Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. lived the American dream

Jan 27, 2009 5:03 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

If you like to read, and like sports – and I assume you do, or you wouldn’t be sitting in this congregation – I’ve got a gift for you.

It was a gift to me, arriving unannounced a week ago from Art Rooney Jr., son of one of my all time heroes – Art Sr., "The Chief," – the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers who play Arizona for the Super Bowl title next Sunday in Tampa.

The book is titled "Ruanaidh." You will have to take Art Jr.’s word that it is pronounced Ru Ah Nee, and is the Gaelic word for Rooney, as pronounced in the seacoast town of Newry, in Northern Ireland, where this remarkable clan began.

The family founders, James and Mary, crossed the Atlantic in a sailing ship near the end of the 1840s, like thousands of others escaping the potato famine in Ireland by heading to the new world of promise and opportunity. The Rooneys, like many others who traveled with them, wound up as coal miners and steel workers in western Pennsylvania.

Art Jr. takes the story from there, in this big and copiously illustrated book about his father. It is the most significant gift I can imagine for a son to memorialize a famous dad, although Art Jr. says he countermanded his father’s orders, quoting The Chief as saying, "If a book must be written about me, wait 30 years…for I touched all the bases."

Justifying his decision not to wait, Art Jr. says, "Sorry, Dad, I could only wait 18 …because I’m getting to be an old fogy myself."

Art Jr. writes about every aspect of the Rooney family. His description of his father buying the Pittsburgh Steelers is strangely brief, covering three sentences in a book of 484 pages. In a chapter called "Mongrels," he says, "In the middle of the Depression, AJR (as he refers to his dad throughout the book) scraped up $2,500 to buy an NFL franchise. He kept it going through continued hard times." And that was about it. No mention, either confirmation or denial, of the oft-told tale that Art Sr. bought the Steelers with winnings from a bet on horses.

The son acknowledges that habit fully, however, in other spots in the book, and spins fascinating tales of the Steelers themselves on page after page.

Concerning his dad’s gambling on horses, he has several family anecdotes. A favorite concerns his mother, who was a light social drinker at best, except for one huge celebration following a race at Monmouth Park where Art had a horse running. The horse won and, in Art Sr.’s words, "paid a buster." Art won more on his bet than the entire purse, and the family retired to a nearby restaurant to celebrate. Kass, Art Sr.’s wife, passed up her usual highball for a martini, drank it too fast, and fell into a zombie-like trance, staring straight ahead and unable to speak. Food and coffee solved the problem.

Art Jr. says that at some point in life – he is not sure exactly when – Art Sr. began to bet more money on grain futures than on racehorses. But before that happened, Art Jr. recounts how his brother Tim, president of Yonkers Raceway in New York, got his first name.

Art Sr. and his wife Kass were having lunch at Moore’s restaurant in New York. Tim Mara, owner of the New York Giants and a bookmaker on the side, came to their table and told Art that a certain horse was running at a certain track, and would Art like to place a bet?

Offhandedly, Art told him, "Yeah. Fifty on it to win."

Kass was furious, her son wrote. "When Mara left, she reminded Art Sr. that she was pregnant, and that fifty dollars was money they’d need, and that it was risky to be betting so much on a horse race."

Art sat silent for a while, but when the lecture continued, he told his wife, "Will you please stay out of my business. And I’m not betting fifty dollars. I’m betting fifty thousand."

The horse won. Mara returned to the table. Keep in mind this was in the 1940s, when 50 big ones were a mighty big hit for a bookmaker.

"I hate to do this to you," Rooney told Mara, but I’ll tell you what. If it’s a boy, we’ll call our baby Tim." In a nice touch, Tim’s daughter Kathleen married Tim Mara’s grandson Chris.

Art’s wife was pretty artful herself. When Art Jr.’s son asked what his grandfather did before he owned the Steelers, she told him he had an office in town.

"What did he do at the office?" the boy asked.

"Well, he had a lot of phones there."

"What did he do with the phones?" the kid persisted.

"He answered them," Kass Rooney said, and ended the conversation.

You will enjoy this book. It was self-published, the best of its kind we have seen. Click the ad on this page to find this book on Amazon.