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And he said, "Well, Bulldog. You just cut back one time too many."
The down-to-earth, ward-loving, last-hurrah millionaire president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Arthur J. Rooney is one of the supreme contradictions in sport. Perhaps the most successful horseplayer America has ever known—he is said to have won a quarter of a million dollars on a single day—he is professional football's champion loser. In 35 years his team has never earned so much as a divisional title. His span of defeat is enormous: he had both Johnny Blood and Johnny Unitas, but one when he was past his prime and the other when he had hardly begun. Like George Halas, Rooney once played as a pro himself. His team was called Hope-Harvey. He founded it, owned it, coached it and even half-backed it against the likes of Jim Thorpe and the Canton Bulldogs. Sometimes he was a winner in his Hope-Harvey days, but then....
In 1933 I paid $2,500 for a National Football League franchise, which I named the Pirates because the Pittsburgh baseball team was called the Pirates. It wasn't until 1940, when we held a contest for a new name, that we became the Steelers. Joe Carr's girlfriend—Joe's been our ticket manager right along—his girlfriend won the contest. There were people who said, "That contest don't look like it was on the level."
I bought the franchise because I figured it would be good to have a league schedule and that eventually professional football would be a big sport. The reason I bought at that particular time was that we knew Pennsylvania was going to repeal some of its blue laws, which had prevented Sunday football. The laws were changed, but a couple of days before our opening game the mayor phoned me and said, "I got a complaint here from a preacher that this game should not be allowed. The blue-law repeal hasn't been ratified yet by the city council."
"Well," I said, "I certainly never heard of this thing, ratification."
Nobody else had heard anything about it either, until the preacher brought it up. The mayor told me he didn't know what I could do about it, but that I should go see a fellow named Harmar Denny, who was director of public safety and over the police department. I went to Denny and I said, "We're in the big leagues now. We can't have a thing like this happen to our opening game." But this Denny was pretty much of a straitlaced guy. All he would say was that he was going away for the weekend. "Good," I told him. "You go away." Then I went to see the superintendent of police, a man named McQuade, and told him my problem.
"Oh, that there's ridiculous," he said. "Give me a couple of tickets and I'll go to the game Sunday. That'll be the last place they'll look for me if they want me to stop the thing." So McQuade hid out at the game, and Pittsburgh got started in the NFL.
We didn't draw many people in those days. The colleges got most of the publicity. In Pittsburgh, the University of Pittsburgh was the big wheel. They'd draw 30,000 people, maybe 35,000, while we'd draw 3,000. So in 1938 I did something I thought would bring a little class to the game. I signed Whizzer White out of Colorado University for a salary of $15,800, which was the highest salary pro football was paying at the time. White was very hard to sign. I don't remember what the last $800 was for—whether it was for exhibition games, or because he had a Rhodes scholarship and needed the eight to go to Oxford, or what. Anyhow, the 15 got pro football a lot publicity, and of course White was an asset to the sport, an extremely high-class fellow, as you might judge from his going on to become a Supreme Court Justice. But I caught plenty of heat from some of the other owners about White's salary. A lot of them thought we were out of line. George Richards of Detroit said it was terrible paying White that kind of money. George Marshall phoned me from Washington and said, "What are you trying to do?" I told him I thought it was a great thing for professional football to get someone like White to play the game, which I did believe. Everybody on the team respected White highly. If he had been big-headed he could have got himself in a lot of trouble, but he was a fine back, and he was right with the boys. So we didn't mind paying him the highest salary in football.