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The Winning Ways of a Thirty-year Loser
Gerald Holland
November 23, 1964
When Art Rooney founded pro football's Pittsburgh Steelers a black notebook served as his office, a handshake closed his deals and he dreamed of championships. Since then he has become a millionaire, made a million friends, built a million-dollar racing interest and has given up trying to run things from a black book. But he and Pittsburgh are still looking for that title
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November 23, 1964

The Winning Ways Of A Thirty-year Loser

When Art Rooney founded pro football's Pittsburgh Steelers a black notebook served as his office, a handshake closed his deals and he dreamed of championships. Since then he has become a millionaire, made a million friends, built a million-dollar racing interest and has given up trying to run things from a black book. But he and Pittsburgh are still looking for that title

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Art Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers football club, stood in the lobby of Pittsburgh's Roosevelt Hotel in his stocking feet. Clenched between his teeth was a 6� stogie made of tobacco grown in the Amish country of Pennsylvania. His coat pockets bulged with a variety of papers, postcards, racetrack programs on which he had noted his winnings for income-tax purposes, a small, fat notebook bound with a stout rubber band, more stogies and an apparently inexhaustible supply of large Havana-type cigars of which he would chew one half and smoke the other.

The little black notebook was, by all odds, the most important item in the assortment. It has been called Art Rooney's private office. It contains the most detailed information about some of his principal interests: the Steelers, the grain market, the whereabouts of his running horses, the state of affairs at Shamrock, his Thoroughbred breeding farm of 387 acres in Sykesville, Md. and all pertinent facts concerning the 50 days of racing he conducts at the Liberty Bell Park harness-racing track just outside Philadelphia. There was a time when Rooney was able to run all his business out of the black notebook—football, fight promoting (he put on the heavyweight fight in which Jersey Joe Walcott took the championship from Ezzard Charles), political maneuvering as Republican boss of Pittsburgh's 22nd Ward, big-time wagering on horses. But the black book does not suffice today. In an era of multimillion-dollar professional football, Rooney finds he must call upon the familiar accouterments of modern business—lawyers and accountants, mouthpieces and peacemouthers. Yet he clings to the little book just the same and yearns for the old days when a handshake was enough to commit a man to a business deal or put a few grand riding on the nose of a horse.

As Art Rooney stood talking in the hotel lobby, Boots Lewis, who—when he has nothing better to do—operates the shoe-shining concession in the barber shop, came hurrying up with a pair of shoes. "You did it again, Mr. Rooney," Boots said. "I take off your shoes in your office, and you forget and go walking across the lobby in your socks."

Rooney looked down and laughed. "Well, what do you know," he said, slipping his feet into the shoes. He held out one foot and nodded. "That's as fine a shine as I ever saw. Nobody can put a shine on a shoe like you, Boots."

Boots frowned a little. "Anybody can shine a shoe," he said. Boots takes no pride in the art. Shoe-shining is a sometime thing with him. His true role is that of personal aide to Coach Buddy Parker of the Steelers. They have been together since Parker's days at Centenary College, and during the season Boots takes on stature as close friend and confidante of the head man.

Even with his shoes on, Art Rooney stood a little below average height—chunky, thick-necked, his iron-gray hair brushed back in a way that gave it the look of a tall, thinning crew cut. He seemed completely relaxed, for all the complicated entries in that little black book of his.

Considering that Pittsburgh has suffered through 30 seasons without an NFL championship and is now making giant strides toward extending this nonrecord to 31, Rooney and his team have held the affection of the fans remarkably well. This season Quarterback Ed Brown and Coach Parker have been roundly booed when things went badly during home games, and in his booth, next to the television broadcasters, Art Rooney has cringed—although his name has not been mentioned in the assortment of uncomplimentary yells. Yet, given a bit of luck and some fair weather, the attendance should be even better this season than last, for the Steelers are playing all their home games in the 55,000-seat Pitt Stadium instead of Forbes Field, home of the Pirates, which has a capacity of only 35,500 and is not designed to show pro football to its best advantage.

As for Rooney, Pittsburgh fans seem to agree that he has been in there trying ever since he stopped treating the Steelers as some kind of hilarious hobby. Those were the days when the Steeler offices were on the ground floor of the Fort Pitt Hotel. Rooney kept them open around the clock, and guests—pals from the fields of sports and politics—used to come in and leave through a window that opened onto the street instead of taking the long way around through the hotel lobby. In 1946 Rooney moved the Steelers to the fourth floor of an office building, and he recalls how Pie Traynor, the old Pittsburgh ballplayer and a regular at the nightly card games at the Fort Pitt, refused to come into the new offices at all. He was sure that he would forget where he was and step through the fourth-floor window some night. The offices are back on the ground floor at the Roosevelt now, but there are no windows opening on the street, and the formal entrances and exits through doorways seem to have had the effect of creating a certain air of dignity that the old crowd would have found oppressive.

Rooney showed he was going to take his football team more seriously in 1946, when he hired Jock Sutherland, the University of Pittsburgh's famous coach. Before that he had established a record for player salaries when he paid Byron (Whizzer) White, now a Justice of the Supreme Court, $15,900 for the 1938 season. Buddy Parker is among the highest-paid head coaches in the NFL. Moreover, Parker is given all the assistants he wants (he is getting along with six) and a completely free hand in directing the team. When Parker decided that the squad should train in Kingston, R.I. last summer, Rooney agreed, although it meant spending $40,000 more than it would have cost to train the Steelers somewhere closer to Pittsburgh's steel mills.

Back in the Roosevelt Hotel lobby, shoes glistening and on his feet, Art Rooney was launched into a conversation on one of his favorite topics, the Steelers of yesterseason.

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