Pittsburgh challenging Baltimore’s literary superiority

May 2, 2014

Baltimore’s Orioles played Pittsburgh’s Pirates this week in interleague competition at Camden Yards. Not certain who won, or if they even made their games in the midst of a rainy week.

Regardless, I’m a Baltimore fan. Have been all my life. But I like Pittsburgh too. Both cities have a grit that appeals to me, but lots of sophistication too. They both have great waterfronts, great universities and medical schools. And their football and baseball teams are often in the championship mix. Though the Birds and the Bucs don’t play each other often, the Ravens and the Steelers get after it regularly on the gridiron. The rivalry is as solid as steel and flavorful as a crab cake spiced liberally with Old Bay.

But when it comes to literary tradition, big Pittsburgh authors David McCullough and Annie Dillard - while putting a special shine on the steel city - have a ways to go to eclipse Baltimore’s deeper history, which includes superstar names like H.L. Mencken, Edgar Allen Poe, Anne Tyler, Gertrude Stein and Frederick Douglass.

So Baltimore, which named its current football team after Poe’s famous poem by the same name, prides itself on a literary bent.

When Robert Irsay secreted away the city’s beloved Colts and all of their equipment on tractor-trailers in the middle of the night, one Baltimore wag printed up bumper stickers invoking the folksy spirit of cowboy philosopher Will Rogers. Rogers is famous for saying he never met a man he didn’t like. The bumper sticker, pasted on cars all over the city, proclaimed: Will Rogers Never Met Bob Irsay.

When I was in Pittsburgh last summer, I was marveling over a city rebuilding itself after its steel mills fell on hard times during the second half of the 20th century. Gone is the sooty smog that meant the mills were going strong, but which also made businessmen have to change their white shirts at lunchtime. Instead, the Pittsburgh skyline gleams now with the shining towers of the Oz-like Pittsburgh Plate Glass building and other tall buildings housing students, Google offices and medical facilities. But I didn’t notice any clever bumper stickers or other popular manifestations of Pittsburgh wit.

I was just about to conclude that Pittsburgh should stick with steel and charred steaks when Cape Gazette Editor Trish Vernon waltzed in this week after an Easter trip to her hometown where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers join forces to become the Ohio.

There, emblazoned on the T-shirt she wore, was proof that Pittsburgh can compete very ably in print, as well as on the field. Total Baltimore literary superiority? “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’”

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