Every member of Jim Baker’s family understands the significance of Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception,” which handed the Steelers an improbable 1972 AFC divisional round playoff victory against the Oakland Raiders and set the franchise on a course toward four Super Bowl titles over the ensuing decade.

Considering Baker, now 76 years old, left Three Rivers Stadium 50 years ago Friday with his nephew concealing the football the Hall of Fame Steelers running back narrowly kept from hitting the frigid turf under his winter coat, that would seem unfathomable.

Baker’s grandson, Sam, upon seeing the Hope Diamond on a trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., more than a decade ago, drove that point home to his family’s patriarch.

“He said, ‘Grandpap, it’s the most valuable diamond in the world,’ ” Baker recalled of the conversation with his grandson about the 45.52-carat stone upon his return home from the nation’s capital. “He said to me, ‘Grandpap, you have the Hope Diamond of football. You have the most valuable football in the world, the most precious football,’ and I have to agree.”

So would all of Steelers Nation.

The football Baker has safeguarded for the past half-century is currently part of the Senator John Heinz History Center’s Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum exhibit “Franco Harris and the Immaculate Reception: 50 Years Later,” which commemorates what is widely considered the greatest play in NFL history — along with the life of the man who made it.

Jim Baker shows off the football used in the Immaculate Reception.

Harris died suddenly early Wednesday morning at the age of 72.

“I really believe it’s a special thing for the city of Pittsburgh,” said Baker, a lifelong West Mifflin resident. “I truly think it’s the most important, valuable thing in the whole museum.

“I’m happy I loaned it to them and they get to display it,” he added. “I’ve always agreed to share that football with the city of Pittsburgh and its fans, or no matter where they’re from, from around the world.”

In addition to the football, the exhibit includes artifacts culled from the collections of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, private collectors and the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, according to Anne Madarasz, director of the Curatorial Division, chief historian and director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.

“I like to say to people the exhibit we have is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” she said.

The Immaculate Reception football is scheduled to be returned to Baker Dec. 27, but the museum’s exhibit will remain otherwise intact and open to the public until January 2024, Madarasz said.

“His life has been defined by a football play that took 17 seconds, yet there’s so much more to the story,” she said of Harris. “He’s such an interesting, fascinating, generous, kind, humble, community-minded individual that it’s sort of great to have the opportunity not to look at those 17 seconds but to reflect on his life in detail.”

Harris will have his No. 32 retired by the Steelers as part of a ceremony in the team’s Saturday game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Acrisure Stadium.

That Harris will be memorialized on the 50th anniversary of the Dec. 23, 1972, play that has been immortalized in the annals of NFL lore is no coincidence.

Baker is also taking the opportunity to relish in the memory of the day that changed his life forever. He said he will certainly never forget sitting in the stands at Three Rivers Stadium with his nephew Bobby Pavuchak, who was just 14 years old in 1972.

“I took him to the game, and it was as cold as it is now,” Baker said. “We sat there the whole game losing, and of course it came down to the play, and everyone knows what happened after that.

“The only thing I could see was the ball going through the air, and the next thing we knew we saw Franco running into the end zone,” he added. “Everyone went crazy.”

On fourth-and-10 from their 40 with 22 seconds left in the game, Harris scooped up quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s pass intended for John “Frenchy” Fuqua that caromed off Raiders cornerback Jack Tatum back toward the line of scrimmage and scored the AFC divisional-winning touchdown. After the play, Baker and Pavuchak raced from their seats, onto the field and behind the goal post to await the extra-point try from kicker Roy Gerela.

When Gerela’s extra-point try sailed through the uprights, a melee ensued.

“They didn’t pull nets back then,” Baker said. “It hit the wall, came back, and I fought for it like fighting for a fumble when it hit the ground and eventually came off the bottom of the pile with the football out of all these people.”

Baker said he then knew exactly what to do.

“I said to my nephew, he was only 14, ‘Let’s run,’” Baker recalled. “So we ran as fast as we could to the other end of the stadium. At the other end of the stadium, I was still concerned about a big monster or some Pittsburgh Steeler getting it off of us, so I put it under his jacket, and we made it out of the stadium.”

After Baker and Pavuchak eventually made it home — and legendary Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope took a call on his postgame show from Sharon Levosky, who said her friend, Michael Ord, ordained the play the “Immaculate Reception” — a legend was officially born.

“To my family it’s most important of all that it’s the remembrance of my son who passed away,” Baker said of his son Sam, who died in 2005. “It’s Franco’s history, the city of Pittsburgh’s history, the Steelers history and my family’s history all wrapped up in one. I don’t think there’s anything out there as special as this ball.”

Baker has kept the ball safe over the decades in a renovated vault in the offices of his business, Baker Group, which has provided insurance and investment services in West Mifflin since 1976. The entrepreneur, who operates his business with his eldest son, Ben, said he is still unsure as to what will happen to the Immaculate Reception ball once he is gone.

“I’m 76,” Baker said. “Just like the game, I’m in the fourth quarter of life. The game was in the fourth quarter and I’m in the fourth quarter, but I hope I have more than (22) seconds left. We haven’t really decided what we are going to do with it.

“If I ever do anything with the football,” he added, “it will go to someone who will take care of it. It wouldn’t be just a collector or something.”

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at jsanta@unionprogress.com.

John Santa

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at jsanta@unionprogress.com.