Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Terrible Towel, an Origin Story

I missed the first half of the Steelers game on Monday Night Football, but even so I doubt I would have seen much of the pre-game ceremonies at Heinz Field honoring the broadcaster Myron Cope on his official retirement.

Although Cope was a local TV and radio broadcaster and civic character, he had an impact on anybody who has seen a Pittsburgh Steelers game in the past thirty years. Because Myron Cope invented The Terrible Towel.

Pittsburgh is a no-nonsense town, where a certain degree of dumb behavior is tolerated but not a lot of non-conformity. That's left up to people like Myron Cope. Pittsburgh projects all its latent rebelliousness on sportscasters and other media figures. Pittsburgh also sticks with what it likes. The news anchors who stay in town for five years usually stay in town for forty years.

Myron Cope is a gravelly voiced character with a strange accent even for Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has a solid Jewish community that gravitates towards the professions and the arts, and Myron Cope was an anomaly there as well.

Unless you've been in outer space for awhile, you probably know that Pittsburgh loves sports, and above all, the Steelers. The game Monday was on Halloween, but every game is dress-up time in Pittsburgh. There are no rules, except black and gold.

About thirty years ago, on his "Speaking of Sports" segment on TV, Myron Cope waved the first Terrible Towel. Inspired by the babuskas (scarves) that were a staple for working class women in western Pennsylvania, which he said he saw at games (though even then Steelers tickets were pricey and hard to come by, some steelworkers still managed to hang onto their reserved seats, even passing them down through the family), he told his audience, keyed up before a playoff game, that they should bring gold towels to the game and wave them to encourage the Steelers defense and place a hex on the opposing offense.

I saw that broadcast, and I have to tell you I thought he was nuts (not for the first time), and that it was a gimmick that would never work.

Thirty years later the stands are a sea of Terrible Towels, and the Post Gazette is interviewing a guy who is wearing a coat sewn by his grandmother made out of Terrible Towels, which have long since become "official" items that hardcore fans buy, along with their other Steelers gear. That's three generations of Terrible Towel wavers, and counting.

That's tradition. That's show biz. That's Pittsburgh.

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