The Greatest Italian Athletes From Pittsburgh

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During the spring of 1991, when the Pittsburgh Penguins defied the NHL betting sites and won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history, two netminders of Italian descent were unsung heroes of the victory. Yes, Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Paul Coffey were the leaders of that Cup run, but without the goaltending of Tom Barrasso and the pinch hit appearance of back-up Frank Pietrangelo, the Penguins never win that Stanley Cup. 

Pittsburgh lists a rich history of prominent athletes with Italian heritage. Let’s take a look at some of the Italian-Americans and Italian-Canadians who’ve played starring roles with Pittsburgh’s sports teams.

Hockey

Acquired from the Buffalo Sabres in 1988, Barrasso led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles. He set NHL playoff records for consecutive wins (14) and consecutive wins in one playoff year (11) while guarding the Pittsburgh goal. Barrasso is the NHL’s all-time leader in points by a goaltender (48).

When Barrasso was injured during the first round of the 1991 playoffs against the New Jersey Devils, his back-up Pietrangelo got the wins in Games 6 and 7 as the Penguins staved off elimination. In Game 6, Pietrangelo made what’s simply known in Pittsburgh hockey lore as “The Save,” reaching across to snare a shot for Peter Stastny when Stastny was left with a wide-open net. Pietrangelo shut out the Devils in Game 7.

“Barrasso, Buffalo Sabres”  by  Bennett/Getty Images  is licensed under CC BY 3.0 

Baseball

Best known as Yogi Berra’s son, Dale Berra was a versatile infielder. Berra was part of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1979 World Series-winning team. In 1983, he set a major-league record by reaching base on catcher’s interference seven times.

When the Pirates won the 1971 World Series, Dave Giusti was their closer. Utilizing his sinking palm ball, Giusti led the National League that season with 30 saves. He saved Game 4 of the Fall Classic against Baltimore and was named Sporting News reliever of the year. In 1973, Giusti was selected to play for the NL in the All-Star Game.

Though Venezuelan-born, catcher Francisco Cervelli is of Italian heritage. While with the Pirates from 2013-19, Cervelli represented Italy in the 2019 World Baseball Classic.

Pitcher Jason Grilli also played for Italy in the World Baseball Classic. The son of former big-league pitcher Steve Grilli, Jason’s 32 holds in 2012 were second-best among NL relief pitchers. He worked as the Pirates’ closer in 2013, saving 10 games in the month of April. Grilli was selected to play for the NL in the 2013 MLB All-Star Game, pitching a scoreless ninth inning as the NL won 3-0.

Football

Arguably the most famous Pittsburgh athlete of all-time and certainly among the most beloved to compete in the Steel City, running back Franco Harris joined the Steelers out of Penn State in 1972, just in time to be part of the first Pittsburgh team to make the NFL playoffs. 

In that postseason, he was part of the greatest play in Pittsburgh sports history and perhaps in NFL history, the so-called Immaculate Reception. With Pittsburgh down 7-6 to the Oakland Raiders, Terry Bradshaw’s desperation pass intended for Frenchy Fuqua was deflected by Oakland’s Jack Tatum and ricocheted directly into the waiting hands of Harris, who scampered for a touchdown. 

“The Steelers, Franco Harris”  by George Gojkovich/Getty Images is licensed under CC BY 3.0 

Harris was a four-time Super Bowl champion with the Steelers and was MVP of Super Bowl IX, the first Italian-American to be so honored. His Super Bowl career totals of 101 carries for 354 yards are records and his four career rushing touchdowns are tied for the second most in Super Bowl history. Harris is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Aldo Donelli won’t ring a lot of bells with Pittsburgh sports fans, but he holds a unique mark in football history. During the 1941 season, he coached the Steelers while also coaching Duquesne to an unbeaten season. He’s the only man in football history to simultaneously coach both an NFL and NCAA team.

Donelli also played international soccer for Team USA at the 1934 World Cup. During a 7-1 loss to eventual champions Italy, he scored the lone USA goal. He was inducted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1954.

No accounting of Pittsburgh’s Italian-American football heritage would be complete without mentioning Dan Marino. He quarterbacked the Pittsburgh Panthers to the 1983 NCAA National Championship.