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Old Art Rooney can smile broadly from his heavenly shrine

Dec 23, 2008 5:03 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

You may have thought the Pittsburgh Steelers lost on Sunday, 31-14, to the Tennessee Titans, and you may even have seen the game.

You’ve got the wrong score, however. The really important Steelers score last week was 31-0, in their favor, or at least in favor of their now principal owners, Dan Rooney, and his son Art Rooney II.

That was the unanimous vote of the 31 owners of National Football League teams, meeting in Irvine, Texas, a Dallas suburb, to approve the sale of the Steelers to a group headed by Dan and the latest Art. There also is an Art Jr., young Art’s uncle, and of course the patriarch of the clan, the original Art, dead 20 years now and still sorely missed in American sports.

Had Dan not negotiated a deal with his four brothers, or had the NFL owners not approved it, the Rooneys would have lost family control of the Steelers. The NFL insisted that Tim Rooney, principal owner of Yonkers Raceway, and his brothers Pat and John, who own the Palm Beach Kennel Club, had to divest themselves of their racetrack or sell their shares of the Steelers, even if the NFL probably has more money bet on its games on any given day than all of horse racing combined. Had the Rooneys been forced to sell to outsiders, Art – The Chief – would spin in his heavenly shrine.

He bought the Steelers 75 years ago with $2,500 of far larger winning bets on horses, and he must have worn a celestial smile last week when four of the boys – Tim, Art Jr., Pat and John – each took down $128 million or so for their shares of the sale to their older brother, with a Rooney still running the show. Each of the boys owned 16 percent of the team.

You had to know the original Art Rooney to fully appreciate this development.

He was the closest thing to a universally loved man to come down the pike.

That pike ran in a circle about 50 miles in diameter around Pittsburgh, Art’s home base and territory. From small towns around The Steel City came a small coterie of exceptional sports and entertainment figures who constituted an amazing club. They all were un-knockables, guys whom everyone liked, or more accurately perhaps, loved.

They included:

Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals, the beloved Stan the Man, from the town of Donora; Singer Perry Como, from Canonsburg; golf immortal Arnold Palmer from Latrobe, and football great Joe Namath, from Beaver Falls, who may have had a knock or two but belonged to the group on the basis of huge popularity and a giant personality.

Harness racing great Delvin Miller, from Avella, the only professional athlete ever to compete in eight different decades, from the 1920s to the 1990s also belonged to the group.

And of course Art Rooney himself, born in Coultersville, with a memory for names and faces matched only to my knowledge by former postmaster general Jim Farley and Michigan football star and later coach Forest Evashevski. Those three would astound acquaintances met years earlier with a quick and never failing recollection of their names and status.

A description of Arnold Palmer from his official biography tells the story of all of these unique, geographically related superstars. It read: "Beside the magnificent performance record, his magnetic personality and unfailing sense of kindness and thoughtfulness to everybody with whom he comes in contact have endeared him to millions throughout the world and led to the informal formation of the largest non-uniformed ‘military’ organization in existence – Arnie’s Army."

All of the men named had their own armies, attracted by the qualities described in Palmer. And they all knew how to smile, something forgotten by many of the overpaid athletes of today.

I have no idea if it is the water of western Pennsylvania, the air, or the contagion of friendliness, but all of the stars mentioned possessed those traits. None, however, could surpass Art Rooney for affability and friendliness. I flew to his funeral services in Pittsburgh in 1988, in St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church where he worshipped for almost 80 years. The church was packed and overflowing for blocks around, and Cardinal John Wright told why. "He’s the voice of the man on the street," he said.

Dan Rooney said his father told him, late in life, that it would be okay to sell the Steelers after he was gone. That idea was rejected by all five brothers, who had a chance to sell to a billionaire family friend for more money, but would have had to relinquish family control if they did. They knew The Chief would not have liked that, and neither did they.

It took them two years to strike their deal, but their dad can rest easy. And so, in its hypocrisy, can the NFL.