, Coyne-Doyle recalls, “Philly” always went out of his way to spend time with the kids.

“He was the only uncle that would do that,” she said. “All the other uncles got their scarves out and did their thing.”

While Coyne always put his family ahead of anything else, they weren’t the only ones who looked up to him. Bob Haggerty, who has been an on and off usher for the Pirates since 2006, lost his father years before meeting Coyne. He said Coyne, who never married or had any children, called Haggerty his “Irish son.”

“If I got (to the stadium) early, I’d talk to him,” Haggerty said. …”If I saw him in the locker room after the game, we’d shoot the breeze; I’d walk with him and [other ushers] to his car. Anytime I found myself around him, I would number one appreciate his tenure and how long he’s been doing it, and number two, more importantly, appreciate the kind man that he is.”

For those who know Coyne, how he did his job mattered more than how long he worked. For Coyne-Doyle’s husband, Ed Doyle, Coyne and other ushers at PNC Park give the Pirates hospitality that not all teams have.

“I went to one game over in Washington D.C., and the ushers were so abrupt and rough,” Doyle said. “I was like ‘hey, I’m just going to my seat.'” I just got used to working with the Pirate ushers, and Philly was just one of those kinds of guys, you know.”

***

In 81 years, Coyne saw some of the best times in Pirates history, highlighted by three World Series championships, and some of the worst times, such as a 42-112 season in 1952 and, of course, the 20-year streak of losing seasons that Coyne’s overnight fame signified the end of. For Doyle, Coyne “bridged the gap” from Forbes Field to PNC Park.

 “The Forbes Field atmosphere was different from Three Rivers, and PNC Park is different than Three Rivers,” Doyle said. “It’s just evolved, and Phil was there the whole time. He saw it all. It all was there, and he was there almost every night doing his job. I think he’ll be remembered as the guy that was the mainstay that handled his job as an usher.”

For Haggerty, the atmosphere at PNC Park hasn’t been the same without Coyne.

“Every time I walked into that locker room, I knew where he would be,” Haggerty said. “If I got there early, he was there early. So it’s one of those things, you wake up in the morning, and you see the same things every day, and you take them for granted. One day you look over, and it’s not there. I can tell you, last year, the times that I worked, it was kind of empty.”

Now that Coyne is free for 81 extra days a year, here is how he sums up the retired life:

“You don’t have anything to do, but you have 1,000 things you should do.”

COMON Network content is presented by the US Air Force Reserve. Part-time jobs with full-time benefits are available at the Pittsburgh IAP Air Reserve Station. To find out more visit afreserve.com/pittspodcast

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