Peculiar Pittsburgh

From Steel City to City of Champions: Why all Pittsburgh’s sports teams are black and gold

“I don’t think any two colors identify any other city as much.”

Look how terrible that towel is!

Look how terrible that towel is!

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
MJ Slaby

When it comes to sports teams’ colors, black and gold is a “pretty good choice,” according to one expert.

That’s not just because those are the preferred colors of Pittsburghers. Black symbolizes confidence and strength — while yellow is high on the scale of colors that display arrogance, said Yun-Oh Whang, a clinical assistant professor of business administration who teaches sports marketing at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Black uniforms with yellow in the numbers and on the pants — that is pretty intimidating,” he said.

But one Incline reader wanted to know how our teams picked the combination in the first place, so they sent their query to Peculiar Pittsburgh, where readers ask and The Incline searches for answers. (Ask us here.)

Why are our sports teams’ colors black and gold?

The answer goes back to the symbols of the city, but it’s also a case of Pittsburgh being willing to buck the trends.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pirates on ice

Black and gold uniforms started with the Pirates — not the baseball team — but the short-lived hockey team that was in the city for five years.

The year was 1925, and Pittsburgh didn’t have a pro football team yet. The Pirates baseball team existed, but its colors were red, white and blue. So when the Pirates hockey team started, their uniforms used old Pittsburgh police emblems on their sleeves, said Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.

The hockey team’s first jerseys appeared to be recycled yellow wool sweaters from the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets, a previous amateur and later semi-pro team, along with the emblems from old police jackets, according to PittsburghHockey.net.

Then, in 1933, Art Rooney purchased an NFL franchise. The professional football team uniforms were black and gold and used the city’s seal on the front, Madarasz said.

That seal is based on the family coat of arms of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham and Pittsburgh’s namesake. When Pittsburgh officially became a city in 1816, the city seal used his coat of arms as a basis, according to the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. However, all the papers with the original design were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1845, so the city hired someone to recreate the seal based on what people who saw it remembered. The reimagined seal used black and gold, but also included a blue and white checkerboard.

Most people think of the bumblebee uniforms as the earliest Pittsburgh football uniforms — in part because no 1933 jerseys still exist — but those iconic uniforms weren’t used until 1934, Madarasz said. When the team became known as the Steelers in 1940, it continued to use black and gold — with one exception. The 1943 team merged with the Philadelphia Eagles during World War II to form the “Steagles.”

In 1948, the baseball team switched its colors from red, white and blue to black and gold, too. While it’s hard to know for sure, Madarasz said, the color change was likely made to adopt “the city standard” or could have been tied to new ownership that purchased the team in 1946.

When it came to deciding uniforms for early professional athletes, many wore their letter sweaters from college, and the uniforms evolved from what was considered athletic wear at the time, Madarasz said. However, she noted that it was unusual for early sports teams to match the colors of the local government. But for whatever reason, Pittsburgh embraced it.

However, when the Pittsburgh Penguins made their NHL debut in 1967, the team wore dark blue, light blue and white, per the league. But in 1980, the Penguins decided to change their colors to back and gold, too and made an announcement at halftime of the Super Bowl.

The Pirates had won the World Series in 1979, and the Steelers won the Super Bowl in ’75, ’76, ’79 and ’80 — so the Penguins wanted to be part of the City of Champions, too, Madarasz said.

However, the announcement didn’t go over well with the Boston Bruins, which were already a black and gold hockey team. But the Penguins pointed to the former Pirates hockey team, plus the city’s colors and the colors of their actual namesake as reasoning. That was enough for the NHL, she said.

When the Pittsburgh Riverhounds launched in 1998, with the colors of red, black and white, the team made the decision to not be black and gold. Per a 2001 Post-Gazette article: “The choice meant the Hounds couldn’t tap into the region’s established professional sports identity, but it also allows the soccer fans’ jerseys to stand out in a Pittsburgh crowd.”

The team later used blue, black and white, but by 2014, the team started moving to black and gold uniforms. Last year, the team unveiled a new logo — and you don’t have to guess the colors.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers
Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

‘From Steel City to the City of Champions’

While the black and gold in the city seal and city flag come from William Pitt, the colors have an association with the industry that once defined Pittsburgh: steel. Black represented the coal, and gold was for the iron ore, Madarasz said.

But in the ’70s, Pittsburgh’s identity started to change. As the steel industry declined, the city’s sports teams were achieving success, she said.

“You get a switch in allegiance from Steel City to City of Champions, “Madarasz said. “Even if the economic news on the front page was bad, the sports section had good news.”

Sports, along with the colors black and gold, became a point of unity.

It all makes Pittsburgh a unique sports market, said Whang, the sports marketing expert. In other cities, the unit of branding is the team. In Pittsburgh, the unit is the city.

“I don’t think any two colors identify any other city as much,” said Tom Loftus, chief marketing officer at VisitPittsburgh. “It really is one of those points of definition that we have over other cities.”

So even if someone is more into one of the sports than the others, they will still be casual fans of the other teams just because they are from Pittsburgh, Whang said. “We identify not as [just a] Steelers fan, but as a Pittsburgh fan.”

That makes a positive impact on the teams because the fanbase is large and overlapping, instead of distinct separate groups. However, that also means teams have a captive audience of fans that they don’t have to try too hard for.

In other places, there isn’t a big overlap in fan bases, Whang said. Plus, in big cities like Chicago or New York, there are lots of transplants who bring their fandoms with them instead of adopting the teams of their new city. Hence why there are Steelers bars around the U.S.

But in Pittsburgh, many of the fans are born and raised here so they have a lifelong attachment to their teams.

“It’s deeply cultural,” he said. “Pittsburghers bleed black and gold.”

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