clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

He Stood on Higher Ground: This Date in Steelers History, Farewell to the Chief

August 25, 1988.  Arthur Joseph Rooney, founding owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, died following a stroke he suffered, fittingly, in his office at Three Rivers Stadium.  He was 87.  At Rooney's mass at St. Peter's Church, a friend remarked that it would be a shame if any Catholic in Pittsburgh needed a priest that day, since they were all at the Chief's funeral.  Rooney had a special bond with priests.  In fact, he almost became one.  In his late teens, Rooney qualified for the U.S. Olympic boxing team.  He turned down the opportunity to go to the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Begium because of his religious studies.  A man he defeated both before and after the Olympics, Sammy Mosberg, won the Gold Medal for the Americans.


Rooney's calling in life, however, was to become an entrepreneur.  He was a sports promoter, an outstanding minor league baseball player and was an extraordinary racing handicapper.  In 1933, he bought a franchise into the National Football League for $2,500.  He named his team the Pittsburgh Pirates.  It was common during the Depression days for an NFL team to be named after the city's Major League Baseball team.

Occasionally, I used to hear (rarely anymore) uninformed fans make reference that "the Rooneys are cheap."  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Art Rooney's generosity was profound and seemingly unconditional.  After Byron White had signed his unprecedented $15,800 contract in 1938, the Steelers still lost and did so often.  White felt guilty about making all that money and not leading his team to victory.  Midway through the season, he told Rooney he would not accept any more paychecks.  Rooney called an attorney and arranged for the paychecks to be deposited into White's account anyway.  This was in the middle of the Great Depression.

The ultimate "league man," Rooney's think-outside-the-box perspective may well have saved the 1943 NFL season.  World War II had rightfully depleted the league's workforce.  When the Cleveland Rams bailed out, the remaining nine teams, with weakened rosters, were also in a heated scheduling dilemma which could not get resolved over three days of in-fighting.  Rooney volunteered to combine forces with the Philadelphia Eagles.  This created a workable eight-team league that allowed the NFL to continue.  The next year, 1944, Rooney combined his team with the Chicago Cardinals.


No one was more colorblind than Art Rooney.  His first team in 1933 featured one of only two African-Americans in the league (Ray Kemp).  In 1956, the Steelers drafted an explosive receiver named Lowell Perry.  After six games of speed, promise and a couple electrifying touchdowns, Perry broke his pelvis after being sandwiched by the Giants Emlen Tunnell and Rosey Grier.  It was typical of the team's fortunes back then.  Rooney turned a young man's career-ending adversity into asset.  He immediately added Perry to the coaching staff, the first African-American coach in NFL history.  A year later Perry wanted to attend law school.  Rooney placed a phone call to the higher-ups at Duquesne to ensure admittance, and then payed the bills

At the beginning of the 1957 season, the Steelers played an exhibition game in Jacksonville.  City officials would not allow the handful of African-Americans on the team to take part in the parade.  One of the African-Americans who remembered sitting on the curb in Jacksonville was Coach Lowell Perry.  The Chief was incensed.  He flew down to Jacksonville and told the players that never again would his team be subject to racial discrimination.  The very next year, Pittsburgh was scheduled to play an exhibition game in Atlanta.  After being rejected by numerous hotels to accommodate the entire team, Rooney cancelled the game.  A decade later Rooney convinced a sportswriter named Bill Nunn to join the Steelers executive staff.  Nunn was the first man of color to ever work in an NFL front office.  Time and time again, Art Rooney was ahead of his time in setting the standards of equality.

Rozelle_and_rooney_medium Art_rooney_2_medium

Integrity had no price tag with Art Rooney.  Before a game against the New York Giants, Rooney read in his own progam that Giants owner Tim Mara started his career as a "bookmaker."  Rooney called his five sons together, had them collect more than 10,000 game programs, and rip the Mara page out.  On the other side of the page was an advertisement, which was re-imbursed to the vendor.  Rooney would not allow a fellow owner to be embarrassed, even by the truth.

As a humanitarian, Art Rooney had few equals.  When a Pittsburgh Steeler was ever in the hospital, Rooney would visit every morning and bring a newspaper and fresh coffee.  Rooney's wife, Kathleen, would stop in later with home-baked mufins.  When boarding the plane after road games, each player was handed a couple beers while Art Rooney passed out cigars to all who wanted them.  No wonder the players loved him, so much so that one year the players walked to his house and sang Christmas carols.

One day at a racetrack, Rooney and a friend were approached by a little old lady.  She was sobbing loudly, telling Rooney how she just lost her last dollar.  Her family was hungry and her grandson needed medicine.  She bet what little money she had in order to make enough to buy food and medicine.  Rooney pulled $100 out of his pocket and gave it to her.  His friend quickly pointed out that the lady was an imposter.  She was a regular phony at the racetrack.  "I know that," said Rooney, "but did you see that performance?  She earned it."

Another day at the track, a good one for the Chief, ended with him driving home with heavy pockets.  He saw a priest waiting for a bus and, with his affinity for priests, stopped and offered the clergyman a ride.  During conversation the priest revealed that his church needed a new roof.  Rooney asked if the priest knew how much that would cost and was told $7,500.  The Chief reached into his bulging pocket, peeled off  $7,500 and handed it to the priest.  Astonished, the priest politely indicated he couldn't accept money that was not legit.  After Rooney identified the track he came from that day, the priest took the cash with dropped-jaw and looked to the heavens.  "That's OK," the Chief laughed,  "just say a prayer for me."


The most loyal Steeler not named Rooney is and was Dick Hoak, who played and coached for the team for 45 years.  Hoak remembers the Chief and his sons with great fondness.

"The way they always treated people puts them on another level," insisted Hoak.  "I sustained a concussion in the fourth game of my final year.  I spent a week in the hospital.  When I woke up, Mr. Rooney was there, bringing me the newspaper every morning.  He'd come back at night or call and ask if I needed anything.  Art and Dan were always coming into the locker room and talking to us about our families.  I'd talk to other players around the league and some of them had never met their owner.  I knew we were very fortunate in Pittsburgh to have people who thought they were just regular guys who owned the team.  I remember my best year, 1968, when Art called me into his office and gave me an envelope with a large check inside.  This was right in the middle of the season when we were losing often.  He didn't have to do that.  At the end of the season, Dan called me into his office and handed me another envelope, since I had a pretty good year.  I told him his father had already given me an envelope.  Dan said, 'well, here's another one.'  The Rooneys were like that with everyone.  They did so many things they didn't have to do and they weren't just trying to look good.  The Rooneys were and are solid gold."

After the hazards of Viet Nam tore up Rocky Bleier's foot and leg, Rooney refused to release him.  Long after others had gracefully given up on Bleier, Rooney kept him on the payroll for as long as he wanted to attempt a comeback.  Giving a break to a Viet Nam vet did not put Rooney in exclusive company.  Common sense and public relations value would lead most owners in the same direction.  What made Rooney's generosity extraordinary was that it extended years beyond any reasonable time frame.  It was Rooney being Rooney.  Bleier finally came back after five long years of rehabilitation.  He was a huge factor in all four Super Bowl seasons of the 1970s. 

When the Steelers won their first Super Bowl in January, 1975, Rooney received thousands of congratulatory letters.  He would eat dinner and on many evenings go back into the office to hand-write personal thank-you notes to thousands of fans and well-wishers.  When a rookie named Gabe Rivera became paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1983, Art Rooney was his instant source of strength and compassion.  Rivera was a frightened young man laying in a hospital a long way from his Texas home.  Rooney made certain, above and beyond, that every emotional and financial need was met to their fullest extent.

Following the 1980 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh's rookies gathered in the lobby of Three Rivers Stadium to await individual meetings.  An elderly fellow walked into the lobby in his button-down sweater and began to empty ashtrays and straighten up the room.  One of the rookies, Nate Johnson, asked the old chap if he was the janitor.  "No," the man said, "my name is Art Rooney and I do a little of everything around here."  Unphased by the faux pas, Rooney sat down and held court with the young players.

Social status and standing in life meant nothing to the Chief.  One of his long-standing habits was to stash his pockets with those little whiskey bottles whenever he took  a flight.  He would distribute the bottles to the grounds crew.  He once made sure that his son Dan saved a Super Bowl ticket for the mailman.  He treated everyone as if he or she was the most important person in the world, and people loved him for that.  Once a member of the grounds crew needed to ask the Rooneys a question before a game, so he went to the press box.  The Chief introduced the guy to dignitaries as "a member of our organization."  The worker was so startled, feeling 10 feet tall, he forgot what his question was.

"He dealt with people like no one else I've ever seen," said Dan.  "He made you feel as if the most important thing he had to do was to talk to you.  He made you feel as if you were a friend.  It wasn't planned and it wasn't calculated.  He always told us that he wasn't a big shot and that we weren't either."

Art Rooney, like the rest of us, was not without shortcomings.  Being a warm-hearted and trusting human being is not a good quality when hiring coaches.  Up until he turned the reigns over to his son, Rooney hired three decent coaches and 10 bad ones.  One of the bad ones he hired three different times (racetrack buddy Walt Kiesling).  Moreover, he gave these coaches carte blanch to do whatever they wanted.  They could drill the team into the ground (Bill Austin), trade away all their draft picks (Buddy Parker), cut Johnny Unitas (Kiesling) and even not show up for games (Johnny Blood).  Rooney's tolerance level was frustratingly high and the scoreboard often showed it.

But no finer man ever owned a professional sports team.  Art Modell, former owner of the Cleveland Browns, was Rooney's rival, friend and colleague for a quarter of a century.  Modell characterized Rooney perhaps better than anyone could.  "If I am ever in a flood," said Modell, "I am going to stand next to Art Rooney, because he stands on higher ground."