Every Steeler fan
knows the story or how Art Rooney, the founder of their great team,
funded the purchase of his football franchise in 1932 by a win on the
horses. It was suggested that he won $250,000 - which is a lot of money
today, let alone all those years ago. Fortunately for Steeler fans, Mr.
Rooney decided to invest his winnings in a pro football team.
Mr. Rooney was
born in Coultersville, Pennsylvania, east of Pittsburgh on January 27,
1901. "My mother's people were all coal miners and my father's people
were all steel workers," Mr. Rooney remarked. "They all worked in the
Mr. Rooney's roots
were always important to him, and he did not stray far from them. "We
lived on the second floor of my father's saloon - Dan Rooney's saloon,"
he said. "He owned it for years and years. It was a rough neighbourhood,
in a way, but in those days kids were on the playground from the time
the sun came up to the time it came down. We played baseball and
football and boxed." Mr. Rooney's boyhood home above the bar was on a
site where Three Rivers Stadium now stands.
Baseball was Art
Rooney's first love and when he founded his pro football team he called
them the Pirates. He changed their name in 1941 because his club was
getting confused with the baseball team. "We figured Steelers was the
proper name because Pittsburgh is the steel capital of the world." It
was back then anyway.
"We all knew and
loved the Chief," said Sophie Masloff, the mayor of Pittsburgh. "He
stopped to talk to everyone. To Art Rooney, everyone he met was someone
special. He made you feel important."
Jack Lambert, "My
fondest memory of playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers was the twinkle in
Arthur J. Rooney's eyes. When we pass the statue, we will be forever
reminded of that twinkle."
"This remarkable and grand man has made a lot of special times for all
of us. He was always there to help and to give. And this feeling
filtered down to the players. I think the Steelers' players give more to
their community than any other team in professional sport."
line from Jim O'Brien's book, "Doing It Right."
For more information on the books Jim O'Brien
has written on the Steelers, please write to him at
James P. O'Brien Publishing, P.O. Box 12580, Pittsburgh, PA 15241.
When Art Rooney
died ten years ago aged 87, County Commissioner Tom Foerster said,
"Normally, you introduce the mayor of any city as that city's number
one citizen. But everyone knew Mr. Rooney was our number one citizen.
I'm fully convinced he did more for this city than R.K. Mellon did for
the business community and David Lawrence and any of the mayors who
followed him, including Richard Caliguiri, did politically." Nothing
has happened since to change the perception.
If anything, Mr.
Rooney is remembered more fondly. He represented a kinder, gentler
Pittsburgh, certainly a more innocent time in the professional sports
world. He came long before talk of Plan B, PNC Park, personal seat
licenses, $17.6 billion television contracts, $25 million contracts for
players and $2 million salaries for coaches.
"I don't think
he's be too thrilled about what's going on today," said Dan Rooney who
has run the Steelers since his father's death. "I can remember him
telling me, 'You'll rue the day you take all the money from the
networks. It won't be our game as much anymore. It'll be their game. He
even told us late in his life that it would be OK if we ever decided to
sell the team. He reminded us we weren't big money people."
"This isn't well
known, but towards the end of hid life, one of his great desires was to
own a minor league baseball team. He thought it would be neat to be
involved with young, hungry kids on their way up." That's one of the few
wishes Art Rooney failed to realise.
He did it all his
life, from his days as a rough, tough - yes even brawling - rogue in the
1920s to his final years as a kind, saintly beloved figure. He loved his
family, was loyal to his Catholic faith and cherished his friends. He
won big at the race track and even bigger with the Steelers, at least in
the glorious 1970s. He liked politics - his family says he probably
rolled in his grave when his grandson, Art II, turned down a chance to
be a U.S. senator in 1991 - and loved his cigars. He even had a fondness
for newspaper people.
"He's the voice of
the man in the street," the late Cardinal John L. Wright once said of
Mr. Rooney, who went to his grave considering that one of his greatest
compliments. There are tributes to Mr. Rooney everywhere.
There's the Art
Rooney Statue, built with donations of more than $371,000 raised in nine
months at gate D of Three Rivers Stadium. There's the Rooney Dormitory
at St. Vincent College, the Rooney Hall at Indiana University of
Pennsylvania and Rooney Field at Duquesne University. There's the Rooney
Middle School on the North Side, and the Rooney Scholarship for North
Side students, the Rooney Catholic Youth Association Award, the Rooney
5K race and the Rooney Pace at Yonkers racetrack. And coming to the
North Side in 2001, almost certainly will be the Art Rooney Stadium.
But if you ask the
Rooney family members how Art Rooney would like to be remembered,
they'll mention the famous NFL United Way television commercial. He was
filmed late in his life surrounded by children at Three Rivers Stadium.
He thought that represented the best of not just the Steelers and the
league, but also Pittsburgh. He was always proud to call himself "
a Pittsburgher" because, as he once said, "If you ask a Pittsburgher
where some place is, he'll stop and tell you, and if he has nothing to
do, he will take you there."
The family also
talks about the memorial plaque in the vestibule at St. Peter Roman
Catholic Church on the North Side, Mr. Rooney's parish for almost 80
years. "A man of unfeigned charity," the tribute reads.
postcards from Mr. Rooney were considered treasures. Billy Sullivan, the
late owner of the New England Patriots, recalled receiving one in 1984
concerning former Steelers running back Greg Hawthorne, who had joined
the Patriots. "I got to know the young man," Mr. Rooney wrote. "He's a
fine human being who can contribute to the success of any team." "I went
into the locker room and showed it to Greg," Sullivan said. "Tears came
to his face."
Tampa Bay's coach
Tony Dungy, who played for the Steelers from 1977-78, has a similar
memory. "When I got traded to San Francisco, Mr. Rooney sent a letter to
my mom saying how proud he was to have had me on the team. I was only a
backup there for a short time, but that letter was thrill for my
parents. He did that kind of stuff all the time."
Gerald Ford once
pushed through a crowd to meet Mr. Rooney. Tip O'Neill was a friend.
Lawrence Foerster was a friend and politician James J. Coyne were among
his closest confidants. Frank Sinatra used to send him cigars regularly.
But you didn't
have to be powerful or rich to be Mr. Rooney's pal. "He always used to
remind us that he wasn't a big shot and we weren't either," said Dan
Rooney, the eldest of Mr. Rooney's five sons.
Shortly before Mr.
Rooney Sr. died, a black man approached Dan and Art Jr. at Mercy
Hospital, claiming to be their father's "best friend." The sons didn't
know him, but they listened raptly as he explained he was a porter at
the airport. It turned out he used to handle Rooney Sr.'s luggage. "He
really thought he was my dad's best friend," Rooney Jr. said. "That's
how The Chief made him feel. He always had the knack with people."
Ralph Giampaolo, a
long time member of the Three Rivers Stadium ground crew who died in
1990, used to tell a wonderful Rooney story. He was hospitalised for
three months in 1987 after a kidney transplant. Rooney offered to help
with the medical bills. He visited once a week and regularly sent fruit
baskets. He made sure Giampaolo's widowed mother had a ride to and from
But it was a
chance meeting at Rooney's dog track in Palm Beach that Giampaolo always
remembered. Mr. Rooney found out he was there and invited him up to his
box, where he and his wife Kathleen, were having dinner with
sportscaster Curt Gowdy and his wife. "I'll never forget the way he
introduced me," Giampaolo recalled. "'This is Ralph Giampaolo, a member
of our organisation.' Not a member of our ground crew. Not some
rinky-dink bum. But a member of our organisation. As far as Gowdy knew,
I was vice president of the team. Mr. Rooney made me feel 10 feet tall."
Dan Rooney laughed
when he heard that story. "He loved the ground crew guys. He used to
yell at me for not taking the free little bottles of whiskey when I flew
first class. He mad me bring them back for [head groundskeeper] Dirt
DiNardo to give to his men." Dan Rooney said he hears new stories
about his father all the time.
When he attended
the funeral of Mary Roseboro, his dad's long time housekeeper, he was
cornered by Evans Baker Jr., the funeral director at Jones Funeral Homes
in the Hill District. He's the nephew of Cum Posey, who ran the
Homestead Grays," Dan Rooney said. "He just wanted to tell me how the
Chief helped keep the team going financially. I had heard bits and
pieces about that over the years, but to hear it in such detail was
amazing. My father really was a man of the people."
Williams once told me my father was friends with every hoodlum in
America," Dan Rooney said. "The Chief wouldn't have been insulted.
People were people to him. He always said he wasn't a saint, that he
touched all the bases in life."
Art Rooney's love
for the race track - he took his wife to Belmont Park for their
honeymoon - is legendary. Not so well known was his willingness to use
his fists for a good cause. According to family lore, Rooney was dining
one night in the late 1920s at Luchow's in New York City when he and the
other patrons were disturbed by a very big and very loud drunk. Rooney
quieted him, befriended him, even brought him several drinks. Finally
when the man was good and soused, Rooney taught him a lesson about
manners by giving him a thorough whipping.
"I just want to
thank you for what you did because that lout had been bothering people
in here for too long," another patron told Rooney before shaking his
hand and introducing himself. It was Al Smith, the governor of New York
and later a presidential candidate. "My father could be so tough," Dan
Rooney said. "He always taught us, 'Treat people the way you want to be
treated.' But then he would add, 'But never ever allow them to mistake
your kindness for weakness.'"
Mary Regan was Art
Rooney's secretary from 1952 until he died on August 25th, 1988. She
said, that like Dan Rooney, a day doesn't go by when she doesn't think
of Mr. Rooney. She still visits his statue at least twice a week. Her
desk at Steelers headquarters is just outside his old office, which has
been converted into the team library.
Each day when she
sits down and looks up, she sees him staring back at her from a huge
portrait, a big smile on his face, a cigar in his hand. She figures
she's the luckiest person in the place. "People say to me that he
sounded too good to be true," Mrs. Regan said. "But he was the genuine
thing. He wasn't a saint on earth or anything like. He was just a good,
wonderful man." Even if he slept in occasionally.
Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette August 30th, 1998