Opinion | David Shribman

Boston vs. Pittsburgh — a classic matchup that goes beyond football

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 10: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots and Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers speak before the game at Gillette Stadium on September 10, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogas/Getty Images
Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, talking before a Patriots-Steelers game at Gillette Stadium, Sept. 10, 2015, in Foxboro.

They both have a north shore. They both have fine universities. They both have rabid sports fans. They both have a quarterback out-of-towners love to deride. They both have a team in the AFC championship game Sunday at Foxborough.

My two hometowns — Boston, where I was reared, and Pittsburgh, where I have lived for 14 years — are at it again. Tom Brady versus Ben Roethlisberger. Dion Lewis versus Le’Veon Bell. Julian Edelman versus Antonio Brown. Bill Belichick versus Mike Tomlin.

A collision for the ages. A trip to the Super Bowl at stake. A cultural clash: MIT versus Carnegie Mellon. Mass. General versus UPMC. Clam chowda at Legal’s versus chicken pastina soup at Legends. A city that, as former Governor William F. Weld would put it, had money (all those inherited Adams, Cabot, Lowell, and Peabody fortunes) versus a city that made money (all those Carnegie and Frick steel mills profiting from industrialization and wartime weapons spending).


These two cities begin the baseball season in April — the Pirates are at Fenway for Opening Day — but this rivalry is decades old. Pittsburgh and Boston played in the first World Series (Boston won, five games to three). Boston was the seventh biggest city a century ago, Pittsburgh the ninth. Boston is the most successful sports city in the last half-century, Pittsburgh is second. But Pittsburgh unloaded Dick Stuart on Boston, which witnessed feats of baseball fielding ineptitude never since equaled.

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Yet they share so much: The architect Henry Hobson Richardson, who left his mark on both cities. The historian David McCullough, who was born in Pittsburgh and lives in Massachusetts and who restored John Adams to his rightful place in history. Babe Parilli, who grew up near Pittsburgh, quarterbacked the Patriots, and was QB coach for the Steelers. Don Schwall, who was American League rookie of the year for the Red Sox and later pitched for the Pirates.

“Neither has the big-city feel,’’ Schwall said in a conversation this week. “They both seem very local. I loved Boston — oh, my God, it wasa great place. But so is Pittsburgh. The one difference is that Pittsburghers have a hard-nosed personality that Boston didn’t have.’’

Legend and literature link Boston and Philadelphia, a tie cemented by E. Digby Baltzell’s 1979 classic “Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia: Two Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Class Authority and Leadership.’’ But in truth, the Pennsylvania city that best resembles Boston lies 300 miles west, where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers join to form the Ohio.

Both have early spring marathons. Both ports were the setting for signature American events (the Boston Tea Party for one, the beginning of the Lewis and Clark expedition for the other). Both registered strong majorities for Hillary Clinton. Both were stubborn redoubts of Federalism as the country changed in the early 19th century, sticking with the old party and its doomed nominee, Rufus King, in the James Monroe landslide exactly 200 years ago. The newspaper where I work today was described as the “lone outpost of Federalism in the West.’’


Both have signature American sandwiches (the lobster roll of Boston, the Primanti Brothers concoction of meat, cole slaw and a mass of fries stuffed between pieces of doughy white bread). Plus this, now that we’ve mentioned Baltzell: Both loathe Philadelphia, which sided with Monroe in that 1816 election.

But Boston is reserved, Pittsburgh exuberant. Boston flexes its muscles, Pittsburgh builds its muscles. Boston cultivates an urbane sophistication, Pittsburgh luxuriates in an informal ethos.

“These are two classic American cities,’’ says Eddie Johnston, who played goalie for the Bruins and had two stints as coach with the Penguins. “Any athlete who has the chance to play in either Pittsburgh or Boston should be happy. They should be more than happy — they should feel blessed.’’

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.