Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Professional Football Comes to Rooney

Art Rooney was one of the pillars of the professional football community from its early years. Professional football began in 1920, but the sport struggled to succeed in its early years. Of the original 11 teams, only George Halas’s Decatur Staleys and the Racine Cardinals would make it. Teams that dropped out were often replaced by teams that would quickly fail thereafter. 

A few years into the Depression, Football commissioner Joe F. Carr began to recruit ownership from larger cities. Art Rooney was already a successful sports promoter. Carr approached him about bringing a new team into professional football for a $2,500 entry fee. Young Rooney was not shy about risking the money. Like William Wrigley, who was motivated out of civic pride to bring Chicago a winner when he bought the Cubs, Rooney had civic pride in Pittsburgh and wanted to start a professional team at home.

His Pittsburgh club joined the fledgling professional football league on July 8, 1933. Rooney named his team the Pirates, mimicking the baseball franchise, but changed the name to the Steelers in 1940. Through many years, Rooney would call on local help and friends from his other endeavors to help manage various aspects of the team. Early and often he called on Walt Kiesling. Walt was willing to do most anything to help the cause. The first decade of the team’s existence proved a woeful financial and athletic exercise for Rooney. He was no talent scout and those he relied on to help were no better. 

Rooney didn’t have a franchise player like Red Grange to help him out of his financial stew, but he did have a miraculous day at the track that would put him on solid financial ground for the foreseeable future. In the summer of 1936 at Saratoga Springs, Rooney came close to “sweeping the card” and won over $250,000. Rooney could play the ponies! Rooney would later explain that he would have never bet the racehorses had he not done a lot of research and gave himself a good chance to win. He may have taken risks, but he was astute at what he did. Anxious to see his team have a winning season, Rooney decided to roll the dice for his football team. The next several years would see a parade of colorful characters join his organization.

 Post is taken from Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout.

Copyright 2014, Sporting Chance Press.  Patrick McCaskey is a senior director of the Chicago Bears, Chairman of Sports Faith International that recognizes athletes who lead exemplary lives, and  Chairman of Catholic Radio Station WSFI 88.5 FM. Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devout and the Devoted by Patrick McCaskey published by Sporting Chance Press and available on Amazon and selected stores and public libraries.