Art Rooney was born in Coultersville, a town east of Pittsburgh, into a family that made their living as coal miners and steel workers. His parents moved their nine children to Pittsburgh when Art was at a tender age. They lived on the second floor of his father’s bar. It was a tough neighborhood but it wasn’t all bad. There were plenty of youngsters in the neighborhood and the kids in those days played baseball, basketball and football from morning to night and enjoyed boxing as well.
Mr. Rooney’s love of sports was evident throughout his formative years, but by the time he considered investing in his own team, he reputedly earned the money in a non-conventional way. Art was not shy at the race track and some of his winnings certainly helped to keep his pro football team afloat in those early years. Some believe his betting wins possibly financed his NFL franchise purchase.
Art owned several semi-professional sports teams over the years in Pittsburgh. He was able to bring his football team into the National Football League after purchasing the franchise in 1933 for the sum of $2,500. He decided to make the franchise purchase after the Pennsylvania “Blue” Laws were voted out. The Blue Laws prohibited doing much of anything on a Sunday, including playing professional football.
Art’s love for baseball shined through when he first named his professional football team the Pirates, even though there was already a professional sports team of the same name in town. In 1941, the team opted for new uniforms and a name change. Pittsburgh was the steel capital when Art famously responded to a newsman’s inquiry about what he thought of his team: “They look like the same old Steelers!” Fame and glory did not come to the Pittsburgh Steelers quickly and the “same old Steelers” line followed them for a long time.
As Art said: “We lost so often that you didn’t feel like going out in the daytime. You ducked your friends. You went up and down alleys to get to your office. Everybody asked you the same thing, ‘What happened?'” It wasn’t until their 42nd season, with Richard Nixon in office, that they claimed their first championship by winning the AFC Central Division Title.
Fortunately the Steelers didn’t have to wait long to win a Super Bowl title. The team went on to capture Lombardi Trophies in 1975, 1976, 1979, 1980 and again in 2006 and 2009. Mr. Rooney was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1964.
Art married his wife Kathleen, remaining together for 51 years until her death in 1982. Together they had five sons, Dan, Arthur Jr., Tim, John, and Pat. Each son proudly became involved in the family businesses, either the Steelers franchise, Mr. Rooney’s race tracks, or another of the family enterprise.
Any time Mr. Rooney paid a post-game visit to the Steelers’ locker room, the players would stand out of resepct, no matter how exhausted they were after a hard fought game. Art Rooney was known as a man who made everyone feel as though they had his undivided attention during the time he was talking to them. He was friends with famous people in both the political and entertainment worlds as well as with doorman and the members of the ground crew at Three Rivers Stadium. He was known for writing notes to coaches and players’ families as well.
Once, Art wrote to a coach who had just signed a former Steeler, telling him what a fine young man he had joining his program. He also wrote a note to a mother of a player who was traded soon after joining the team, telling her he was proud her son was part of the team for the time he was there. Only someone special would go that extra mile. Those notes were treasured by those lucky enough to receive them.
Sports wasn’t the only circle of fame that Art Rooney traveled in. Mr. Rooney was as well known in political circles as he was in his home parish church, St. Peters Roman Catholic Church on the North Side. In his later years, Mr. Rooney was at a dinner with the bishop and other church dignitaries in attendance. Mr. Rooney, being the proud man that he was, wanted to join the line to pay his respects to those at the main table. He struggled to get up, refusing assistance, only to find that the bishop and dignitaries came over to him.
Mr. Rooney was the ultimate “Proud Pittsburgher” who never forgot where he came from and made the little guy feel as important as the famous people who crossed his path. Art Rooney once said, “If you ask a Pittsburgher where some place is, he’ll stop and tell you, and if he has nothing to do, he will take you there.”
Art, the famous gray-haired, cigar smoking gentlemen in his later years was also known for being the kindest and most charitable sports team owner who said that “losing is a terrible thing.” Art Rooney was a winner in life, both in the sports world and in his private world. He will forever be a winner in Pittsburgh.
Written by Diane Gliozzi