Why are our colors always black and gold for our sports teams? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Why are our colors always black and gold for our sports teams?

Question submitted by: Tom Baker

Well, let's face it: We're not the most adventurous people when it comes to fashion, and perhaps that's why our uniforms are so ... uniform. I know I've still got a few button-down short-sleeve office shirts, and from what I can tell so do a few of my neighbors. More than a few of us regard sports jerseys as appropriate business attire.


In fact, black and gold have been a fashion statement here since 1899, when a city ordinance was drafted to "establish flags and colors for the city of Pittsburgh." Apparently, there was no more pressing business for city government to do that year. And yet while the ordinance set out the colors as black and gold, there was little explanation as to why. Because they set off the mayor's eyes? Because they matched the drapes?


It's hard to say, but history suggests a few clues.


To some extent, the city's colors were borrowed from the city seal, a kind of municipal coat of arms. Pittsburgh's consists of a black shield beneath a three-towered castle. The shield is bisected with a blue-and-white checkered strip, and in each of the shield's three corners is a circle with a black eagle inside.


The seal was created in 1815, when the city Recorder was charged by City Council with the task of creating an official seal "as speedily as possible." So the recorder looked to a creative type who wasn't too busy and found him: an unemployed actor (who else?) known to posterity only as "Mr. Jones." Turns out that Jones knew a thing or two about heraldry -- hard to imagine a guy with such useful skills lacking for work, isn't it? -- and took a commission to design it.


Jones' idea was to base the seal on the family coat-of-arms belonging to the Earl of Chatham, known to us today as William Pitt. Apparently, if Pitt's name was good enough for the city to use, his coat of arms should be as well. Like the city seal, the Chatham coat of arms includes a black shield with a blue-and-white checkerboard pattern. It also sported three gold coins that, weirdly enough, Jones replaced with eagles, in the process removing any traces of gold from the symbol. Whether this was done for reasons of fashion -- given the city's plight these days, we could probably put vultures in there instead -- or not is a bit of a mystery. But in 1899 -- nearly 85 years after Jones fulfilled his commission -- the color gold reappeared.


No one's ever been able to say how or why. According to a 1926 speech to the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania that forms much of the basis for this article, historian Alexander Guffey noted that the city's real colors should be blue and silver -- the colors in the checkerboard. Those colors were the Chatham family's liveries, the scheme that household servants and vassals would wear. "Why then black and gold as suitable colors for the City of Pittsburgh?" Guffey asked.


Guffey couldn't really say. Maybe we didn't like the idea of being anybody's vassal. Maybe black and gold just look tough. Or maybe in some deep, instinctive way we realized that blue and silver were the colors of the Dallas Cowboys (shudder).


At any rate, the scheme stuck. As far as I can tell, Pittsburgh is the only city in the country where all of its major-league sports teams wear the same colors. But it wasn't always that way. The Penguins started out with uniforms of blue and white. This wasn't due to confusion about the penguin's coloration; according to Bob Grove's Pittsburgh Penguins: the official history of the first 30 years, the scheme was borrowed from a famed Canadian junior team, which perhaps didn't set the best precedent for a major-league team. It wasn't until 1980 that the long-suffering squad took to the ice in black-and-gold uniforms, perhaps in the hopes that people would confuse them for one of the city's more successful franchises.


But in general, once we've got a good thing, like a successful color scheme or a manufacturing base concentrated in primary metals, we tend to cling to it. Besides, someday these short-sleeve Oxfords are coming back. I just know it. And the steel mills too.

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