Rooney, Arthur Joseph, Sr. ("Art")

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ROONEY, Arthur Joseph, Sr. ("Art")

(b. 27 January 1901 in Coulterville, Pennsylvania; d. 25 August 1988 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League (NFL) and one of the most beloved figures in American sports who persevered long enough to see his team shed its "lovable losers" label and establish a Super Bowl dynasty in the 1970s.

Rooney, the oldest of the eight children of Daniel M. Rooney, a tavern owner, and Margaret Murray Rooney, a homemaker, grew up in Pittsburgh's Northside in a predominantly Irish ward. Rooney spent his childhood not far from where his Steelers eventually ruled the pro football world from Three Rivers Stadium. Rooney lived all his adult life in a sturdy but not ostentatious Victorian house, from which he walked to his Three Rivers office everyday, even in his seventies and eighties.

As youngsters Rooney and his brothers, especially Dan Rooney, were fine all-around athletes. They formed the core of a semipro football team, the Hope-Harveys, that was good enough to play Jim Thorpe and the Canton Bulldogs in the era before the National Football League (NFL). Art Rooney was a minor league baseball player and a skilled boxer, an Amateur Athletic Union welterweight and middleweight champion. He qualified for the 1920 U.S. Olympic boxing team, although he did not participate in the games. He played football at Duquesne Prep, Georgetown, Indiana State Normal School (now Indiana University of Pennsylvania), and Duquesne University but did not complete his degree work.

In his early twenties Rooney developed a fondness for horse racing and became an expert handicapper. He seldom had a losing day at the track. Racing and football legend has it that one unbelievable weekend allowed Rooney to buy the Pittsburgh franchise in 1933. The numbers are a little fuzzy, depending on who is telling the story, but it is generally accepted that the weekend at New York's Empire City and Saratoga Springs tracks netted him between $250,000 and $350,000 at the height of the Great Depression. Upon arriving home, Rooney told his wife, Kathleen McNulty, "We'll never have to worry about money again." After they married in 1925, he and his wife had five sons.

The NFL was founded in 1920, but "blue laws" that prohibited professional sports on Sundays in Pennsylvania prevented either Philadelphia or Pittsburgh from having a franchise in the league in the early years. In 1933 the political climate was such that the November election would surely see the repeal of the archaic laws. Knowing a good bet when he saw one, Rooney paid the $2,500 franchise fee and became an NFL team owner. The success he had at various racetracks eluded him with his football team. Known as the Pirates from 1933 to 1939 and the Steelers after that, the team was usually the league doormat, finishing last or close to it for forty years. Rooney was always popular with the press, and when the team got new uniforms at training camp, a writer mentioned how good the team looked. A realist, Rooney replied, "They look like the same old Steelers to me." When they started playing games, the results were the same. In Pittsburgh "S.O.S." took on a new meaning. As the team lost game after game, year after year, fans and the media voiced their feelings, "S.O.S.—same old Steelers."

Rooney, it was said, was "just too nice a guy" to ever be a winner in the NFL. For four decades that seemed a valid assessment. Rooney had a penchant for hiring coaches who shared his love of the racetrack. It was said he kept them employed as the only means of being repaid the money he lent them to play the horses (and mostly lose). Rooney said this about the constant losing: "They say losing never bothers me. That's foolishness. I keep a lot to myself when we lose, but you'd better believe I hurt inside every time. When we lose, I don't want to talk about it and I don't want to read about it." That was the rule in the Rooney household, that after a loss no one mentioned the Steelers for two days. The Rooney home experienced many silent Mondays and Tuesdays. Rooney was elected to the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1964, its second year of existence.

The Steelers' fortunes began to change in 1969. Rooney, who had turned over much of the team's operation to his sons Dan Rooney and Art Rooney, Jr., told them, when hiring a new coach, "put friendship at the bottom of the list." Chuck Noll was known by reputation only, but it was a good reputation. He was hired, and the Steelers' fortunes, after a 1–13 start, began to soar. They won the Super Bowl in 1975, 1976, 1979, and 1980. No one was more pleased than the NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle when he handed "the Chief," as Rooney was affectionately known, his first Super Bowl trophy.

Though quietly proud of the Steelers' success, the Chief, unlike many other NFL owners, never wore it on his sleeve, and he declined media guide offers of cover photographs and biographical sketches. The only time Rooney's name appeared was as president on the quarter-page team directory. After the long-awaited first Super Bowl victory, Rooney placed a call to the Steelers' office from New Orleans, the site of the game, the next day. An enthusiastic receptionist answered, "Good morning, Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl champions." The following day Rooney checked in again, and when he was greeted the same way he simply said, "That was OK yesterday, but we don't need to say that anymore."

Though he turned over the operations of the team, Rooney continued to go to his office everyday. He suffered a stroke at his stadium office in mid-August 1988 and passed away two weeks later from the stroke's complications with his family at his side. His beloved wife had died in 1982. Rooney is buried in Pittsburgh's Northside Catholic Cemetery. Public donations funded a statue of him that was moved from Three Rivers Stadium to the Steelers' new playing site in 2001. A street near the new stadium is named Art Rooney Avenue. Commissioner Rozelle said at Rooney's passing: "It is questionable whether any sports figure was ever more universally loved and respected. His calm, selfless counsel made him a valuable contributor within the NFL, but he will better be remembered by all he touched for his innate warmth, gentleness, compassion, and charity."

Rooney was truly "a man of the people." His friends were industrial giants and Damon Runyon types. He always had coins (later bills) for kids he passed as he walked to work. He was what is known as a "soft touch." A writer once said of him: "What Art Rooney did for the NFL is well-documented. What he did anonymously for his fellow man may never be fully known."

Rooney's life and career are discussed in Myron Cope, The Game That Was (1970); Joe Tucker, Steelers' Victory After Forty (1973); Ray Didinger, Great Teams, Great Years: The Pittsburgh Steelers (1974); and Tucker, Steelers Super Dynasty (1980). An obituary is in the New York Times (26 Aug. 1988).

Jim Campbell