Finding lost images

John Brewer examining some of the thousands of Courier photos he is preserving. Photo by Sidney Davis.

John Brewer examining some of the thousands of Courier photos he is preserving. Photo by Sidney Davis.

While researching my upcoming book about the Steelers’ secret strategy for winning championships, I met John Brewer. He’s a historian who had the good fortune of finding a cache of old production books from the Pittsburgh Courier that everyone thought had been lost. Brewer has since started the tedious process of preserving the newspaper’s images. Because the Courier was the nation’s leading black newspaper for much of the 20th Century, its archives show the history of African-Americans across sports, entertainment and every day life. I wrote about Brewer’s experience for the Tribune-Review, and interviewed him for WESA-FM, Pittsburgh’s NPR affiliate.

As Courier publisher Rod Doss told me: “A lot of the photographs captured the culture of a community that otherwise was not seen in other media. It showcases the community activities, the lifestyle activities, the dress that was maintained, the nightlife, the Negro leagues. All those things were captured in these photographs.”

For someone with a keen eye, the images also present some of the rarest moments in sports history. Brewer has one image (below) that shows Satchel Paige, the great Cleveland Indians hurler, inside a Hill District club when he played with the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro leagues. He’s there with Gus Greenlee, the Crawfords’ owner and notorious numbers-runner, along with Wendell Smith, the Courier sports reporter who famously advocated for Major League Baseball to integrate (familiar for anyone who has seen “42”), and Bill Nunn Sr., the paper’s managing editor and the father of its black college All-America teams. More on that to come later this year.

You can find my full Trib story here:

And you can hear the WESA-FM segment on Essential Pittsburgh here:


Photo (of the original photo) by Sidney Davis.





The ‘burgh in three books

Caliban Book Shop co-owner John Schulman, right, of Squirrel Hill, sorts through used books brought in by Attilio Favorini, of Squirrel Hill, at the store in Oakland on Monday, Dec. 15, 2014.

Caliban Book Shop co-owner John Schulman, right, of Squirrel Hill, sorts through used books brought in by Attilio Favorini, of Squirrel Hill. Guy Wathen, Tribune-Review.

It seems every book ever published can be found on the Internet. But I still have fun walking into an independent book store and letting the books find me. While I was working on a recent story about Caliban Book Shop in Oakland, I stopped long enough to look through the store’s eclectic collection of some 30,000 used titles. In the Pittsburgh aisle, where I typically start my search, I found three books that remind me of why I love writing stories about my hometown.

When I first came to the Tribune-Review in 2001, I covered Pittsburgh city hall. Soon after I started, Managing Editor Jim Cuddy called me into his office and handed me a book: “Don’t Call Me Boss: David L. Lawrence, Pittsburgh’s Renaissance Mayor.” It’s not light reading and I might not have finished it — except that Jim said I had to read it. I’m glad I did. (Spoiler alert: Lawrence dies, in dramatic fashion.) The book gave me a solid grounding in Pittsburgh’s unique machine politics. I bought a copy of “Don’t Call Me Boss” for the Trib’s newest Grant Street writer, Aaron Auperlee.

Caliban Book Shop manager Kris Collins, of Stanton Heights, checks the stock of one of his record distributors online on Monday, Dec. 15, 2014. Guy Wathan, Tribune-Review.

Caliban Book Shop manager Kris Collins checks the stock of one of his record distributors online.

“Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town” also ranks among my favorites. William Serrin was working as The New York Times’ labor and workplace correspondent when he quit the paper to write this book about the closure of the Homestead Works steel mill in 1986. My grandfather worked in a steel mill, and one of my first bylines, for the National Geographic Society’s defunct news service, appeared on a story I wrote about Homestead. When I came back to Pittsburgh, I read a library copy of “Homestead,” and it shaped my understanding of the region’s labor history. I have long wanted my own copy.

Finally, I wrote a children’s book scheduled to come out in August 2015 about Roberto Clemente, the Pirates’ iconic right fielder. David Maraniss wrote the quintessential biography, “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero.” I didn’t have my own copy of the book. But now I do.

Essential Andy Conte

U.S. Attorney David Hickton, on left, stops by WESA's Studio A to talk with me about Internet criminals.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton, on left, stops by WESA’s Studio A to talk with me about Internet criminals.

Pittsburgh’s NPR station, WESA-FM, handed me the keys to its daily news talk program Essential Pittsburgh.

I talked with U.S. Attorney David Hickton. This was his first live radio interview and he brought the passion for going after hackers — as well as some advice for computer users. “This is the crime of our age,” he said.

Steven_Labalme_Eiffel_TowerWe also chatted with @NewGirlInTown Elaine Labalme — about her recent trip through Europe. We compared notes about the continent’s more liberal attitudes. Of course you want the kids to see Amsterdam’s red-light district!

And finally, wIMAG1315e went out of the studio for a behind-the-scenes tour of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Observatory. You won’t believe what they have hiding in the basement! We also sat down with observatory director Lou Coban, who has one of the most unique jobs in town.

Many thanks to producer Marcus Charleston (below) for bringing this all together. You can hear the full rundown here.


PNC Park too crowded for ballhawks

Maybe you’ve heard of ballhawks. These are guys (and they all seem to be guys, fully grown) who go to Major League Baseball games to collect as many baseballs as they can — home runs, fouls, tossups from friendly players.

Point Park student Alex Stumpf profiles ballhawks this week. And in the process, he uncovers a gripe from one who used to clean up at a nearly empty PNC Park. The Pirates have become too popular, he says. Check it out — along with the great photos by student Matt Nemeth — and see if you agree.

Either way, two weeks to Opening Day on the North Shore.


Ballhawk Erik Jabs has a collection of nearly 3,000 baseballs. Photo: Matt Nemeth | Point Park News Service

By Alex Stumpf, Point Park News Service:

Ian Weir does not remember when he went to his first baseball game, but he remembers what he brought.

“I’ve taken my glove to every baseball game I’ve ever been to,” Weir, 20, of Oakmont, said.

Weir used his glove to snag nearly 200 balls last year and is a part of a distinct demographic of fans known as “ballhawks.”ballhawk3

A ballhawk refers to a fan that is able to collect multiple baseballs a game. They say they do this for a variety of reasons, from being able to tour stadiums around the country, to meeting fellow ballhawks nationwide and to boosting their memorabilia collections. The subject has spawned multiple blogs, a book and even a documentary narrated by Bill Murray.

Read the rest of the story here.

My friend Paul

A fountain featuring Andy Warhol holding an umbrella with water pouring from its spokes stands in Slovakia where statues of Soviet leaders Lenin and Stalin once stood in the town. By Andrew Conte

A fountain showing Andy Warhol holding an umbrella with water pouring from its spokes stands in Slovakia where statues of Soviet leaders Lenin and Stalin once ruled. By Andrew Conte

Lived right, a reporter’s life can be filled with many interesting characters. One of the favorites from my life has died. Paul Warhola had a fascinating perspective that pulled from the experiences of his more famous brother, Andy Warhol, but that had its own unique bent.

Visiting his farm house in Smock, an hour south of Pittsburgh, I would hear tales, like the one about how Andy tried giving Paul artwork — but he instead had taken his brother’s cases of Crown Royal whiskey. I once asked about a poster tacked to the bathroom door, showing one of Andy’s paintings from his flowers series. Paul had owned the original but sold it. Now he had the poster — and some untold sum of money. Paul still had a series of Andy’s early drawings. He had been using them to block the windows in his garage but now wanted to sell them too. Continue reading

How do they do things? Where? Oh…

Just in case you haven’t gotten enough of an Andy Conte fix, there’s this in today’s Trib. A full-page ad.

fullpage cropped

The only thing missing is the cape! At least that was Trib photographer Andy Russell’s take on my portrait (he’s the one who shot the cover photo we used for Breakaway). They’re not making fun of me, right? ;-)


Palm trees in Pittsburgh

Every reporter at the Trib had to come up with a few holiday brights — or stories that entertain while they educate. Here’s one of mine. I had seen this Strip District body shop in the summer and noted that it looked like it belonged in Florida, with palm trees planted in front. I wondered how the owner keeps them alive during the harsh Pittsburgh winters. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t.

Keith Hodan, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Keith Hodan, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Steve Schaffer dreams of the day he buys a second home in Key West, Fla.

Until then, the native Pittsburgher makes his own tropical paradise for as long as it lasts — planting palm trees in the spring and then, at this time of year, watching them wither and die.

By Keith Hodan, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

By Keith Hodan, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

“It creates the illusion that we’re somewhere we’re not,” said Schaffer, the owner of City Collision II auto body shop in the Strip District. “I call it a cheap vacation, every time I look out.”

A few hardy Pittsburghers are willing to do what it takes to bring a little bit of the tropics north of the Mason-Dixon line — even if that means keeping up the Sisyphean task of buying tropical plants each spring.

To read the rest of the story, click here.

Pittsburgh Hustle

Courtesy of American Hustle.

Courtesy of American Hustle.

American Hustle never happens without a little Pittsburgh hustle first. The movie that comes out today tells a story inspired by a 1970s super-swindler named Mel Weinberg who ended up working with the FBI to nab members of Congress in a bribery scandal. Investigative journalist Robert William Greene Sr. first told the story in his book The Sting Man. Weinberg ends up working with the feds only after first getting nabbed in Pittsburgh.

The story goes that Weinberg scammed a Pittsburgh real estate guy, Lee Schlag, who needed money to purchase a dairy. Weinberg offered to line up the financing but had no intentions of coming up with a loan. So when Schlag paid for the loan application and never received the money, he turned everything over to the feds.

sting manI talked this week with several of Schlag’s family members. He, unfortunately, died several years ago, never married and had no children. Until I called, the family had no idea about his connection to Weinberg, the book or the movie. The full story appears in today’s Tribune-Review.

I’m loving the book and can’t wait to see the movie. Hat tip to my friend Salena Zito, who often says that all roads lead through Pittsburgh.

Here, not home, for the holidays

Spare a moment during the hectic holiday season to think of Mario Hausdoerfer. He comes from Bavaria, where they do Christmas better than almost anywhere. And yet he will be here in Pittsburgh, selling his hand-blown glass ornaments. I spent some time with him this week…


Mario Hausdoerfer of Haselbach, Germany, hangs glass ornaments from the ceiling of his Holiday Market chalet as dusk settles in Market Square Downtown. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Stephanie Strasburg

Few places do Christmas better than Germany, home of “O Tannenbaum,” wooden nutcrackers and vast holiday markets in every town square.

And, yet, Bavaria resident Mario Hausdoerfer, 41, will mark a 10th straight year an ocean away from the crackle of a Yule log in his own home fire.

That’s because the maker of hand-blown glass Christmas ornaments will be in America, where his wares are more rare and buyers are willing to pay a premium for artisan crafts.

He is among a half-dozen foreign vendors relocating to Pittsburgh for the next month to participate in the Peoples Gas Holiday Market in Market Square.


Hausdoerfer will miss spending the holidays with his children, a daughter, 20, and son, 11, to work at his “Old German Christmas” chalet selling wares from Germany through the holiday. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Stephanie Strasburg

The market, which opens at 10 a.m. Nov. 23, has grown 250 percent larger since its inaugural season last year and features fresh Christmas trees for the first time, more vendors and Santa, of course. Every vendor from last year returned.

Hausdoerfer has put a lot on the line to be here: He and his wife, who traveled to the United States with him, will miss spending the holidays with their children, a daughter, 20, and son, 11.

But if he has to be away from home, he welcomed the idea of returning to Pittsburgh.

“I like the city, and I like the people,” he says. “So, that makes it easy to come back. The city was very friendly to me.” To read the rest of the story, click here.

Also, I made a video to run with the story that shows Drew Hine making glass snowmen at his South Side factory, Vessel Studio: Click here