The Rooney boys, Dan, Art Jr., Tim, John and Pat, are heirs to a sporting empire, but will they attain the style and proportions of the rumpled old man who is their father and got the show on the road? Art Rooney Sr., the legend and founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is himself the son of a saloonkeeper. He could have played football for Knute Rockne, and he did box professionally, play for a semi-pro team against Jim Thorpe's Canton Bulldogs and bat .372 and steal 55 bases for Wheeling, W. Va. of the Middle Atlantic League in 1925.
He considered becoming a priest, but instead promoted all the boxing in Pittsburgh out of a seedy hotel office which people entered by stepping through the window. He established himself as one of the best horseplayers of all time, once winning, the story goes, $250,000 in two days of racing at Saratoga. He bought an NFL franchise in 1933 for $2,500 and kept it afloat by betting the horses.
Art Sr. has lived in the same neighborhood all his life, even as it has declined over the last 30 years into more and more of a slum. In 1968 he drove calmly home through Pittsburgh's worst racial outburst. Now, at 72, he walks from his house to a Pirate game at Three Rivers Stadium accompanied by a crowd of black kids, whom he jokes around with and brings into his box. He wears baggy pants and almost always has a dollar cigar in his teeth at such an angle that his whole mouth is blotted out when seen from the front. On making a new acquaintance he removes the cigar and smiles like a boy who has just been handed a puppy.
"What you have to realize," says Pat Rooney, "is that my father is a great man. None of his sons are."
But Art Sr. never borrowed a dime in his life. "I was too stupid," he says without the least sign of regret. "I didn't know you could." His sons, with hardly any capital except their name, have borrowed over $60 million. With their father they constitute 10 different corporations that own or control the Steelers, Yonkers Raceway in New York, the William Penn and Continental Racing Associations at Liberty Bell Park in Philadelphia, Green Mountain Race Track in Vermont and Palm Beach Kennel Club, a greyhound track in Florida. Art Sr. is sole owner of Shamrock Farms in Maryland, another of the family's enterprises. The Rooneys used to own a soccer team. They have made an offer to buy Garden State Park in New Jersey and they are building a thoroughbred track outside Philadelphia. If the boys are not great, they are certainly doing well, and they all reflect their father in various ways.
For one thing they still do what he tells them. "The old man is policy," says a man who has been close to the family, and the boys readily agree that they all talk to him every day, by phone or in person, and that if he rules against something they won't do it.
They also take pride in being down-to-earth like their father. They were all brought up in a poor neighborhood with other Irish kids, not feeling any different from anybody else. They knew, of course, that very rough kids refrained from swearing in the Rooney yard and that their father owned a football team. But they also knew that the family drove to the games in a car that sometimes had to be backed up steep hills.
They knew, too, that most of the time their father was off playing the horses, arranging some kind of athletic affair or swapping stories with Toots Shor or Billy Conn. But Art Sr. always came home on the weekends, and if at the end of a day he found himself as nearby as, say, Cleveland, he would always drive home.
Art Sr. was not one for heart-to-heart talks with his sons, but he kept their attention. When they put up a punching bag he would walk in and work out on it briefly in such a way as to leave the mouth of every kid present hanging open. He would also follow such unusual Christian procedures as bringing panhandlers in off the street for sandwiches. Too, when someone needed an authoritative opinion he would provide it, as when Art Jr., known as Artie, complained that Timmy had just hit a kid over the head with a piece of sidewalk, which didn't seem fair. Art Sr. said, "When you fight, you fight with whatever you need."
The Rooney manse, an old Victorian house, had, and still has, white columns in front, 12 rooms inside and a multipurpose backyard. The boys dug tunnels under it for war games, and in the winter they iced over the macadamized part for hockey, so they had plenty to do without hanging around pool halls. Their father told them never to hang around pool halls, and since he had hung around them enough as a boy to become a shark of some note, they figured he knew what he was talking about.