From Diamonds, Rings, Rinks and Links, Authors Pick 'The Steel City 500'
Chris Fletcher of Forest Hills and David Finoli of Monroeville release their new book featuring 500 of the best athletes to come from or play in western PA.
Mario Lemieux, Bill Mazeroski, Lynn Swann—all names familiar to Pittsburgh sports fans and even those who only casually follow sports.
But who are Cool Papa Bell, Louise Fulton, Susan Regan and Danny Seemiller?
They, too, have made the list of western Pennsylvania's top 500 athletes of all time—as compiled by Chris Fletcher and David Finoli in their just-released book, "The Steel City 500." The book took seven years from conception to print.
Since their college days at Duquesne University, sports have been big part of the friendship between Fletcher, a former editor and publisher of Pittsburgh Magazine from Forest Hills, and Finoli, a Monroeville resident, who has been in retail management for 28 years, most recently as personnel manager at Kohl's.
In fact, the two are so into sports that the middle name of Fletcher's son, Dylan, is Roberto—for the Pirates' Roberto Clemente— and Finoli's son, Matt, is named for Pirate Matty Alou. Dylan, 14, actually served as a fact-checker for the book.
Finoli has written 11 books on sports as "a hobby" over the years. He and Fletcher also wrote "Steel City Gridirons," published in 2004.
"The Steel City 500" grew out of conversations over the 30 years he and Fletcher have watched sports events together.
"I blame this," Fletcher jokes, holding out a glass of beer during an interview with Patch this month at Roman Bistro in Forest Hills.
"I think this is the most fun book we've ever done," Finoli said. "We were just kind of throwing out numbers. The more we researched the Olympics, halls of fame, we learned what tremendous athletes grew up in this area."
For the most part, those profiled are athletes who played at the college or professional level. The authors gave the top 10 athletes a bit more ink—to explain why they deserve the lofty ranking, Fletcher said—but most of those who made the list have their stories summed up in an interesting paragraph or two.
Despite their vast knowledge of sports, the two found an amazing number of little-known athletes that made a name for themselves in their particular sport.
"We both learned a lot," Fletcher said.
Finoli said one of those finds for him was Billy Hartack, one of the best jockeys in the history of horse racing. Hartack rode for nine Triple Crown championships during his career, which ran from 1948-1981. Another was middle-distance runner James Lightbody, who won six Olympic medals in 1904 and 1906.
Fletcher enjoyed learning about Lionel Conacher, who played hockey for the Pittsburgh Yellowjackets and Pittsburgh Pirates (yes, the hockey team) during the 1920s. Known as Canada's greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, he was also a wrestler and boxer who also played football, baseball and lacrosse.
"He was Canada's answer to Jim Thorpe," Fletcher said.
The book even includes a horse, Adios, who not only was a winner, but quite prolific. He produced 535 winning foals that earned him the unofficial title of the best sire in harness racing history. In his honor, the annual Adios race, one of the premier harness racing events, is held at the Meadows Racetrack and Casino.
The book has some great trivia and little-known facts about these sports standouts. Conacher, for instance, hit a home run to lead his semi-pro baseball team to a championship, then hailed a cab to get to a lacrosse championship where he scored four goals to lead the team to victory.
As for those four lesser-known athletes mentioned at the top of this story: Louise Fulton was the first African-American to capture a Women's Professional Bowlers Association title, Danny Seemiller won five national tennis table championships and Susan Regan was the national marbles champion in 1974. Cool Papa Bell, who played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays when Pittsburgh was an epicenter for Negro League Baseball, was named to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In addition to the 500 great athletes, the authors have included some lists to supplement the profiles. Those lists compile the 50 greatest executives in sports history, 10 athletes who are bound for a future list, the 10 greatest behind the mic, the 50 greatest western Pennsylvanians who never played here and 25 (or so) athletes they'd like to forget.
Fletcher and Finoli are already planning their next book together. But in the meantime, the authors are hoping this book spurs great discussions—and arguments.
"That's the beauty of sports," Fletcher said. "It brings people together."