When I was deciding which book to review for April in This Awful Awesome Life, my thoughts immediately went to Glory Years: A Century of Excellence in Sports by Jim O’Brien. O’Brien is a best-selling author, sports historian, columnist, writing coach, and public speaker.
I had the pleasure of interviewing him in 2015. I visited his home and met his lovely wife, Kathie. Jim was the perfect host; he treated me to stories of our beloved Pittsburgh sports teams and lessons in writing and sports history.
Whenever I think of Pittsburgh sports, I see Jim’s smiling face and his office walls resplendent with some of the greatest moments in sports history.
While organizing sports leagues as a child in his hometown of Glenwood, a close-knit Pittsburgh community of mill and railroad workers and their families, O’Brien began to write for the Hazelwood Envoy.
He became the first non-senior to be named the sports editor of The Pitt News. Beano Cook, the sports publicist for the University of Pittsburgh, assigned O’Brien the task of writing features about Pitt athletes for their local newspapers. Together they started Pittsburgh Weekly Sports.
O’Brien has written for The Sporting News, The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, The Miami News, The New York Post, The Pittsburgh Press, Sports Magazine, Newsweek, Basketball Times, The Football News, and the Washington Post. He was also the editor for Street & Smith’s Basketball magazine. Locally, O’Brien still writes a column for The Valley Mirror in Steel Valley, and for eighteen years he wrote a weekly column for The Almanac in the South Hills.
He has co-authored three books and written twenty-four books about Pittsburgh sports and his family since 1980.
Glory Years: A Century of Excellence in Sports, which is part of the Pittsburgh Proud series by Jim O’Brien, is not exclusively about baseball, but I believe the athletes he has chosen for his book embody the heart and soul of Pittsburgh sports and capture our love of all sports including baseball.
You may wonder why a “walk and chew gum” kind of girl like me is so crazy about a book by a sportswriter. Aside from having three sports obsessed sons and spending countless hours at practices and sporting events, I actually got out in the yard or in the basement and learned to love sports with them. Imagine my sense of joy and wonder as I realized my sons were actually gifted athletes. It also brought back endless summers of kickball in the street and playing volleyball wherever you could string up a net – those days when you didn’t have to be good; you just had to want to be there. Reading O’Brien’s books bring those feelings back for me because he remembers and he has a gift for making even the most famous athlete remember why he or she first loved sports.
O’Brien includes an impressive assortment of athletes native to the Pittsburgh area and others who chose to compete in Pittsburgh.
Mace Brown, Woody Jensen and Gus Suhr, who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1930’s, played against Babe Ruth at Forbes Field when he hit 3 home runs in 1935. O’Brien treats us to snippets of their lives and how they felt on that field opposing Ruth.
Ron Necciai (from Monongahela), while pitching a no-hitter for a Pirates farm team in the class-D Appalachian League on May 13, 1952, became the only pitcher in history to strike out 27 batters in a nine inning game. His major league career was one season; it ended at 20 years old because of injury.
Sean Casey, an Upper St. Clair High School stand-out athlete, was a Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman. He also played for Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox. 1997-2008. Casey played only one injury plagued season for the Pirates (2006), but he was a 3 time All Star for the Reds and was inducted to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 2012.
Pitt athlete, John Woodruff (born in Connellsville) was a 21 year old freshman at Pitt when he won an Olympic Gold Medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He was a teammate of Jesse Owens. The 800 meter run champion had to live at the YMCA because it was the only available housing for blacks going to Pitt at the time.
Herb Douglas from the University of Pittsburgh won a bronze medal for the long jump in the 1948 London Olympics, and Roger Kingdom won golds for the 110 meter hurdles in 1984 and 1988 in Los Angeles and Seoul, South Korea.
Arnie Sowell had to settle for 4th place at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia in the 800 meter because of an injury. I like that O’Brien remembers the athletes who had to deal with injuries and learn to move on.
Jack Twyman from Pittsburgh grew up to become a professional basketball player despite being cut three times from his Central Catholic varsity team. Twyman stuck it out and went on to become a six time NBA All Star, but by far his most admirable quality turned out to be compassion. Twyman took care of his Cincinnati Royals teammate Maurice Stokes after Stokes was left paralyzed following a head injury during a game.
O’Brien also mentions some Pittsburgh cities that might not be known for their athletes. In addition to Connellsville’s Olympic gold from John Woodruff, Johnny Lujack from Connellsville won the 1947 Heisman Trophy while at Norte Dame. Turtle Creek has an Olympic gold medalist and Heisman trophy winner from the same 1946 Turtle Creek HS graduating class. Leon Hart won the 1949 Heisman Trophy while at Notre Dame and Lt. Col. William W. McMillan won Olympic gold in pistol shooting at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Peter Press Maravich grew up in Clairton and Aliquippa and his son Pistol Pete Maravich was born at the Aliquippa Hospital where Tony Dorsett would be born seven years later. Swin Cash was born in McKeesport, PA. In addition to helping lead the University of Connecticut women's basketball team to national titles in 2000 and 2002, in her second season, she led the Detroit Shock to their first ever WNBA title. In 2017, Cash was named the Director of franchise development for the New York Liberty in the WNBA.
In the interest of accuracy, I have to mention that some of the achievements I have mentioned occurred after this book was published, but that’s what makes this book so good. Jim O’Brien made me care enough about these athletes to look them up and see what else has occurred in their lives. I could go on and on, but read the book and fall in love with sports again.
Many of Jim O’Brien’s books are available on amazon.com. For a complete listing of his work and to order books, please visit his website, http://www.jimobriensportsauthor.com/
Photo collage: Jim O’Brien flanked by former Pirates pitchers Bob Friend and El Roy Face at the wall that remains of Forbes Field. (left photo) Jim with golf legend, Arnold Palmer at PNC Park (right photo)