The Winning Ways of a Thirty-year Loser

When Art Rooney founded pro football's Pittsburgh Steelers a black notebook served as his office, a handshake closed his deals and he dreamed of championships. Since then he has become a millionaire, made a million friends, built a million-dollar racing interest and has given up trying to run things from a black book. But he and Pittsburgh are still looking for that title
November 23, 1964

Art Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers football club, stood in the lobby of Pittsburgh's Roosevelt Hotel in his stocking feet. Clenched between his teeth was a 6¢ stogie made of tobacco grown in the Amish country of Pennsylvania. His coat pockets bulged with a variety of papers, postcards, racetrack programs on which he had noted his winnings for income-tax purposes, a small, fat notebook bound with a stout rubber band, more stogies and an apparently inexhaustible supply of large Havana-type cigars of which he would chew one half and smoke the other.

The little black notebook was, by all odds, the most important item in the assortment. It has been called Art Rooney's private office. It contains the most detailed information about some of his principal interests: the Steelers, the grain market, the whereabouts of his running horses, the state of affairs at Shamrock, his Thoroughbred breeding farm of 387 acres in Sykesville, Md. and all pertinent facts concerning the 50 days of racing he conducts at the Liberty Bell Park harness-racing track just outside Philadelphia. There was a time when Rooney was able to run all his business out of the black notebook—football, fight promoting (he put on the heavyweight fight in which Jersey Joe Walcott took the championship from Ezzard Charles), political maneuvering as Republican boss of Pittsburgh's 22nd Ward, big-time wagering on horses. But the black book does not suffice today. In an era of multimillion-dollar professional football, Rooney finds he must call upon the familiar accouterments of modern business—lawyers and accountants, mouthpieces and peacemouthers. Yet he clings to the little book just the same and yearns for the old days when a handshake was enough to commit a man to a business deal or put a few grand riding on the nose of a horse.

As Art Rooney stood talking in the hotel lobby, Boots Lewis, who—when he has nothing better to do—operates the shoe-shining concession in the barber shop, came hurrying up with a pair of shoes. "You did it again, Mr. Rooney," Boots said. "I take off your shoes in your office, and you forget and go walking across the lobby in your socks."

Rooney looked down and laughed. "Well, what do you know," he said, slipping his feet into the shoes. He held out one foot and nodded. "That's as fine a shine as I ever saw. Nobody can put a shine on a shoe like you, Boots."

Boots frowned a little. "Anybody can shine a shoe," he said. Boots takes no pride in the art. Shoe-shining is a sometime thing with him. His true role is that of personal aide to Coach Buddy Parker of the Steelers. They have been together since Parker's days at Centenary College, and during the season Boots takes on stature as close friend and confidante of the head man.

Even with his shoes on, Art Rooney stood a little below average height—chunky, thick-necked, his iron-gray hair brushed back in a way that gave it the look of a tall, thinning crew cut. He seemed completely relaxed, for all the complicated entries in that little black book of his.

Considering that Pittsburgh has suffered through 30 seasons without an NFL championship and is now making giant strides toward extending this nonrecord to 31, Rooney and his team have held the affection of the fans remarkably well. This season Quarterback Ed Brown and Coach Parker have been roundly booed when things went badly during home games, and in his booth, next to the television broadcasters, Art Rooney has cringed—although his name has not been mentioned in the assortment of uncomplimentary yells. Yet, given a bit of luck and some fair weather, the attendance should be even better this season than last, for the Steelers are playing all their home games in the 55,000-seat Pitt Stadium instead of Forbes Field, home of the Pirates, which has a capacity of only 35,500 and is not designed to show pro football to its best advantage.

As for Rooney, Pittsburgh fans seem to agree that he has been in there trying ever since he stopped treating the Steelers as some kind of hilarious hobby. Those were the days when the Steeler offices were on the ground floor of the Fort Pitt Hotel. Rooney kept them open around the clock, and guests—pals from the fields of sports and politics—used to come in and leave through a window that opened onto the street instead of taking the long way around through the hotel lobby. In 1946 Rooney moved the Steelers to the fourth floor of an office building, and he recalls how Pie Traynor, the old Pittsburgh ballplayer and a regular at the nightly card games at the Fort Pitt, refused to come into the new offices at all. He was sure that he would forget where he was and step through the fourth-floor window some night. The offices are back on the ground floor at the Roosevelt now, but there are no windows opening on the street, and the formal entrances and exits through doorways seem to have had the effect of creating a certain air of dignity that the old crowd would have found oppressive.

Rooney showed he was going to take his football team more seriously in 1946, when he hired Jock Sutherland, the University of Pittsburgh's famous coach. Before that he had established a record for player salaries when he paid Byron (Whizzer) White, now a Justice of the Supreme Court, $15,900 for the 1938 season. Buddy Parker is among the highest-paid head coaches in the NFL. Moreover, Parker is given all the assistants he wants (he is getting along with six) and a completely free hand in directing the team. When Parker decided that the squad should train in Kingston, R.I. last summer, Rooney agreed, although it meant spending $40,000 more than it would have cost to train the Steelers somewhere closer to Pittsburgh's steel mills.

Back in the Roosevelt Hotel lobby, shoes glistening and on his feet, Art Rooney was launched into a conversation on one of his favorite topics, the Steelers of yesterseason.

"We've had some great players and some great characters on this club," he said. "I guess my alltime favorite among the players was Bill Dudley. I named one of my horses Bullet Bill after him. Dudley was an All-America from the University of Virginia, and when he came with us in 1942 it took just one play for him to show us what he had and what we had. In the first minute of the game he ran 44 yards, through right guard for a touchdown. Then there was Whizzer White, Jimmy Finks, Bobby Layne, Big Daddy Lipscomb, Iron Man Fran Rogel—I named a horse after him, too—Johnny Blood...."

Rooney stopped and laughed. "There was never anybody to match Johnny. If he had put his mind to it, he could have been one of the great coaches of all time. Nobody had the players' loyalty like Johnny. But he was footloose, and sometimes he was AWOL when he found something more interesting to do. But you couldn't get mad at Johnny. At least, you couldn't stay mad." He thought a moment. "By golly," he said, "if I ever get a real good horse, I'm going to name him Johnny Blood.

"Getting back to characters, there was Jack Slee. I'll never forget the day—"

A man who had come a way to hear Art Rooney broke in: "I don't recall anybody named Jack Slee playing with the Steelers."

Rooney grinned. "Jack Slee didn't play. I'll tell you about him. I was in my office one day in 1952, and the girl came in and said there was a Father Jack Slee asking to see me. I told her to send the reverend in, and in comes a tall, good-looking fellow wearing a clerical collar. 'Father Jack Slee here,' he says. 'It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Rooney.' 'Likewise, Father,' I said, 'and what can I do for you?'

"Father Slee came right to the point. 'Mr. Rooney,' he said, 'I'm crazy about football and I'm a real fan of the Steelers. I wonder if I could ask you a mighty big favor?'

"I said I would do anything I could for him, and I asked him just what he had in mind. 'Mr. Rooney,' he said, 'some pro teams have chaplains and you don't seem to have any. I wonder if you would consider me as a chaplain—at least give me a tryout, and let me sit on the bench for the Giants' game?'

"Well, sir, I have a lot of friends who are priests, and I went to Catholic schools, and somehow Father Jack Slee didn't seem to have quite the kind of priestly manner I had been accustomed to. So I came right out and asked him, 'You a Roman?'

"Jack Slee looked me in the eye and said, 'No, Mr. Rooney, I am not. I am an Episcopalian. I'm aware that you are a Roman. Does the fact that I'm an Episcopalian rule me out as a candidate for the chaplain's job? Does it mean I can't sit on the bench?'

"I said it meant nothing of the kind. I told Jack Slee that I hoped I was as broad-minded as the next man. I think I said he would be perfectly welcome to sit on our bench for the Giants' game. I didn't commit myself beyond that. Well, Jack Slee was like a kid, he was so happy. He said he couldn't thank me enough and that he just wished there was something he could do for me. He was so grateful that I kind of eased him toward the door before he started giving me an Episcopalian blessing."

Rooney chortled at the thought.

"Did Jack Slee show up on the bench for the Giants' game?" asked the man in the lobby.

"Did he show up!" cried Rooney, "He not only showed up, but he brought us the biggest bundle of luck we ever had. We played in the snow at Forbes Field and we beat the Giants 63-7, the worst licking in their history. I thought I was dreaming."

Rooney took a deep breath. "Afterward Steve Owen, the Giants' coach, growled at me, 'What got into your guys today?' 'Why,' I said, 'we got a chaplain. You didn't have a chance.' "

"Holy mackerel!" cried the other man, "How come you didn't win the championship that year?"

Rooney put on a long face. "We lost Jack Slee," he said soberly. "He was transferred to Los Angeles. Showed up on the bench as chaplain of the Rams. Jack Slee and the Rams beat us 28-14." He started away. "Good seeing you," he called back, and he walked into the office of Ed Kiely, the Steelers' publicity director.

Kiely looked up from his typewriter as Rooney entered.

"Say, Ed," said Rooney, "there's a fellow I've got to see in Cincinnati and I ought to go down to the farm. Tom Barry has a matter to discuss at Monmouth, and then I thought I'd drive over to Aqueduct and see Bob Duncan." (Barry and Duncan train Rooney horses.)

Kiely shook his head. "No, Art," he said, "you can't duck this dinner tonight. CBS has the television sponsors and the agency men coming, and they're counting on you."

"Will I have to make a speech?"

"Just a few words," said Kiely.

"What will I say?"

"Well," said Kiely, "I imagine you would want to say the league appreciates the $28 million CBS is paying for the TV rights this season and next, and that the Steelers are glad to have their $2 million share."

"O.K.," said Rooney, "but next day I've got to go to Cincinnati and to the farm, and next week Kathleen [Mrs. Rooney] and I have to go to Canada."

Kiely nodded. "After the CBS dinner," he said, "you're on your way."

(Art Rooney is almost always on his way somewhere. It is a rare week that Pittsburgh does not see him, but it is also a rare week that Pittsburgh sees him seven days in a row. What with his Thoroughbreds running at tracks all around the East, his harness-racing interests, the wakes, the funerals, the banquets, his trips with the Steelers in training and during the season, Art Rooney is on the road or in the air almost constantly. Frequently he flies to New York's Aqueduct track and back the same day. Sometimes it is Aqueduct in the afternoon and the trotters in Philadelphia that evening. His friends and his family may rarely know where he is, but they always know where he has just been because he is a compulsive writer of postcards.)

The CBS dinner, as Rooney judges such affairs, was a pleasant surprise. Bill MacPhail, CBS vice-president, gave him the briefest of introductions, and Rooney responded with a very few remarks expressing his complete satisfaction with getting $2 million. After a round of longer speeches, in which the television and advertising men talked mostly about themselves, the party fell into comfortable disarray, generating the kind of conversation about sports and politics that Art Rooney enjoys most.

What Art Rooney enjoys least are affairs at which he is singled out for testimonials by his Pittsburgh admirers. He seems to suffer acutely when, as often happens, attention is called to his contributions to sports, charities and pals in jams. "It's no pose with Art," says one lifelong friend. "Nothing gives him more satisfaction than helping a man down on his luck, but nothing embarrasses him more than to be given credit for it publicly."

One can only guess at his discomfort last spring when Pittsburgh's Saints and Sinners honored him at a banquet that observed his 63rd birthday and his 30 years as owner of the Steelers.

Mayor Joseph M. Barr lauded Rooney as a devoted father of five and grandfather of 15, a man who brought pro football out of the dark ages, a man loyal to etc. etc. Carl Hanford, who once trained horses for Rooney, said, "It was a great day for me when I got Kelso to train, but my greatest day in racing was the day I met Art Rooney." NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and Allie Sherman, coach of the Giants, said Art Rooney was a nice man. Other speakers reviewed his athletic career in boxing (he was once welterweight amateur champion of Pittsburgh), football and baseball. Both he and his brother, Dan, now a Franciscan priest, were offered major-league contracts, and Elmer Daily, onetime president of the Mid-Atlantic League, recalled that Art had hit .372 and Dan had hit .359 when they were teammates on the Wheeling, W. Va. club. Steeler Coach Buddy Parker declared Art Rooney was indeed a nice man, and so did Bullet Bill Dudley and Johnny Blood McNally and John Galbreath and Danny Murtaugh. By then Rooney looked as if he were wishing he had not spent 63 years being so damn nice.

Rooney's induction into the professional football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in September brought out another rash of complimentary notices, including mention of his celebrated betting coup in 1937 when he was reported to have won a quarter of a million dollars at New York's old Empire City track and at Saratoga. (Rooney professes not to know exactly how much he won but admits that it was "quite a lot.") Mention of Rooney's big score quite naturally led newspapermen into recalling that he sent a large share of his winnings to a Pittsburgh orphanage, another bundle to his brother, then a missionary in China, and scattered smaller gifts to down-and-outers who came running to congratulate him.

There is only one act of charity that Rooney willingly recounts. "I was at the races at Narragansett one day and happened to have a winner. I was coming away from the cashier's window when I noticed a little old lady dressed all in black. She was standing against a wall, crying bitter tears. I walked over and said, 'Ma'am, are you ill? Can I do anything for you?' She turned to me, the tears streaming. 'No, sir,' she said, 'Nobody can help me now. I've lost my rent money and the medicine money for my little grandson who's lying there in our furnished room getting weaker by the minute with the whooping cough. I came out to the track, praying that I would have a winner to buy medicine for the little tyke. But my horse lost by a lip, and now I don't know what to do. But it's all right, sir. Don't you mind. You're a fine gentleman and you just go ahead and enjoy your winnings with a champagne and lobster dinner somewheres. I'll get by somehow.' Well, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a $100 bill. 'Take this, my dear lady,' I said. "Pay your rent and get the medicine for the little boy. Say a prayer, and I'm sure something good will turn up for you.' Well, on the way to my hotel. I was riding with a well-known tout and I told him the story. I thought he would laugh himself sick. "You've been taken by Winnie the Weeper,' he said. 'That old doll has been hanging around the $50 cashier's window and working that act with strangers for years.' "

Rooney shook his head. "I still think The Weeper deserved the money. She gave a great performance."

With Art Rooney playing himself down and public speakers and sports-writers playing him up, it is difficult to get a dispassionate opinion about him.

Of course, if Rooney were ever to agree to the proposition that he run for mayor (an idea that occurs to his admirers from time to time), some political opponents might come forward with insinuations and innuendos calculated to tarnish his public image. It might be recalled that he was the right-hand man of State Senator James J. Coyne, the Republican boss of the 1920s and 1930s, a time when bootlegging, bookmaking and other diversions are said to have flourished on Pittsburgh's North Side. It might be mentioned that Rooney did nothing that could be construed as an unwillingness to aid and abet Senator Coyne in his efforts to run Pittsburgh for the greater good of the Republican Party. No doubt a political foe would deplore Rooney's associations with bookmakers and piously wonder aloud about that great betting coup of 1937.

But it wouldn't work. For one thing, Rooney's association with Senator Coyne, the onetime political boss, has been turned to his advantage. Former Governor David Lawrence, now a special assistant to President Johnson at the White House, says: "Art is a true-blue kind of guy who will be with you when you lose. His deep loyalty to Senator Coyne as a leader on the North Side made a lasting impression on me. When Coyne was on the way out, and the rats were skipping ship to join the Democrats who were on the way in, Rooney stuck with Coyne to the bitter end. That's the quality I admire most in a man." As for Rooney's adventures as a horseplayer, there is no record of a man losing large numbers of admirers by beating the races.

Of course, Rooney has no intention of running for mayor or anything else. In view of his dislike for making formal speeches, he probably would not make much of a campaigner. His talent is in personal contact with people; like many another old-line politician, Rooney has a way of convincing a man that running into him has made his day. "I want you to know," he may say (perhaps to a person of some importance or to an usher at the racetrack), "that I always enjoy your company. Just talking to you gives me a lift. Everybody who knows you speaks well of you."

In Pittsburgh only a few old pals have ever talked about Rooney with anything less than reverence. One of these was the late Owney McManus, a veteran of decades of Pittsburgh political wars.

"Rooney! Rooney is a scoundrel," Owney McManus liked to say as a preamble. Then you could all but see him step up on a large soapbox—large because he was a short man, a handicap in the days when a precinct politician wasn't much better than the distance his voice would carry—and you could brace yourself for an address.

"Oh, that Rooney!" Owney McManus would say. "The things we have been through. Now Art, he was Republican boss of the 22nd Ward and I was head man for the Democrats in the Second. But that didn't affect our friendship. We used to make the round of saloons together, the sawdust-on-the-floor joints, mind—we never went to cabarets. Now, it was my ambition in those days to get a saloon of my own. I thought if I could have my own place I could have my own way and be looked up to, don't you know? Well, I finally realized my ambition. I got a place near City Hall, and it was a grand success. It became the official hangout for newspapermen, politicians, judges, prizefighters, football players, bookies—all first class. I was in my glory. I was there early and late. Naturally, I had to drink with the boys and, as the day wore on, the effects began to show, I suppose. I've always been a great talker, but I never thought I was getting out of hand until my customers took it into their heads to throw me out one night. 'On what grounds?' I demanded to know. 'I own this place. On what grounds is the proprietor thrown out of his saloon?' They'd make some claim that I was guilty of monopolizing conversations. Pretty soon I was being thrown out of my own saloon every night. And did Art Rooney come to my assistance? He did not. 'Art,' I'd plead with him as they hustled me to the door, 'Art, stop them! Let reason prevail here, Art! Remember what we've been through together!'

"Oh, that Rooney! You know what he'd say? He'd take a sip of his beer and point a finger at the lads giving me the bum's rush and he'd yell, 'Throw him out!' I even went to the extreme one day of refusing to drink anything at all. But did that stop Rooney and his gang? It did not. Cold sober, I was thrown out. That is man's final degradation—to be thrown out of his own place, sober."

Now Owney McManus would pause, figuring his audience needed a chance to stick in a "you don't say" or a "you tell 'em, Owney," depending on whether they happened to be strangers or friends. Then he was off again.

"I think," he would say, "that I am the only Democrat who ever managed a Republican candidate's campaign. That was the one time Art Rooney ran for public office. The office was Register of Wills for Allegheny County. I thought Art was a shoo-in—he was that popular—until he made his one and only speech. I could hardly believe my ears. Art got up and said he didn't know the first thing about being Register of Wills, he didn't even know where the office of the Register was located. But, he said, he thought he could find his way to the office by consulting the phone directory and also that he was confident he could find assistants able to execute the functions of the office.

"That was when I took over his campaign. I gave Art a stiff talking-to. 'You've got to try to make up for that disaster of a speech, Art,' I said, 'and there's not much time. We've got to put on an intensive campaign and take this matter to the voters on a man-to-man basis. Art, we've got to make a whirlwind tour of every saloon in Allegheny County. That's where we'll find the voters in their most receptive mood.' Well, sir, Art agreed and off we went on our whirlwind tour. In each place, after buying a round of drinks, I would get up and give out various versions of Art's life story. I would tell how his father ran a respectable saloon, no women allowed, across from Exposition Park, as tough a neighborhood as there ever was. I told how Art and his brother Dan were the unofficial champions at street fighting and how Dan, the saintly man who now wears the holy robes of a Franciscan priest, had knocked out more men in street fights than Harry Greb and Jack Dempsey had in the ring.

"In some places the voters would call for a speech from Art, but I knew he would ruin everything, and so I would say, 'Have another drink, boys, other voters await the candidate.'

"In some of the better places, where the sawdust was changed daily, I would touch on Art Rooney's intellectual accomplishments. 'The man is entirely self-educated,' I would say, 'although there are certain enemies who are spreading the ugly story that Art is a college man. Now, it is charged that Art Rooney attended Duquesne and Georgetown universities and Indiana State Normal. We admit, gentlemen, that Mr. Rooney did indeed visit these institutions, but we can prove that he was merely a student-in-transit and never stayed after the football season.'

How did Art Rooney lose the election with all my guidance? The answer is that I made a slight miscalculation on our whirlwind tour of the saloons. I was in a place that I hadn't ever seen previously and I was making a rousing speech, something to the effect that if the voters wanted a fighting Register of Wills for Allegheny County, Rooney was their man. The bartender called me aside. 'Did you say your man was running for office in Allegheny County?' I replied, 'Of course, of course, where else?' 'Well,' said the bartender, 'you've overshot your mark, friend. You are now in Washington County.' I was aghast when I realized what I had done. In modern political talk, as Art's campaign manager I had peaked too soon.

"I'll tell you what kind of scoundrel Rooney really is. The old kind. He still lives in his house in the 22nd Ward where all his children were born and raised. It used to be a grand neighborhood, the mansions of the Fricks and the Mellons were there. But no more. The mansions have become hot-plate rooming houses. Rooney's neighbors today are mostly hillbillies and sword swallowers. If you are invited over some evening, it might be wise to carry a ball bat."

Owney would let you reflect on that for a moment, let you wonder if a ball bat was enough to win a duel with a sword swallower. Then he would conclude:

"Well, most of us slow down as the years go by. But not that Rooney. Not only does he make all the football trips with the Steelers, he's on the go all the time all year long. Before there was a speed limit on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, he'd hit a hundred miles an hour at the wheel of his car. Now he's down to 70, but only because of the cops, I don't see how he does it. 'Slow down, Art Rooney,' I keep telling him. 'Stop to think about things. Slow down.' But he won't. Of course, I get him to as many wakes as I can for recreation, and there's always a game of pinochle with Father James Campbell and me one night a week. He'd rather win 50¢ from me at pinochle than win the Kentucky Derby."

Owney McManus can't deliver his Rooney address anymore. Not so many Monday nights ago he died—died, he would want it recorded, after suffering a stroke while playing pinochle with Father James Campbell and that scoundrel, Art Rooney.

In his office at the Roosevelt Hotel the other day, Rooney leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the desk and looked up at three pictures of players that hang on the wall—photographs of Whizzer White, Bill Dudley, Johnny Blood. "Slow down," Owney McManus had said, and for just a moment Rooney seemed to be slowed down and reflecting.

"The Steelers never had a more loyal fan than Owney," he said. "And I did much like beating him at pinochle. But more than that or winning the Kentucky Derby, I'd like to see the Steelers win an NFL championship. What a thing that would be for all of us who have waited patiently so long. Heaven knows that after 30 years we ought to have the law of averages working in our favor. Maybe if we had just some little extra spark of inspiration or—" He stopped and took his feet down off the desk.

"I wonder," he said slowly, "if a transfer back to Pittsburgh could be arranged for that reverend who brought us all the luck against the Giants—Jack Slee, the Episcopalian?"

PHOTO PHOTORooney, a frequent visitor at training camp and practice sessions, assesses with some pleasure this season's most noteworthy Steeler, Fullback John Henry Johnson.