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AN UNSENTIMENTAL EDUCATION

July 16, 1973
July 16, 1973

Table of Contents
July 16, 1973

Wimbledon
Slick
Jody
The Rooneys
Track & Field
Shooting
Chew The Fat
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

AN UNSENTIMENTAL EDUCATION

The five Rooney boys learned to build a sports empire in the school of hard knocks, some dealt out by their dad

By Roy Blount Jr.

The Rooney boys, Dan, Art Jr., Tim, John and Pat, are heirs to a sporting empire, but will they attain the style and proportions of the rumpled old man who is their father and got the show on the road? Art Rooney Sr., the legend and founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is himself the son of a saloonkeeper. He could have played football for Knute Rockne, and he did box professionally, play for a semi-pro team against Jim Thorpe's Canton Bulldogs and bat .372 and steal 55 bases for Wheeling, W. Va. of the Middle Atlantic League in 1925.

This is an article from the July 16, 1973 issue Original Layout

He considered becoming a priest, but instead promoted all the boxing in Pittsburgh out of a seedy hotel office which people entered by stepping through the window. He established himself as one of the best horseplayers of all time, once winning, the story goes, $250,000 in two days of racing at Saratoga. He bought an NFL franchise in 1933 for $2,500 and kept it afloat by betting the horses.

Art Sr. has lived in the same neighborhood all his life, even as it has declined over the last 30 years into more and more of a slum. In 1968 he drove calmly home through Pittsburgh's worst racial outburst. Now, at 72, he walks from his house to a Pirate game at Three Rivers Stadium accompanied by a crowd of black kids, whom he jokes around with and brings into his box. He wears baggy pants and almost always has a dollar cigar in his teeth at such an angle that his whole mouth is blotted out when seen from the front. On making a new acquaintance he removes the cigar and smiles like a boy who has just been handed a puppy.

"What you have to realize," says Pat Rooney, "is that my father is a great man. None of his sons are."

But Art Sr. never borrowed a dime in his life. "I was too stupid," he says without the least sign of regret. "I didn't know you could." His sons, with hardly any capital except their name, have borrowed over $60 million. With their father they constitute 10 different corporations that own or control the Steelers, Yonkers Raceway in New York, the William Penn and Continental Racing Associations at Liberty Bell Park in Philadelphia, Green Mountain Race Track in Vermont and Palm Beach Kennel Club, a greyhound track in Florida. Art Sr. is sole owner of Shamrock Farms in Maryland, another of the family's enterprises. The Rooneys used to own a soccer team. They have made an offer to buy Garden State Park in New Jersey and they are building a thoroughbred track outside Philadelphia. If the boys are not great, they are certainly doing well, and they all reflect their father in various ways.

For one thing they still do what he tells them. "The old man is policy," says a man who has been close to the family, and the boys readily agree that they all talk to him every day, by phone or in person, and that if he rules against something they won't do it.

They also take pride in being down-to-earth like their father. They were all brought up in a poor neighborhood with other Irish kids, not feeling any different from anybody else. They knew, of course, that very rough kids refrained from swearing in the Rooney yard and that their father owned a football team. But they also knew that the family drove to the games in a car that sometimes had to be backed up steep hills.

They knew, too, that most of the time their father was off playing the horses, arranging some kind of athletic affair or swapping stories with Toots Shor or Billy Conn. But Art Sr. always came home on the weekends, and if at the end of a day he found himself as nearby as, say, Cleveland, he would always drive home.

Art Sr. was not one for heart-to-heart talks with his sons, but he kept their attention. When they put up a punching bag he would walk in and work out on it briefly in such a way as to leave the mouth of every kid present hanging open. He would also follow such unusual Christian procedures as bringing panhandlers in off the street for sandwiches. Too, when someone needed an authoritative opinion he would provide it, as when Art Jr., known as Artie, complained that Timmy had just hit a kid over the head with a piece of sidewalk, which didn't seem fair. Art Sr. said, "When you fight, you fight with whatever you need."

The Rooney manse, an old Victorian house, had, and still has, white columns in front, 12 rooms inside and a multipurpose backyard. The boys dug tunnels under it for war games, and in the winter they iced over the macadamized part for hockey, so they had plenty to do without hanging around pool halls. Their father told them never to hang around pool halls, and since he had hung around them enough as a boy to become a shark of some note, they figured he knew what he was talking about.

As a football owner Art Sr. was notoriously indulgent. Not only did he actually defend players' interests in league meetings, but he refrained from interfering with his coaches, though they tended to err picturesquely. In fact, he went so far as to hire the most errant head coach in history—the great bon vivant and running back, Johnny Blood, who once failed to show up for a Steeler game because he hadn't known it was scheduled.

Art Sr. never had a harsh word for anybody else in the world (though he is said to have exchanged blows—"pushes" is how he phrases it—with at least one of his coaches), but he was inclined to call his sons "chumps" and "newly made." The old man says, "I always thought my coaches knew what they were doing. I knew the boys didn't."

The boys remember calling his hand only twice. One day he went to watch Tim, John and Pat play sandlot ball. Tim singled to the outfield and when he reached first he turned to the right. Art Sr. went up to him and said, "You're supposed to turn toward second."

"That's the way you old guys did it," said Tim, who was then about 12.

"Give me those balls and bats!" shouted Art Sr. "I don't want people to know you're a Rooney."

"I never watched them play ball again," he says today. "You'll have to ask them about their athletic abilities. For this reason: I never thought much of 'em."

The other moment of rebellion came more recently. Perhaps Tim was out of sorts after making the drive from Pittsburgh to Winfield, Md., the site of Shamrock Farms, the Rooneys' thoroughbred stable. "My father would sit there in the car saying his rosary," Tim says. "He wouldn't talk to you, and he wouldn't let you turn on the radio, and he'd make you leave all the windows wide open in the middle of winter."

At any rate, when Art Sr. told Tim to take off his boots inside the house at Shamrock, Tim complained. So his father gave him a good shot to the head. "Then he turned to John, but John was on the track team, he ran," says Pat. At the time Tim was into his 20s, John was in college and Art Sr. was around 60.

So if the resolution of the Oedipus complex requires the symbolic slaying of the father, the Rooneys will have to count on the Oedipus complex not applying to the Irish. It was only in the last few years that the boys dared to drink in front of Art Sr., or even to appear in public with him dressed in anything but a dark suit, white shirt and tie, such as he most always wears. But if they can't overthrow their father, they can expand upon him.

Each of the boys would have liked to take the helm of the Steelers. The family heirloom fell, however, to Dan, the oldest. Art Sr. had in mind Dan's becoming an electrician, since he didn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer; Art Sr. had an in with the union. "But Danny just wanted to go up to the Steelers' training camp and work," he says, "and there's no point in making a fella do what he isn't interested in"—anyway not when it is a matter of his life's work, as opposed to his waking up at six in the morning on vacation in Canada to go to early Mass.

Dan was a good high school football player, but rheumatic fever ended his hopes of a college career. He helped out at training camp during the summers until he finished studying accounting at Duquesne. Buddy Parker, then head coach of the Steelers, had no room for an owner's son on his staff, so Dan found work in the front office.

"I would get things ready for the draft and sign players," Dan says. "Buddy wasn't interested. In time, whenever there was a call from the league they called me."

Now, eight head coaches later, Dan at 40 is general manager and effective head of the 40-year-old Steelers. Last December that long downtrodden team won its first championship. Art Sr. was always the most popular NFL owner, but his teams always lost. In March the league's general managers voted Dan Executive of the Year.

"To get the same thrill out of Yonkers as we got out of the football team last year, Yonkers would have to do $10 million in one night," says Tim. All five of the boys have a financial stake in the team, and none of them suffers any less intensely than Dan. Furthermore, Art Jr., at 37 the second-eldest brother, has done a great deal to help Dan fill their father's football shoes. Artie is the largest of the Rooneys physically and the one who went furthest as a jock, having started at tackle for St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.

Artie, like Dan, holds the title of Steeler vice-president, but he looks like a line coach. He has more of his father's fleshy, raffish, cigar-chewing air than any of his brothers, and he takes the greatest delight in the stories about the old days in the First Ward, when Art Sr. and his brother Dan, a terrific athlete who is now a priest (and who is said to have spent some time protecting Chinese nuns with his fists), would become drawn into a three-rounder between the visiting carnival boxer and their friend, Squawker Mullen, and the carnies would holler, "Hey, Rube!" In the ensuing melee the tent would collapse and the disturbance rage on lumpily within the great folds of canvas. It is Artie who is most eager for a visitor to meet Uncle Jim Rooney, who after World War I served as one of the youngest men ever elected to the Pennsylvania legislature, and who went on to give away all the money he ever made to people who said they needed it more than he did. Uncle Jim can tell you about the figurehead legislator who replied, when asked what his position was on the Monroe Doctrine, "If the boys are for it, I'm for it." Upon being elected, this worthy showed up at the Pittsburgh train station with a ticket to Washington, D.C.

"Why are you going to Washington?" he was asked.

"Because I was just elected to the Congress," he replied.

"No, no," he was told. "The state legislature. You're supposed to go to Harrisburg."

"I'd say Artie had more to do with us [the Steelers] winning than anybody," says Tim. Artie heads a four-man scouting staff that moves around the country supplementing the services of Blesto VIII, the eight-team scouting cooperative to which the Steelers belong.

The Steeler drafts over the last few years have seemed inspired: Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Greene, Dwight White. When someone suggests that he may have inherited his father's handicapping gifts, in terms of ballplayers rather than horses, Artie looks pleased as Punch.

But what Artie wanted to be when he finished college was an actor. Art Sr. says he is always running into old friends from among "Pittsburgh theatrical people," and he is proud enough that actress Anne Jackson is his cousin. But he was not eager to have an actor son. "I knew Artie was wasting his time," he says, "but I let him play the string out."

So Artie went off to New York to try his fortune. "Actually my type was pretty much in demand," he says. "I made everybody around me on the stage look like fruits." But after a year or so on the boards Artie turned back toward a role more like his father's.

When racing was legalized in Pennsylvania and the family bought into William Penn Raceway, Artie worked there for a while, it being his turn to get a chance to prepare himself for a managerial job. If he had stayed on he would have become president and general manager instead of John, but Artie wanted to return to the Steelers. "The other day after I got back from a trip to the coast," he says, "my wife heard me telling somebody, 'I saw Dog out there, and he said he's seen Bow-wow.' " Bow-wow and Dog are a couple of scouts. " 'When are you going to get a real job?' my wife asked." Artie smiles.

Most observers, however, feel that of all the boys Tim, 35, is most like Art Sr. They think he has the most spark. But Tim couldn't cling to his Pittsburgh roots because there was no more room for Rooneys in the Steeler setup, and after he had worked for a few years as a stockbroker he went down to West Palm Beach to help run the dog track. Then the brothers took on their biggest challenge: the purchase of Yonkers Raceway for some $48 million.

When Artie came to New York to be an actor he was warned by his brothers that if a man came up to speak to him on the subway it would be for the sake of making unnatural advances. So he nearly slugged the first man who asked him for directions. The Rooney boys are more sophisticated nowadays, but their venture into New York is a hazardous one. Off-track betting has cut into the attendance at Yonkers, the plant there is aged, Sonny Werblin is planning a big new harness track in New Jersey, and there are 13 different unions to deal with.

The first night Yonkers opened under Rooney management—last June—there were pickets outside. Except for the 1968 NFL players strike, it was the only picket line the Rooneys had ever experienced. "If there was ever any trouble in Pittsburgh," Tim says, "there was no question whose side you were on; you were with the unions." But with Pittsburgh unions, he adds, "you were dealing with guys you grew up with."

Tim still thinks that the union people at Yonkers are "regular guys." On other fronts, he has seen to a good deal of repainting; he plans to winterize the clubhouse and grandstand and he has hired a different advertising agency to attract a new crowd. Meanwhile Art Sr., who used to play the thoroughbreds at Yonkers when it was Empire City, cultivates the old crowd. He comes up every couple of weeks and walks around, running into friends at every turn.

Tim also gets help from the twins, John and Pat, who started trying to improve the family fortunes when they urged their brother to write to their father from training camp about how good a rookie quarterback named Johnny Unitas was. Head Coach Walter Kiesling was not giving Unitas a chance. As a matter of fact Unitas had no one to throw to except the twins. Tim dashed off a 22-page epistle but Art Sr. adhered to his noninterference policy. However, right after Kiesling cut Unitas, the Rooneys' car, with Kiesling riding in the back seat, happened to pull alongside Unitas'. Art Sr. leaned across Kiesling and yelled over to Unitas, a Pittsburgh native, "Johnny, I hope you become the greatest quarterback in football."

The twins were pretty good athletes themselves, Pat having something of a future as a pitcher until he hurt his arm. But there was no work for them in sports when they finished college, so John taught high school for three years and Pat worked as a copper salesman. Then Liberty Bell opened and they worked their way up from punching tickets. Now John is president of William Penn, the nighttime harness operation, and Pat is president of Continental, which handles the daytime flat racing.

Before they had established themselves as two of the youngest racing presidents in the country, however, the twins, who are now 34, engaged in a venture which lies behind one of the brothers' observation that "nobody ever lost money on a Rooney except another Rooney."

With John as president and Pat lending a hand, the Rooneys founded the Philadelphia Spartans, a National Professional Soccer League team. The Spartans, says John, "once played to 400 people in the L.A. Coliseum, and 300 of them were ushers." The team lost $500,000 the first year and the Rooneys disbanded it.

At least one man who has been close to the family for some time thinks that Pat is the twin with the most spark. Certainly Pat comes closest of all the brothers to making a pointed remark about Art Sr.'s view of life. "My father just doesn't understand that when some people wake up in the morning and look at their face in the mirror, it's not the greatest thing in the world," Pat says. "He thinks being a good Catholic takes care of all that." Artie, on the other hand, says of Franco Harris' miraculous playoff catch against Oakland, "That wasn't good scouting. It wasn't good playing. It was my father's 72 years of good Christian living."

The man who fancies Pat's spark thinks he will become more dominant in the family as the years go on. Does that mean dissension looms? Nobody sees signs of it. The Rooneys seem to have resolved their hostilities toward one another in furniture-smashing fights when they were boys. As adults they talk to each other on the phone nearly every day, slip away from convention sessions to drink milk shakes together, accept their various positions in the empire and follow the Steelers.

"If there is ever any trouble among the brothers it will come through the wives," says one observer. But the Rooneys are not uxorious. They have a reputation as staunch and faithful family men (Art has four children, John and Tim five, Pat six and Dan nine), but at Steeler home games the wives sit together on the other side of the field from the men's box, so that the brothers won't have to entertain women's questions.

Pat is doubtless right, as his mother, Kathleen Rooney, was before him, when he says none of the sons is the man his father was. Partly this is a matter of different times. The boys have had at least two exploits that do much credit to the old-time Rooney image but which they have kept out of the public eye because the public eye isn't what it used to be. And Pat—whose father appears to love sportswriters as much as they love him—keeps his own name out of Continental press releases because when it gets in the paper his family gets crank calls.

No one man is ever again likely to develop as many different ground-floor sports connections as Art Sr. "It's amazing the depth of his contacts," says Harness Tracks of America President Ed Dougherty. "I asked him once whether Kelso was a late bloomer. He said he would like to buy Kelso but the trainer was going to run him one more time before the owner made up her mind whether she wanted to sell the horse. So he did, and Kelso won by 10 lengths. And Mrs. duPont wasn't interested in selling anymore. That is like asking a guy something about Manhattan, and he says, 'Yeah, you know I ran into those Indians and offered them $23....' "

None of the young Rooneys will ever enjoy the geographical unities of their father's life. Art Sr. once nearly drowned when Squawker Mullen overturned a canoe in the middle of flooded Exposition Park, which stood on the site of Three Rivers Stadium, where the Steelers play now. But the boys have advanced beyond their father in necessary ways. "He's a brilliant man," says Dougherty. "But he's a man of the handshake. He finds the transition to tax lawyers and comptrollers uncomfortable."

So far, with their father behind them and with the help of an expert Philadelphia lawyer-loan arranger named John T. Macartney, who is secretary-treasurer of the Yonkers corporation, the brothers are making the transition with a looseness that Johnny Blood might appreciate.

"They can be agonizing in their casualness in coming to meetings late or leaving early or not accepting what the meeting is for," says Dougherty. "Like the Yale band, they like to march out of step. But they do it in a way that's probably as disciplined as the Yale band."

It is a simple matter—the Rooney brothers exhibit the natural, inevitable discipline and tempo of the sons of any authoritarian, democratic-to-a-fault, gambling, pious, two-fisted father who kept peace in his heart despite missing out on Kelso and Johnny Unitas. The boys may not become legends, but it is no small achievement these days to owe $60 million without forgetting who you are.

TWO PHOTOSWILLIAM A. ALLARDOPERATING Steelers at Three Rivers are Art Sr., Dan and Art Jr. Tim oversees Palm Beach Kennel Club (bottom) and Yonkers Raceway.PHOTOWILLIAM A. ALLARDJOHN AND PAT ROONEY INSPECT RACING SURFACE AT LIBERTY BELL IN PHILADELPHIA, A HARNESS AND THOROUGHBRED TRACK