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Speaking of Ownership, When Was the Last Time the Rooneys Did NOT Own the Pittsburgh Steelers?

     With all the talk of ownership lately, I thought I would share another historical piece regarding ownership of the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

     Say what?  How is it possible that the Pittsburgh Steelers played the 1940 season, played the 1941 season, yet somehow in between did not exist?  In a series of events that would confuse Abbott and Costello, this scenario actually took place.  Here's how.

     Art Rooney was despondent after the 1940 season, having yet to taste a winning campaign since founding the team in 1933.  He tried everything.  In 1938 he paid the astronomical salary of $15,800 to Byron Whizzer White, who played just one season before heading off to Oxford to become a Rhodes Scholar.  In 1940 Rooney changed the team name from Pirates to Steelers to better reflect the city's image, but still no luck.  After eight seasons the Steelers were 24-62-5.

     Across the commonwealth, the Philadelphia Eagles, who also came into being in 1933, actually compiled a worse record than the Steelers, 19-65-3.  Eagles' owner Bert Bell and Art Rooney had plenty in common and became very good friends commiserating their war wounds.

     Also in late 1940 a preppie playboy from New York named Lex Thompson, and I emphasize "boy" since the lad was just 26 years old, decided he wanted to own a team in the National Football League.  Thompson was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.  His father became a multi-millionaire in the steel industry (ironically) and was one of the few who had boatloads of money during the Great Depression.

     Thompson graduated from Yale in 1936 and started a lucrative business selling eye-care products.  By 1940 he had money on top of money and wanted a nice big toy.  He offered $160,000, precisely 64 times the amount Art Rooney paid for the Steelers eight years earlier, for an NFL franchise.  Rooney was a superb sports entrepreneur who always knew how to make a buck.  He wasn't pleased that the Steelers were losing money every year.  With all those Thompson dollars floating in the marketplace, Rooney came up with a plan.

     At the December, 1940 NFL meetings, the league officially approved the sale of the Pittsburgh Steelers to Alexis Thompson.  Rooney took the cash and then bought half of the Philadelphia Eagles from his buddy, Bert Bell, who needed a little cash himself.  Thompson immediately hired his own coach, Greasy Neale, and changed the team name to Pittsburgh Ironmen.

     Unbeknownst to the league and everyone else, Lex Thompson had no intention of keeping the team in Pittsburgh after the 1941 season, and Art Rooney had no intention of staying out of Pittsburgh very long.  The "plan" was that Thompson would move his team to Boston, while Rooney and Bell would change the Philadelphia Eagles into the Pennsylvania Keystoners and play half their games in Philly and half in Pittsburgh.

     When George Preston Marshall, owner of the Washington Redskins, caught wind of this he was livid.  He wasn't so concerned about Boston since four seasons earlier he himself moved the Boston Redskins to Washington, D.C. due to putrid fan support (put that in your pipe and smoke it, Patriots' fans).  What Marshall could not tolerate was the entire state of Pennsylvania claiming a single franchise.

     Marshall was the Al Davis of his time and had a great deal of influence over his peers. It was often easier to let Marshall have his way than to endure all his maverick tirades.  Since there were only 10 teams in the league at the time, Marshall needed to get only a handful of owners to stop the grand plan, which he did.

     So now what?  Rooney was out of the Pittsburgh football business and Lex Thompson wanted no part of being in it. Rooney went back to the drawing board and came up with Plan B.  Rooney and Bell offered Thompson the City of Philadelphia for the City of Pittsburgh.  They didn't trade franchises since Thompson wanted his coach and players.  They actually traded cities.

     Thompson, Greasy Neale and the Ironmen relocated to Philadelphia while Bert Bell and the Eagle players passed them on the road heading west.  In April, 1941 the Pittsburgh Steelers were re-born.  Thompson was pleased with the proceedings since Philadelphia was a short commute from his New York City home.  Rooney was delighted to get his own city back and with a stack of Thompson's money.  How's that for being resourceful? 

     For his troubles and relocation, Rooney allowed Bert Bell to also coach the team in 1941.  After another horrible start, Bert Bell the co-owner fired Bert Bell the coach after just two games.  Bell would remain partner with Rooney until 1946 when he became commissioner of the NFL.  Having obviously to sell out, he sold eight percent of his 50 back to Rooney and the other 42% to Barney McGinley to avoid conflict of interest.  Barney McGinley was a dear friend of the Rooney family and his son, Jack, married the sister of Art Sr., Anne Marie.

     McGinley divided his 42% among his four children.  When two of them died, the estates sold their shares back to the Rooney family, which is where we are today.  Jack McGinley, the third child, since divided further his 10% among his children while his sister Rita still wants to hold onto her 10%

     NFL records show that Arthur J. Rooney owned the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1941, just as he owned the team in 1940.  It is hard to believe now that one of the most stable franchises in NFL history was so unstable in between those two seasons that the Pittsburgh Steelers actually didn't exist at all.