Three ballparks. Fourteen presidential administrations.
That’s how long it’s been since Phil Coyne became an usher for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
And now, at the age of 99, he has decided to retire.
Coyne has been escorting fans to their seats since 1936, the same year the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted its first members, a group of five players that included Honus Wagner and Babe Ruth.
At the time, Coyne was 18 years old, and the Pirates’ games were played at Forbes Field. Coyne grew up just a few blocks away. In 1935, he was in the stands when Ruth hit the final three home runs of his career.
These days, Coyne is not so steady on his feet anymore, he explained, and he attends “balancing school” once a week. But he’s as sharp as ever.
“I never thought I’d go back to school again,” he joked. “If I didn’t carry my cane, I guess I’d be a lot younger.”
So Friday the Pirates announced that Coyne would be retiring.
He has ushered about 6,000 games, pausing for four years to serve in World War II, where he was deployed to Italy, France and Germany. For many years afterward Coyne worked as a machinist, and ushered on the side, before retiring from that job in 1980.
Frank Coonelly, the president of the Pirates, paused Monday to praise Coyne before heading into a planning meeting to discuss Coyne’s 100th birthday celebration April 27.
“After 81 years you better get something better than a watch,” he said. “In my time here, and I’ve been here for 11 seasons, he never missed a day of work.”
Coyne also was an usher at Steelers football games until he was 98. And his attendance record was similarly impressive at St. Paul Cathedral, the Roman Catholic church where he is a regular at the 10 a.m. Mass and (no surprise here) also served as an usher.
“I don’t think he’s a missed a Sunday that I can ever recall,” said the Very Rev. Kris D. Stubna, the rector and pastor of St. Paul Cathedral.
Stubna, who is a Pirates fan, has often sat in Coyne’s sections — 26 and 27, just beyond third base.
“He makes you the center of attention,” Stubna said. “He just wants you to have a really good time because of his love of the game.”
Coyne is the last one remaining of his seven siblings, but nearly 200 extended family members, some flying in from as far as Ireland and Australia, will be joining him for his birthday celebration in Pittsburgh.
“I think having a uniform and a job and a place to go and people to see, I think that’s kept him really healthy,” said Dan Coyne, Phil Coyne’s 47-year-old nephew, who refers to his uncle as “Philly.”
“You never hear Philly complain or criticize, and he doesn’t gripe,” said Dan Coyne, who also lives in Pittsburgh. “He’s grateful for everything he’s experienced.”
At the ballpark, Phil Coyne was often surrounded by fans — his fans — who asked him for autographs and posed with him for pictures. Upon arriving home from work he would say, “I got so many kisses today,” his nephew recalled.
Coyne is so universally adored that the Pittsburgh City Council named Aug. 29, 2017, “Phil Coyne Day.” Earlier that year the Pirates presented him with a No. 99 jersey with his name on the back for his 99th birthday.
One of Coyne’s favorite moments at the ballpark was in 1960, he said, when he watched Bill Mazeroski hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 that won the Pirates their first World Series in 35 years, beating the New York Yankees.
“That was a wild day,” Coyne said.
He also has fond memories of the last day the team played at Forbes Field, the Pirates’ home from 1909 to 1970.
“They just let the people run out on the field and take the bases,” he said, or “a little bit of grass.”
The Pirates moved to Three Rivers Stadium and stayed through 2000 before arriving at PNC Park in 2001. Coyne worked at each one, and in the case of Three Rivers, had to take three buses to get there via public transportation, Coonelly said.
“I’m still holding out hope that he’s going to decide to come back,” he added.