Art Rooney was an American businessman and a former boxer, best known as the founding owner of the NFL team ‘Pittsburgh Steelers.’ Born in Coulterville, Pennsylvania, Art moved with his parents to Pittsburgh at the age of 12 . He played many sports, but his main focus remained on baseball, football, and amateur boxing. In 1933, he paid a franchise fee of $2,500 to the ‘National Football League’ for the foundation of the team ‘Pittsburgh Steelers’ (then called Pittsburgh Pirates).He was almost out of cash and struggled to take the team forward, but a stroke of luck helped him take the team forward. Following the culmination of the ‘Second World War,’ Art took on the duties of the President for his team. He also owned the ‘Yonkers Raceway,’ along with ‘Liberty Bell Park Racetrack’ in the city. He was inducted into the ‘Pro Football Hall of Fame’ in 1964.
Childhood & Early Life
Art Rooney was born Arthur Joseph Rooney Sr., on January 27, 1901, in Coulterville, Pennsylvania, to Maggie and Dan Rooney. He grew up among eight kids in the family (four brothers and three sisters).
His great-grandparents had moved to Canada from Ireland following the outbreak of the Irish potato famine. His father, Dan, ran a saloon in the Monongahela Valley area while his mother was a homemaker.
In 1913, Dan moved to Pittsburgh. His father opened a saloon and a cafe on the ground floor of the building they lived-in.
Art attended ‘St. Peter’s Catholic School’ and ‘Duquesne University’ prep school. He was an active athlete since his childhood. He played multiple sports, including baseball, football, and boxing.
He enrolled at the ‘Temple University’ on a sports scholarship. Following his graduation, he decide to pursue a career in sports - boxing being the number one sport, followed by baseball and then football.
In 1918, at the age of 17, he ended up winning the AAU welterweight belt in amateur boxing. He also qualified for the 1920 Olympic Games and played minor league baseball with ’Michigan’ (Flint Vehicles) and ‘Wheeling’ (Wheeling Stogies), West Virginia. In the ‘Middle Atlantic League,’ he was the second top batsman.
Pittsburgh had a semi-pro football team then in which Art also played.
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He decided to venture into the ‘NFL’ as a businessman in 1933, when he was 32 years old. In 1933, he registered ‘Pittsburgh Steelers’ (then Pittsburgh Pirates) with the NFL. He named the team ‘pirates’ to pay his respect to the baseball club of the city that he was fond of.
The NFL had started in 1920 and since then, they required a team from Pittsburgh as the area was dense and hence, highly profitable. The team, however, struggled badly due to lack of finances. During the first few years of its inception, the team did not even have a coach.
Art then took an alternate route to collect money to take his team forward. He betted his remaining money and won many bets, accumulating a huge sum of money in a short time.
In 1936, he took a huge risk of betting and won a parlay at the ‘Saratoga Race Course,’ which won him $160,000. He put the money to good use and hired a coach and paid contract amount to his players. But despite a lot of facilities the team still struggled to emerge strong in the NFL.
In 1941, when the funds ran out, Art sold the team to a NY businessman Alex Thompson. He used the funds to buy 70 percent stakes in ‘Philadelphia Eagles,’ while 30 percent of the shares were owned by his friend Bert Bell. Soon after that, Art managed to persuade Alex Thompson to trade teams and hence, he re-owned the Pittsburgh team.
By 1942, the team had performed poorly in the NFL and in the next year, it finally change its name to ‘Pittsburgh Steelers.’ However, due to lack of finances and consistently poor performance, the team merged with ‘Philadelphia Eagles’ and ‘Chicago Cardinals’ briefly. The ‘Second World War’ was also a reason behind the move.
In 1946, after the war was over, Art became the team’s president. Baseball was a far popular sport back then and people compared Pittsburgh’s great baseball team to their mediocre football team. It served as a bad influence on the morale of players and coaches.
The team’s luck did not change until the 1970s. Since then ‘Pittsburgh Steelers’ has fared as one of the strongest teams in the ‘National Football League.’
A sportsman at heart, Art also played a huge role in reviving the game of hockey in Pittsburgh by using his influence at the NHL. He became a part-owner of city’s hockey team, ‘Pittsburgh Penguins’ in the late 1960s.He also became the owner of ‘Yonkers Raceway’ in 1972 and later acquired ‘Liberty Bell Park Racetrack.’
Personal Life & Legacy
Art Rooney married Kathleen Rooney (née McNulty) in 1931 and the couple remained married to each other, until her death in 1982. He fathered five children with his wife - Timothy Rooney, Art Rooney Jr., Patrick Rooney, John Rooney, and Dan Rooney. His great-granddaughters, Kate Mara and Rooney Mara are popular actors.
In 1964, he was inducted into the ‘Pro Football Hall of Fame.’ Duquesne University also honoured by naming its football field after him.
Art passed away on August 25, 1988, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was 87 years old at the time of his death.