Dapper Dan has been a man about town in Pittsburgh for nearly three-quarters of a century. Founded in 1936 by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports editor Al Abrams, the organization has evolved from a businessmen's sports club into one of the region's most recognizable pillars of charity with six fundraising events throughout the year.
The annual Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year Dinner has become the preeminent social event on Western Pennsylvania's sports calendar. The first banquet was in November 1936, six months after Abrams christened the new venture. He and his friends sold 437 tickets at $5 apiece for that first dinner and they pulled in $800, which was donated to the DePaul Institute in Brookline. Such outstanding Pittsburgh sports celebrities as Art Rooney, Jock Sutherland and John Harris spoke at the first banquet. A two-fisted tradition of sports entertainment and charity giving was born.
The name? It came from an off-hand remark by George "Red" Lai, a restaurant owner in Pittsburgh and one of Abrams' friends. Abrams and his group wanted to attract membership from the sportsmen and businessmen of Pittsburgh, men who were always dapperly dressed. "We could call them Dapper Dans," Lai said.
In the decades that followed, Dapper Dan's impact on the sports community was remarkable. The group staged the annual Dapper Dan Open professional golf tournament and brought championship prizefights to Pittsburgh, including the Ezzard Charles-Jersey Joe Walcott heavyweight title fight at Forbes Field in 1951 and the only Pittsburgh appearance of an up-and-coming heavyweight named Cassius Clay in 1961. That was the same year Dapper Dan co-sponsored the PGA Championship at Oakmont. Western Pennsylvania sports fans saw the stars of tomorrow at the annual Roundball Classic high school basketball all-star game and the Dapper Dan Wrestling Classic tournament. Dapper Dan also started and served as caretaker for the Pittsburgh Hall of Fame. All the while, the Sportsman of the Year award grew to be one of the nation's most prestigious honors, recognizing the local sports figure who shined the brightest light on Pittsburgh in the preceding year.
The 1990s saw Dapper Dan undergo dramatic and significant change. The club was re-christened as Dapper Dan Charities and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania was designated the primary beneficiary of the fundraising events. The money given to the Boys & Girls Clubs was earmarked for youth sports programs that would attract under-served urban youth into highly organized flag football, RBI baseball, basketball, hockey, field hockey, golf and wrestling leagues. The leagues currently serve more than 7,000 youth annually.
And, responding to the realities of the times, Dapper Dan decided to present both a Sportsman and a Sportswoman of the Year award at the annual dinner.
The mission has expanded far beyond what Abrams might have envisioned and the once-a-year sports dinner has spawned a year-long effort to raise money for the community's charity needs, but the philosophy has remained unchanged since inception in 1936: Give the ticket-buying public the biggest names in sports and the best in entertainment. "The rest," Abrams said, "comes easy."