Pittsburgh is the only city in America whose major professional sports teams wear the same color scheme.
Sports colors can unite communities and fan bases in powerful and meaningful ways, and Pittsburgh’s franchises have some of the best of all time. As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, the city of Pittsburgh was facing the end of an era. The steel industry – long the backbone of the region – was waning, and jobs were disappearing. By 1983, the unemployment rate in greater Pittsburgh would reach a staggering 17.1 percent. As the local economy cratered, the city’s sports teams – united in black and gold – represented a source of civic pride in turbulent times.
Black and gold are the colors on the coat of arms of the city’s namesake, Sir William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham. They adorn the City of Pittsburgh’s flag and were the official colors of the Pittsburgh Police Department. Black and gold represent the two ingredients that create steel: coal and iron ore, and are worn by each of the Steel City’s major sports teams. While black is black, the shade of gold differs slightly. The Penguins use the metallic Vegas Gold, while the Pirates gold is a darker mustard yellow. The Steelers don a bright canary yellow.
Named after the baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates joined the National Hockey League in 1925.
The Pirates’ founder and owner, James Callahan, called upon his brother, a Pittsburgh cop, to provide him with emblems, seals and patches for his hockey team to wear. All of them were in the official city colors of black and gold. In 1930, the Great Depression hit the steel industry hard, forcing the ice Pirates to move to Philadelphia, where they became the Quakers. The club switched to orange and black uniforms before disbanding after one season in Philly. The colors were later adopted by the Flyers when they joined the NHL during the expansion of 1967.
Three years after the Pirates left town, the Pittsburgh Steelers joined the National Football League.
The seventh-oldest club in the NFL and the oldest franchise in the American Football Conference, they have worn black and gold since their formation in 1933. Once the league’s most moribund organization, the post-merger Steelers are one of the NFL’s marquee franchises. Owned and operated by the Rooney family since their inception, the Steelers have won a record six Super Bowls and played in and hosted more conference championship games than any other NFL team.
Steeler Nation is one of the strongest fan bases in pro sports. Bedecked in one of the best uniforms in the NFL, the Steelers are consistently near the top of the league’s merchandise sales. Former Iowa coach, Hayden Frye, thought so much of the Steelers iconic outfits that he copied them for his team in 1979. Forty years later, the Hawkeyes still wear the Pittsburgh black-and-gold.
The Pittsburgh baseball Pirates joined the National League in 1887.
The Pirates have been at the center of some of baseball’s biggest breakthroughs. They played in the first MLB game ever broadcast on radio, in 1921. The Pirates introduced batting helmets in 1953, and were the first team to win the World Series on a Game 7 walk-off home run. In 1971, the Bucs were the first big league team to start an all-minority lineup. That same year, they played in the first-ever World Series night game.
The Pirates have long been innovators in baseball uniforms. In 1948, they abandoned their red, white and blue outfits and adopted the black and gold color scheme of the Flag of Pittsburgh and, to a lesser extent, the colors of the then-relatively unknown Steelers of the NFL. The Pirates helped popularize the sleeveless jersey in the late 1950s, then brought back the vested tops in 2001. Following the lead of the Oakland A’s, the Pirates were innovators in “third jerseys.” By 1977, they had uniform combinations that included two different caps and undershirts while featuring three different jerseys and trouser choices.
But the Bucs have not always hit the mark when it comes to sartorial splendor. The Pirates pioneered the hideous nylon/cotton pullover tops with beltless pants in 1970, the year they moved into Three Rivers Stadium. This style, which looked more beer-league softball outfit than big league baseball uniform, is one of the worst in the annals of baseball and would be adopted by most other teams by the end of the decade. Thankfully, the Pirates came to their senses and ditched the pullovers for the traditional button-down style in 1991 and remains one of the sharpest looks in the major leagues.
Another Pirate style atrocity came in 1979, when the “We Are Family” team of Willie Stargell won the World Series wearing old style pillbox hats complete with horizontal pinstripes. Although popular with the throwback crowd, it remains one of the worst lids in baseball history.
Founded as part of the Next Six during the NHL’s expansion of 1967, the Pittsburgh Penguins have won eight division titles and five Stanley Cups, tying them with the Edmonton Oilers for the most Cup championships among non-Original Six teams.
With Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and 2017, the Penguins became the first back-to-back champions in 19 years and first team to do so since the introduction of the salary cap.
While the Pens have featured seven different logos during their 50-plus years of existence, the gold triangle emblazoned on their sweater has remained central to the club’s look. The triangle is a reference to the central business district of downtown Pittsburgh, known as the Golden Triangle. In January 1980, the Penguins switched their colors from blue and white to black and gold to mirror those of the Pirates and Steelers, who were both fresh off world championships. In an effort to maximize publicity, the decision was announced at halftime of Super Bowl XIV, won by the Steelers over the L.A. Rams, 31-19.
The change was designed to unify the uniforms in the City of Champions while paying homage to the NHL Pirates some 55 years later. Despite protests from the Boston Bruins, who claimed exclusive rights to the colors, the NHL allowed the change.
On this date in 1980, the Pittsburgh Penguins debuted their new black and gold uniforms against the St. Louis Blues in a 4-3 loss at the Pittsburgh Civic Center, better known as The Igloo.