Radio show regular ‘Chuck from Uniontown’ hangs on to every Pirates pitch
A Pirates flag, two crucifixes and framed photos of Roberto Clemente hang above his bed.
A radio — tuned always to the Pirates flagship station — sits nearby; an oft-used telephone is within arm’s reach on the nightstand.
“I try to call almost every night,” he says as he listens to a Pirates game against the Cubs in his Uniontown apartment. “I’ll settle down in bed so there’s nothing to interrupt me. If I don’t call, it’s usually because I fell asleep.”
During the game, he is Charles Conko, 62, son of the late Stephen Conko, who taught his boy to love the sport he would never play.
After the game, he is “Chuck from Uniontown,” a stalwart of Pittsburgh Pirates’ postgame radio shows for more than 25 years.
Chuck from Uniontown is known and loved — even by sometimes surly hosts on FM station 93.7 “The Fan” — as much for his baseball insights as his methodical, halting speaking style. Fans returning home from the game or listening on porches have come to expect to hear perhaps the Pirates’ most devoted fan.
“Sports talk shows are only as good as the callers,” Conko says. “First of all, there is never any need for any profanity. Gentlemen don’t do that. Keep it clean. Little kids listen to that. If I act rude or like a jerk, that’s how people will judge me. I keep it clean, keep it refined, and try to keep it interesting.”
He pauses and turns to the radio: Sean Rodriguez smacks a fly ball to center field. It clears the wall for a home run. Chuck from Uniontown nods.
“I don’t get to too many games because of my condition. So I try to stay involved, to try and participate, to any extent I can.”
As long as Conko can remember, he has loved baseball and the Pirates. But an early diagnosis of cerebral palsy (he has the use of one arm and poor eyesight) and a lifetime in a wheelchair assured he would never play.
His father, known for his positive outlook and devotion to his son, taught him about the game.
“I knew the names of all the players probably before I was in the first grade,” Conko said. “When I was 10, I wanted to be Roberto Clemente. Whenever I would talk to people, I’d start talking like the great Pirates announcer Bob Prince, and my mom would say, ‘all right, that’s enough.’ ”
Night after night, he and his dad sat together, talking baseball.
“Back then, you could sit on the porch and, up and down the street, you heard Bob Prince’s voice on the radio,” he said. “Even on nights when there was no game, I’d go to my dad and ask him about every stat. … I’m a Steelers and Pens fan, too, but I’m a baseball fan first.”
Again, he pauses: Gregory Polanco hits a double to score Josh Harrison, and the Pirates, after digging a 4-0 early hole, cut into the lead. It’s 4-2, and Chuck from Uniontown has hope.
Conko misses his dad, who died in 1981.
People who knew Stephen Conko used to joke that if Chuck lived to 100, Dad would find a way to live to 150, so he would be there to care for his son.
He misses his dad, but if dad hadn’t died, Conko might not have found independence. Mom used to say, “What if there’s a fire? What if he falls down? What would he do then?’ ”
So he stayed home. Until dad was gone.
“It’s something where you tell yourself, you have to move on,” Chuck says. “About a year after he died, I moved away. Nobody in my family ever thought I could do something like that.”
He became certified as a tax accountant. He prepares tax forms for dozens of loyal clients.
He got his first apartment in Swissvale. His new life was daunting at times, but Chuck told himself “not to conquer everything at once,” to take it one moment at a time, one task at a time.
“Every Saturday morning, my mom would call and I would answer and she’d say, ‘Well, he’s still alive,’ ” Conko says with a smile. Those calls ended in 2000 when she died at 88.
“This is what God gave me,” he says. “I have to deal with it. You have to be positive and do what you can do. Every morning, I go by myself to church, whether it’s raining or snowing or a heat wave.”
Once again, the radio catches his attention: Neil Walker hits a single to score Polanco, and the Pirates come back to win 5-4.
Chuck from Uniontown listens, making mental notes. Then he readies himself to call in and share his thoughts with legions of unseen friends.
Dad would be proud.