By Valerie Grash, FoolishPleasure
On February 1, the Pittsburgh Steelers will attempt to
become the first professional football team to win 6 Super Bowl titles-the
"Six-Pack" as folks are calling it here in Western Pennsylvania (personally, I think
"One for the Thumb" had a much better ring to it).
Since the Golden Era of the 1970s, when Hall of Fame players
like Terry Bradshaw, "Mean" Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris, Mel
Blount, Jack Ham, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann and "Iron" Mike Webster played,
the Steelers have enjoyed great success, but that hadn't always been the case.
The fifth-oldest NFL franchise endured over 40 years without
a championship season, yet its team founder Art Rooney Sr.-"The Chief," as
Pittsburghers know him-and his family never gave up, committed as they were to
their hometown. However, many folks don't realize that the Pittsburgh Steelers
may never have existed, or at least survived all those hard financial times
(pre-network television contracts, sold-out stadia, and merchandising),
On July 8, 1933, Art Rooney Sr. paid the $2,500 NFL
franchise fee founding the Pittsburgh Pirates (they were renamed the Steelers
in 1940), allegedly from racetrack winnings. Being raised above his father's
saloon on Pittsburgh's
North Side, Rooney was no stranger to bookies and horse players, and apparently
demonstrated significant prowess as horse player. The franchise fee story has
become legend, but it was a much bigger score in August 1936 that allowed the
team to remain in the black (and gold).
The Chief's son Art Rooney Jr., in his 2008 self-published
(Gaelic spelling of "Rooney"), discusses those two fateful days in 1936:
"AJR was born to play
the horses...in 1936, in two days at two tracks in New York, he made a killing that people
talked about for years. Talked about and wrote about. Joseph Madden, a New York
saloonkeeper with literary aspirations, was the first to record the details.
They appeared in his book of memoirs, "Set ‘Em Up." Under the caption "Rooney's
Ride," John Lardner re-told the story in his Newsweek column. Other accounts
followed, all describing how AJR picked as many as eleven straight winners in
that two-day spree and won an indeterminate amount of money which may have
totaled upwards of $380,000. Roy Blount, in his book about the Steelers and the
Rooneys, said it was ‘probably the greatest individual performance in the
history of American horse-playing.' Nobody since has disagreed." (p. 37)
Art Rooney's winning streak began on an August Saturday
afternoon at the Empire City track (later Yonkers
harness track, which his sons purchased in 1972), and ended upstate on Monday
Rooney's first bet was $8,000 on 8-1 longshot Quel Jeu (the then-six-year-old
1932 Remsen Handicap winner eventually won 25 races in 140 lifetime starts) who
won in a photo finish, and it was the first of five long-shots he hit among his
seven (on an eight-race card) winners. Exactly how much money Art Rooney won
that day hasn't been revealed, although every source agrees it was in excess of
$100,000. In his book My Turf
, Bill Nack quotes Saratoga bookmaker Reggie
Halpern who claims, "Art Rooney won six
straight races here and walked out of the betting ring with $105,000. I know. I
took some of the action."
However, in his book Art Rooney Jr. says:
"Madden and Lardner
wrote that AJR cleared $256,000 at Saratoga
that day. AJR told me it was more, but did not say precisely how much more. A
friend of his, the director of racing at our Yonkers
track, put the figure at $380,000. Other estimates are higher. Whatever he won,
and the officials at Saratoga offered him a Brink's armored truck to carry the
money back to New York City, he won it at a time when working men were
supporting wives and children on as little as twenty dollars a week." (p.
It wasn't to be the last of Rooney's big scores. As Gene
over at EquiSpace noted recently, Time magazine reported on a $100,000 score at Aqueduct in
September 1937 (although the Temple University Libraries Urban Archives reports
the figure was $300,000-a photo of Rooney at the track is viewable here.
With his race track winnings, Art Rooney kept his
financially-struggling football franchise afloat-the 1930s Pirates never had a
winning season, and it wasn't until 1974 that they won their first
championship. In his essay on Rooney, sports historian Bob Ruck mentions that
the Steelers' early difficulties may even have been attributable in part to The
Chief's love of horse racing, as Rooney admitted:
"Although I understood
the football business as well as anybody in the league, I didn't pay the
attention to the business that some of the other owners gave it. I was out of
town a great deal of the time, at the racetracks. With me, the racetrack was a
big business. And generally I'd have a head coach who was like me-he'd like the
races." (pp. 256-257)
The quintessential Irishman-who also loved boxing in
addition to horse racing-Art Rooney had a wonderful sense of perspective and
good humor. The Post-Gazette article relays the following example:
"According to one
story, a priest came and asked Rooney for money to help start a Catholic
orphanage. Rooney peeled off $10,000 and handed it to the priest, who asked,
‘Are these ill-gotten gains?'
‘Why no, father, I won
that money at the race track,' Rooney said."
A regular attendee at the Kentucky Derby and Irish Derby,
Rooney scaled back his betting on thoroughbred racing when the pari-mutuel
system replaced bookmakers, according to his son. However, he and his family
continued their involvement in the sport, as breeders and owners since 1948 of
thoroughbreds (until the 1980s) and standardbreds through their Shamrock Farms
in Woodbine, Maryland, and their ownership of Yonkers Raceway, where The Chief's
third son Tim has served as president since 1972.
William Nack. My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood Money and The
Sporting Life (Da Capo Press, 2003) p. 25.
Rob Ruck. "Art Rooney and the Pittsburgh
Steelers" in Randy Roberts, ed., Pittsburgh
Sports: Stories from the Steel City (University
of Pittsburgh Press, 2000) pp.
Art Rooney Jr., with Roy McHugh. Ruanaidh: The Story of Art Rooney
and His Clan. (Self-published by Art Rooney Jr., 2008) pp. 36-38.
Gary Tuma. "From the PG Archives: Steelers' Art Rooney in
Retrospect" (reprint on August 26, 1988 obituary story). Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette. October 14, 2007. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07287/825373-66.stm
Caryl Velisek. "Shamrock in Winfield One of Top Maryland Breeders" from Horsin' Around, A Special
Supplement to the Delmarva Farmer Newspaper. June 24, 2003. http://www.americanfarm.com/horsin6-24-03c.html