Remember When: Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” Was Adopted by the Eventual World Series Champions

The four Sledge sisters who made up the R&B group Sister Sledge in their disco-era heyday—Kathy, Debbie, Joni, and Kim—were born and raised in Philadelphia. All four graduated from Temple University in North Philadelphia. Their first single “Time Will Tell” was written and produced by Marty Bryant, who was the road manager for the legendary Philadelphia vocal group The Stylistics. You just can’t get more Philly than Sister Sledge.

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So how did they end up helping the Philadelphia Phillies’ rival, the Pittsburgh Pirates, win the 1979 World Series?

To be fair, the only thing that Sister Sledge did to forge a lasting connection with the baseball team from Western Pennsylvania was to release the song that became their biggest hit—”We Are Family”—in the spring of 1979. Their greatest success just happened to coincide with the Pirates’ fifth and most recent World Series championship season. But the two juggernauts are forever linked because the Pirates’ veteran first baseman made an impulsive decision during a rain delay.

Sister Sledge to the Rescue

Everybody loves an underdog story, and just over a month into the 1979 season, the Pirates were looking like serious long shots for a championship. They had been one of the best teams in the major leagues over the preceding decade, but in each of their previous three seasons, they had finished in second place in the National League East Division behind the Phillies. By May 15, it looked as if the Pirates would be lucky to even finish second. They had a 12-18 record, sitting in fifth place out of six teams. They were nine games behind the Phillies, who were topping the division yet again.

The Pirates started to rebound in late May, but they faced a critical juncture as the calendar flipped to June. Though they won their final five games in May, they were making slow progress in the standings, trailing the first-place Montreal Expos by six games while occupying fourth place. Their June 1 home game against the San Diego Padres was delayed by rain, so while both teams and the fans were waiting for the contest to start, the strains of “We Are Family” filled the soggy stadium.

Willie Stargell, the Pirates’ slugger and veteran leader, called the press box and asked the team’s director of public relations to make an announcement that “We Are Family” was the official theme song of the 1979 Pirates. He obliged, and the Pirates had a song to rally around. As it turned out, the Pirates rallied against the Padres for a thrilling come-from-behind win that evening. Naturally, Stargell scored the winning run.

An Abrupt Change in Fortune

In less than three weeks, the Pirates climbed into second place, and over the season’s final three months, the team went on a 61-30 tear. Fans embraced the Pirates’ theme song, along with the team’s success, wearing “We Are Family” t-shirts and buttons (with “family” sometimes spelled “Fam-A-Lee”) and singing the song during the seventh-inning stretch. The Pirates clinched the division title on the last day of the regular season, and then went on to sweep the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Championship Series. And though they needed seven games to do it, they defeated the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.

A Home Run with Music Fans

“We Are Family” may have catalyzed the Pirates’ World Series run, but Sister Sledge had a massive hit on their hands even without the support of Pirates fans. It was already in the Top 5 of Billboard’s Hot 100 when Stargell made it the team’s theme song, and it peaked at No. 2 two weeks after that fateful evening. “We Are Family” hung around on the Hot 100 almost through the end of baseball’s regular season, dropping out for the week of September 8, after 19 weeks on the chart.

Both the “We Are Family” single and the album of the same name are notable for being among the first records to be written and produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards outside of their work with Chic. Rodgers and Edwards, along with Chic drummer Tony Thompson, also played on “We Are Family.” The song has been covered by numerous artists, and Babes in Toyland took their version to No. 22 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart in 1995. “We Are Family” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008, and in 2017, was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.

Mixed Emotions About Their Pirates Ties

The Pirates’ successes have been few and far between since 1979. They have reached the postseason just six times in the ensuing 45 years and advanced beyond the initial round of playoffs only once. They did not end their tenure at Three Rivers Stadium, where the team had played in 1979, on a winning note when they played their final game there in 2000, but Sister Sledge was there to sing the “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Though the sisters were happy the Pirates chose their song for inspiration, at least one of them had mixed feelings. In the aftermath of the Pirates’ championship, Kim Sledge told People magazine, “We appreciate our Phillies. They should have used our song.”

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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