The thing that always impressed me about the late Art Rooney was that he seemed the personification of the Leo Durocher dictum, “Nice guys finish last.” Except in Art’s case, it had to read, “Nice guys finish last--and they couldn’t care less.”
A lot of men who own sporting clubs and who yearn to have the designation “Sportsman” after their names are about as sporting as a hunting lion.
I sat next to Mr. Rooney at the Super Bowl in Tulane Stadium in 1975. He had owned his team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, for 42 years, and this was the first time they had won anything. You would have expected him to be jumping up and down. Instead, he watched the game with a kind of bemused detachment and seemed to spend most of his time watching the Minnesota quarterback, Fran Tarkenton, running for his life all afternoon. When Tarkenton got smashed in the end zone for a safety, Rooney winced and shook his head. “He’s playing his heart out,” he said sadly, almost regretfully.
Owner Rooney could empathize with playing your heart out and failing. His teams had done it all his life. All Americans like to think they root for underdogs. Art Rooney not only did, he was content to be an underdog. Your basic owner, when he has had one or two losing seasons, begins to blast his players publicly, fire the coach, blame the media, start a vendetta against the officiating, threaten to move the franchise or sell it. Rooney just cheerfully adopted a somebody’s-got-to-finish-last attitude. When the professional football leagues merged, and the commissioner called for volunteers to jump the established National Football League and join a conference from the upstart American Football League, Rooney volunteered.
Art Rooney never made waves. He ran his team on an order of benevolence seldom seen in professional sports. He was just a kind of complicated chaplain. All he required of a coach was that he be able to hold his liquor, play his hand out and go to church occasionally. He once had a coach, the infamous Johnny Blood (nee McNally), who was famous for perching on hotel ledges or the tops of bar tables and singing Galway Bay. He wasn’t much of a coach, but he had been a helluva player, and Rooney liked his style.
Johnny Blood used to come and see me when I lived in Malibu. He had a crusade: He wanted to get Whizzer White, his ex-football player and Supreme Court Justice, to be President. As so often happens, we fell to Art Rooney stories until one day I had to tell him, “John, I think you got the wrong guy. Why don’t we make Art Rooney President?!” Johnny Blood thought a minute, then shook his head. “Art would probably give Texas to some country that needed it.”
Loyalty was more than a noun to Art Rooney. It was the most important word in the language. I was introduced to Art Rooney many years ago by the late great sportswriter Vincent X. Flaherty. Vince was Rooney’s type of guy. Flamboyant, flashy, cocky--and Irish. Everything, except the last, that Art Rooney wasn’t. Years later, when Vince fell on hard times, Art Rooney was one of the few who treated him exactly the same as when he had been king of the sports pages. Whenever Art Rooney was in town, for an Eclipse Award banquet, a league game, a horse race or a Hollywood party, Vince was with him.
Much has been made of the story that Rooney once won a quarter of a million dollars in one day in 1936 on a parlay at the Saratoga race track. Art just let the story grow. He didn’t talk about it. But the legend that it was the seed money for his later operations was false. Art Rooney was a pretty good businessman. He not only bet the horses, he owned the race tracks.
I think he thought it was nice his team won all those Super Bowls --but not necessary. Art was like every gambler who ever lived: Winning was secondary. Getting in the game was the important thing. He sometimes even seemed to be sad when television poured all that money into his team and his sport. It took all the fun out of it. It became just another prime-time miniseries.
“What are you going to do when they turn that little red light off--when TV goes on to new sensations? Are you still going to play football for $100 a game?” Art used to ask his star players.
Art Rooney knew lots of guys who played for $100 a game. And he never forgot a one of them. Art Rooney never forgot where he came from--because he stayed right there. He died in the same house he was brought up in. They say the neighborhood decayed around him. Well, if Art Rooney stayed there, it was a little piece of Camelot. They used to quote Will Rogers as saying he never met a man he didn’t like. Well, Art Rooney could go him one better. He never met a man who didn’t like him.