Sunday’s  National Football League AFC title game will feature the Pittsburgh Steelers against the New York Jets.  If the Steelers win they will appear in their eighth Super Bowl.  They have won six, the most of any team.  It all began with horse racing.

The Steelers founding owner, Art Rooney Sr., had strong connections to horse racing, as a gambler and owner of racetracks and bloodstock.  Mr. Rooney was the son of Irish immigrants from County Down, who settled in Coulterville, Pennsylvania, where he was born on January 27, 1901 (he died in 1988 at age 87).  He was raised on the North Side of Pittsburgh (Old Allegheny) and lived in an apartment over his father’s saloon.  He attended Duquesne University, spurning a scholarship offer to play football for Knute Rockne at the University of Notre Dame.  He played semipro baseball and semipro football.  This Irish Catholic kid could take care of himself–he was a welterweight and middleweight AAU boxing champion.

Mr. Rooney purchased the National Football League franchise for Pittsburgh during the Great Depression, in 1933, for $2,500 and named the team the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The capital came from Mr. Rooney’s winnings at Saratoga Race Track.  Then, in 1936, he parlayed a small sum (either $10 or $500, as the reports vary) into approximately $300,000 in two days at Saratoga and the old Empire City racetracks.  This money was used to get his team up and running by hiring coaches and players.  One of his early player acquisitions was Byron “Whizzer” White, who President John F. Kennedy appointed to the U. S. Supreme Court.  Justice White said that Mr. Rooney was “The finest man I’ve ever known.”

For forty years, until the early 1970s, the Steelers were doormats in the NFL.  With the hiring of Coach Chuck Noll and the acquisition of such players as Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Lynn Swan, John Stallworth, and many others, the Steelers became the dominant team of the 1970s.  The foundation had been laid for the Steelers to become perennial contenders.

Mr. Rooney, called “the Chief,” was a horseplayer all his life.  He regularly attended the Kentucky Derby, where he could be seen with the trademark cigar in his mouth.  The Rooney Family over the years have owned and operated horse and dog racetracks in Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont.  The Art Rooney Pace is a stakes race for 3-year-olds run at the family-owned Empire City at Yonkers Raceway.  Mr. Rooney owned a 350-acre Thoroughbred breeding farm in Maryland.  

Two other NFL founding owners, Charles Bidwell Sr. of the Chicago Cardinals and Tim Mara of the New York Giants, also had horse-racing ties.  Mr. Bidwell was a racetrack owner and Mr. Mara was a legal bookie.

Mr. Rooney’s concern for his players was best illustrated by Rocky Bleier, who came to the Steelers from Notre Dame.  Mr. Bleier was drafted into the U. S. Army after finishing his rookie season with the Steelers in 1968.  He volunteered for duty in Vietnam.  In August of 1969, he was wounded in his left thigh when his platoon was ambushed in a rice paddy.  He went down and was wounded a second time in his right lower leg by shrapnel from a grenade.  The medical prognosis was that his football playing days were over.  While Mr. Bleier was recovering, he received a postcard:  “Rock, the team’s not doing well.  We need you.  Art Rooney.”  Mr. Bleier was a starter on the Steelers throughout their glory years in the 1970s.

Art Rooney was a beloved figure, a humanitarian, and one of the greatest sportsmen of all time.  The seed money for this remarkable life came from some savvy handicapping by a young man from western Pennsylvania.  The sport of horse racing can be proud to have claimed “the Chief” as one of its own. 

(Ironically, given the Steelers origins, the Rooney family in 2008 was forced by the NFL to sell part of the team, while retaining control, in order to comply with League rules pertaining to  owners being involved with gambling business interests like racetracks and racinos.)

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business


  1. For additional quotes and information about Art Rooney Sr.’s prodigious horseplayer skills, see this post I wrote two years ago, which also appeared on Bloodhorse.com and on the All Over Albany website: http://foolishpleasure-valerie.blogspot.com/2009/01/legendary-football-team-that-horse.html