Things Bigger Than Football: The Chief
Recently Dan Rooney and his wife were honored by the United Way for their four decade involvement with the local United Way. You can read Teresa Varley’s article about it here. This got me to thinking about the many members of the Steelers organization who give back to their community. Generally I’ve focused these sorts of articles on players, and I will do that in later posts.
But today I want to feature the founding member of the franchise. I started to write about the whole family, but there’s just too much to cover in a single article. And where better to begin than the founder?
Being a part of the local community is a concept embedded in the heart of the organization for many years. I recounted recently the story of Art Rooney I and his predilection for hanging out with the groundskeepers. It is a small window into the heart of a man full of contradictions.
Some of these were beautifully brought out in an article by Gary Tuma of the Post-Gazette, published the day after The Chief died. I’m going to bring out a few points of the article which particularly caught my attention, but I definitely recommend reading the whole thing, which can be found here.
Rooney was the eldest child of Dan Rooney. A gifted athlete, he twice turned down the offer of a football scholarship to Notre Dame from Knute Rockne. He played baseball in the minor leagues but an arm injury ended the hope of a career. He was offered a place on the Olympic Boxing team in 1920, but didn’t accept. He did, however, frequently win money by fighting carnival boxers. He only ever worked a “real” job for a half a day during his entire lifetime—he took a job at a steel mill, but left at lunchtime, and didn’t even go back for his paycheck.
His other business activities were on what might be said to be the fringes of respectability, at least at the time. He went in with a friend to form the General Braddock Brewing Company, which made Rooney Beer, at a time just prior to Prohibition, when there was a groundswell of concern about the affects of drinking. (His father was a saloon keeper as well as a brewer, so that wasn’t likely to concern The Chief.)
He made one minor sally into the world of politics, from which he emerged unscathed. The story is so marvelous, here it is just as Tuma gave it:
Rooney also made one reluctant venture into politics in the mid-30s when the Republican Party persuaded him to run for Allegheny County register of wills. In his only speech, he said “I don’t know anything about running the office, but if I win, I’ll hire somebody who does.” He was not elected, but his unique speech drew mention in Time Magazine.
I definitely would have voted for him. A combination of candor and humility is something so rare in politicians that I would be tempted to put my life on hold and campaign for such a one.
Although Rooney had a number of sporting ventures, including several semi-professional football teams, they didn’t raise enough money to pay their own way, and after purchasing the Steelers for $2,500 Rooney kept the team solvent for many years with his racetrack winnings. Much of the money was made in one epic string of bets.
And here’s the beauty of Art Rooney. Some of the money from that windfall went to support his family. Some went to support his teams. And some of it went to the support of an orphanage in China, where his brother Dan was a missionary. As Tuma said:
Other stories of Rooney’s generosity are legendary. He donated large sums to numerous charities. According to one story, a priest came and asked Rooney for money to help start a Catholic oprhanage. 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.
Longtime Pittsburgh sportswriter Pat O’Brien told the following story about The Chief:
When the senior Rooney’s wife died, a friend was at the funeral home and encountered a high school classmate whose father had died and was being shown at the same funeral parlor.
The man went to the other room to pay his respects to the classmate’s father and noticed that there were few flowers and few names in the guest book. After the man returned, Art Rooney Sr. asked where he had gone; the Steelers owner went immediately to the other room and learned that the dead man was a retired city firefighter named McNamara. Later, when an Allegheny County commissioner and the Pittsburgh mayor arrived to pay their respects to Mrs. Rooney, Rooney Sr. told them, “Be sure to go back and offer your condolences to our friend McNamara,” O’Brien said.
When a florist’s deliveryman arrived at the funeral home with both arms loaded with floral tributes to Mrs. Rooney, her widower told him, “Mrs. Rooney has enough flowers. Take these back to Mr. McNamara.” The next day, the observer related to O’Brien, “The room looked like Phipps Conservatory,” with flowers filling the room where McNamara’s casket rested, and McNamara’s guest book bore signatures of Steelers stars, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis and National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who had paid their respects to the stranger at Rooney’s urging.
“That story tells you all you need to know about why Art Rooney is Art Rooney,” O’Brien concluded.
There are several other marvelous stories in the linked article.
Roy Blount, Jr., author of “Three Bricks Shy of a Load,” about his experiences when “embedded” with the Steelers for the 1973 season, reminisced about the Steelers of old in a Sports Illustrated article written for the anniversary of the Immaculate Reception in 2012. He said of Rooney:
He was a man who, once he made your acquaintance, looked almost comically happy to see you again, and his acquaintance was extraordinarily wide…Back then, in or around the Chief’s office (even in the lobby, without p.r. approval), I was introduced to everyone from Billy Conn, the old light heavyweight champion, to Horse Czarnecki, the groundskeeper at Pitt, and Jack Warner, of Warner Brothers.
Finally, here are some stories from long-time Post-Gazette sports columnist Ron Cook on the 10th anniversary of Rooney’s death. Again, I recommend the entire article, which is marvelous. I’m going to use italics instead of the block quotes, because they are pretty clunky for such a long quote. But what follows is amazingly only a portion of a long article, one which I suspect could have been far longer still and only scratched the surface:
When Art Rooney Sr. died 10 years ago last week at 87, then County Commissioner Tom Foerster said, “Normally, you introduce the mayor of any city as that city’s No. 1 citizen. But everyone knew Mr. Rooney was our No. 1 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.”
“He’s the voice of the man in the street,” the late Cardinal John J. Wright once said of Rooney, who went to his grave considering that one of his greatest compliments.
There are hundreds of stories of Rooney’s kindness and generosity. He didn’t have to open his wallet, although he was quick to rush to the aid of the sick and needy. He could brighten someone’s day or ease his or her suffering with nothing more than a handshake and a kind word.
Handwritten postcards from 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 just joined the Patriots.
“I got to know the young man,” Rooney wrote. “He’s a fine human being who can contribute to the success of any team.”
“I went into our locker room and showed it to Greg,” Sullivan said. “Tears came to his face.”
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Tony Dungy has a similar memory. He played for the Steelers from 1977-78.
“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 a thrill for my parents. He did that kind of stuff all the time.”
Shortly before 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 that knack with people.”
Rooney Jr. 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, in February, he was cornered by Evan Baker Jr., the funeral director at Jones Funeral Home in the Hill District.
“He’s the nephew of Cum Posey, who ran the Homestead Grays,” Rooney Jr. 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.”
“People say to me that he sounded too good to be true,” [Mary] Regan, [his secretary since 1952] said. “But he was the genuine thing. He wasn’t a saint on Earth or anything like. He was just a good, wonderful man.”
It has been a joy to research this article. I certainly had heard many stories about The Chief, but to get a bit fuller picture of the man has been not only enlightening but explains a great deal about how, in this current age, so many unfashionable principles seem to govern how the Steelers organization is run. I only wish I had been part of The Chief’s vast and eclectic acquaintance. He sounds like a man after my own heart.