How the Pirates chose 'We Are Family' in '79
Sister Sledge helped lead the Pirates to a World Series
A version of this story was originally published in October 2021.
The Pirates were just hoping the rain would stop and they could get out on the field. It was June 1, 1979, and their game against the Padres was delayed as rain pounded the Three Rivers Stadium turf. Pittsburgh had won five games in a row, but they were still sputtering out of the gate. After finishing just 1 1/2 games behind the Phillies the year before, Pittsburgh was 23-21 and in fourth place in the NL East -- six games back of the division leading Expos.
"We were one of those teams that always got off late. We’d start the season and get 14 games behind and come back and win eight out of nine," right fielder Dave Parker said over the phone. "It was one of those teams we knew it was going to happen."
Slow starters or not, and a roster loaded with All-Stars and future Hall of Famers -- this was not a night many wanted to come out to the ballpark. So, Willie Stargell, the vaunted leader of the team, made an executive decision: Usually one to lead by example or pull a player aside for a quiet word, Stargell knew something needed to be done to wake up the team. But what was it?
You can thank the rain for the answer. During delays, the ballclub would do one of two things: Either show the newest episode of "This Week in Baseball" on the scoreboard or, as they did this day, play the biggest hit songs. So, while the players chatted in the dugout, waiting for the game to get underway, Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" -- the No. 4 song on the Billboard charts that week -- blared over the speakers.
"Willie happens to be sitting at the far end of the dugout where the phones were at," reliever Kent Tekulve told me. "There was one phone for the bullpen. And there was one phone for the press box. Well, Willie just reaches up and grabs the press box telephone."
Joe Safety, the Pirates' PR director, answered the call.
"Joe, when this song is done," Stargell said, "I want you to make the announcement that this is the official Pirates clubhouse song."
Safety knew what to do. He told Stargell to hold for a second and he picked up another phone to call June Schaut, who ran game entertainment.
"Juney, put this one the centerfield board," Safety said. He then explained what he wanted in just the right font and just the right size:
"We Are Family
The Official Theme Song of the 1979 Pirates"
Joe picked the phone back up and told Stargell to look out to center field.
"Willie literally was on his back with arms and feet up in the air ... rolling around and laughing," Safety said, laughing himself.
The song did the trick. Trailing 8-5 heading into the bottom of the ninth, Pittsburgh stormed back with four in the bottom half for the win. Dave Parker hit a game-tying three-run home run and then, with the bases loaded, Lee Lacy drew a walk against Rollie Fingers to push Stargell across the plate for the victory.
It was their second consecutive walk-off victory and, though no one knew it at the time, the birth of a World Series champion.
Team theme songs are nothing new. The Red Sox had perhaps the earliest as the loyal Royal Rooters helped them to a World Series victory with some energetic and creative takes on the song "Tessie." In 2021, the team came together behind Robyn's "Dancing on My Own," due largely to its incessant playing by backup catcher Kevin Plawecki.
The 2015 Royals had Lorde's "Royals" and Fetty Wap's "Trap Queen." The Mets went with the Baha Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out" in 2000, with the band even performing at Shea Stadium before Game 4 of the World Series.
Despite their success, none of these ultimately became as intertwined with a team and a city like "We Are Family" did for the Pirates. But it almost didn't happen: Parker wanted a different anthem.
"We can win like this," Stargell told Parker while they were in the dugout. "We are going to make 'We Are Family' the team song."
"I wanted something a little more outlandish," Parker said.
His pick: "Ain't No Stopping Us Now," by McFadden and Whitehead. Dropped in April of '79, the song has become ubiquitous with sports teams over the years as an early Jock Jam.
"At that point in time, 'We Are the Champions,' 'Ain't No Stopping Us Now' -- those were throughout all sports," Tekulve said. "Those were kind of a universal rally -- especially 'We Are the Champions,' after you won the championship or whatever."
Though Parker, who often commanded the music in the clubhouse, didn't get his way, he wasn't upset about it.
"What Willie wants, Willie gets," Parker joked. "It was Willie’s team. I came and I took over Sgt. of Arms, but Willie was the main guy. Whatever he went with, we were all for it."
With the team on a roll -- taking over first place in August -- there was no going back. Sportswriters began referring to these Bucs as the "Family" or "Famalee" and fans were filling the park with homemade signs, tee-shirts and chants around the song.
By that time, the team had also dispensed with "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and was going with Sister Sledge's biggest hit.
"We just threw ['Take Me Out to the Ballgame'] out," Tekulve said. "Everybody in the ballpark now knew all the words. So, every seventh inning stretch, they're singing and yelling and everything else. And then it just got bigger and bigger."
The song reached a fevered pitch that October in the NLCS. After the Bucs took two narrow extra-innings victories against the Reds in Cincinnati, the best-of-five series headed to Pittsburgh for Game 3. With the Bucs up 6-1 heading into the bottom of the seventh, the stadium was in a frenzy when the loudspeakers started blasting their anthem.
And then Tekulve saw something that worried him: All the Pirates' wives were dancing and singing atop a raised platform behind home plate.
"I look across the field," Tekulve said, "And obviously, it's the Big Red Machine in that dugout. And I'm looking at [Johnny] Bench, I'm looking at Joe [Morgan]. They're all turned and got their heads watching what the wives are doing. And I'm thinking to myself, 'Hey, don't poke the bear. Leave them alone. We got them in a pretty good spot. Leave them alone. Don't give them something.'"
Fortunately, the game was too far out of hand for the Reds and their hurt feelings to make an impact. But the Bucs weren't taking any chances. Perhaps the Orioles would use something like that as motivation in the next round.
"So, we made sure that [our wives] knew by the time we got to the World Series, there would be no more dancing in the seventh inning stretch," Tekulve said with a laugh. "Maybe we should have. We won only one out of those three [home] games in the World Series."
After coming back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Orioles in seven games, the Pirates returned to Pittsburgh as heroes. Some 1,200 fans lined up outside the airport to greet them (while another 7,000-8,000 partied in downtown Pittsburgh). Sure enough, "We Are Family" was pumping through the loudspeakers as Parker carried the World Series trophy off the plane.
"Earlier, someone asked me if The Family was overrated," Stargell said that night. "That bothered me because this person didn't live with us and didn't see how much we depended on each other. There's really no words to put into the way I feel. We had to scratch, we had to crawl, and we did it together because we are family.
We didn't mean to be sassy or fancy, but we felt the song typified our ballclub."
In all the decades since, it's something that has yet to be matched. No team or city has come together to rally under a single song in such a way. Safety, who would later go on to run PR for the Yankees and the NBA's Clippers, spent the next 40 years of his professional life trying to do it again.
"I've been searching for it ever since," Safety said. "I try not to use these mystical, magical descriptive terms, but something crazy happened."
Oddly enough, Sister Sledge never learned that their song had been adopted by the Pirates until they were on tour in Germany while the World Series was going on back in the States.
"We did a TV show in Hamburg and we were on our way back to the hotel, listening to the international news," Kim Sledge said. "The announcer was talking about the fifth game of the World Series. We couldn't believe it when he said there were 50,000 people at the World Series screaming 'We Are Family.'"
Unable to make it back to the States, the band sent the team flowers with a telegram that said, "Good luck from Sister Sledge."
It wasn't just the Pirates who benefited from the partnership -- the band got a big boost, too. When the Pirates adopted the track, it had been on the charts for six weeks, never going higher than fourth. Two weeks later, it was the No. 2 song in the country, en route to becoming certified gold.
Bobby Clark, Atlantic Records' area promoter at the time said that the single probably sold about 35,000 copies in the city when it was first released and moved another 10,000 or so units during the postseason.
“It’s a miracle," Kathy Sledge said after the season. "We thought the song had made as much noise as it ever would. Then the Pirates came along.”