How a Pittsburgh Aviation Pioneer Influenced Jam Band Phish

‘Phish Heads,’ av geeks both know about Clifford Ball, but for far different reasons

By Jeff Martinelli

Published December 16, 2019

Read Time: 3 mins


The smallest of memorials at Pittsburgh International Airport commemorates a man whose impact on Western Pennsylvania aviation is possibly the biggest.

But improbably, his legacy took on a second life in the 1990s as he became the namesake to a three-day festival for one of the biggest jam bands ever.

Tucked away on the Mezzanine Level of the Airside Terminal, a bronze plaque for aviation pioneer Clifford Ball hangs in a place few visitors ever see. Why the plaque is in such an obscure area of the airport is anyone’s guess.

But a few travelers with time on their hands sometimes stumble across it. And Phish is part of that small group, having studied the plaque just after it was hung in the terminal in the early ’90s.

It was happenstance, and it could have been a trivial, forgettable incident: a music group spends a few moments reading a plaque while wandering around an airport.

But the story doesn’t end there. Because from Aug. 15-17, 1996, the band staged its first three-day festival on an airfield in Plattsburgh, N.Y, attracting more than 90,000 fans, and the event was called The Clifford Ball.

A promotional poster features event information for Phish’s “The Clifford Ball” music festival. (Image courtesy of Amazon)

“The band was walking through the airport in Pittsburgh,” Phish manager John Paluska told MTV in a report about the festival. “And they came upon a small, little plaque of a guy named Clifford Ball. It said ‘Clifford Ball: A beacon of light in the world of flight.’  They didn’t even know anything more than that, they just thought the [expression] was the funniest idea for a show. In fact, if we don’t tell someone, no one knows who Clifford Ball is.”

Earlier this month, the worlds of Phish and Clifford Ball had another near collision, as the band was in Pittsburgh on Dec. 4, at the Petersen Events Center at the University of Pittsburgh only five days after what would have been Ball’s 128th birthday on Nov. 29.

Was the selection of the tour date related to Mr. Ball’s birth? We don’t know, as the usually media-shy band declined a request for an interview for this story.

Jam band inspiration

Who was Clifford Ball? Perhaps the most integral player in the early days of aviation in the Pittsburgh area.

Ball was the owner of a McKeesport, Pa., auto dealership in 1919 when he took a ride in a barnstorming plane. That flight sparked an already strong interest in aviation for Ball, which eventually led to him building an airfield and airport.

A plaque dedicated to Clifford Ball is located on the Mezzanine Level of the Airside Terminal. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Not long afterward, Ball successfully lobbied local U.S. Congressman M. Clyde Kelly to author a resolution to permit private contracting of airmail service. After the passage of the Air Mail Act of 1925, Ball operated airmail routes between Pittsburgh and Cleveland and, eventually, one of the first commercial passenger airlines in the country in the late 1920s.

After selling his airline, Ball started several different enterprises, including the Pittsburgh School of Aviation. In 1952, Ball was named the first superintendent of Greater Pittsburgh International Airport, and in 1955 became the director of Allegheny County Airport.

Ball died on June 2, 1972, at the age of 81. He never saw Phish play.

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