On the day that we commemorate the death of the Steelers’ founder, Art Rooney, it’s worth reflecting on the gentleman the franchise and city of Pittsburgh lost in 1988.
His team suffered forty years in the wilderness except for 1947 when they finally made the playoffs… only to lose.
While other franchises enjoyed success, Rooney was always the gentleman who other owners wished to succeed. He was viewed as a kind, friendly man who would rather be asked for a favor than accept one. Despite the failure of his football team, Mr. Rooney never stopped from being viewed as that genial person who would always be willing to give you a hand up if you needed one.
There are many stories that deserve to be part of the Art Rooney legacy. When he passed away, the Pittsburgh Press printed several stories that reflect what a true gentleman Art Rooney was and why the world would be a worse place without him.
Ralph Giampaolo was a member of the Three Rivers Stadium ground crew who had a kidney transplant in 1986. Giampaolo was hospitalized for three months, during which time Mr. Rooney visited him a least once a week. He made sure that Giampaolo’s widowed mother had a ride to and from the hospital and offered help with any bills the family incurred.
“Even as a kid I heard what a great man Mr. Rooney was,” Giampaolo said. “But until I started working here, I thought no one is that good. Mr. Rooney is. Next to my father, he’s the man I’ve most respected in my life.”
Gabriella Tamasi, a cleaning lady years ago at the NFL office in New York, also learned what it meant to be Rooney’s friend. “He was the only guy at our meetings who got to know her,” NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle said.
“Invariably, a couple of weeks after he saw her each time, Gabriella would tell us she got a post card from Mr. Rooney from Canada or a small gift from Mr. Rooney. He always took the time to make her feel good.”
Steelers assistant coach Dick Hoak severely injured his head late in his playing days. Mr. Rooney visited him every morning and every night.
Hoak also experienced Rooney’s generosity. “I was having a good season in 1968 when he called me into the office and handed me a big check. ‘I want you to have this,’ he said. ‘The team’s lousy, but you’re playing great. I appreciate it.’”
Hoak repaid Rooney with loyalty years later when he turned down the head coaching job with the Pittsburgh Maulers of the rival USFL. “He’s the only reason I didn’t take the job in 1984. It was for a lot more money than I was making here, and I was all set to go. But there was no way I could walk across town to the other team.”
Bernard “Baldy” Regan, who grew up on the North Side and was a classmate of Rooney’s son, Art J., said Mr. Rooney got him a job as a county detective in 1960.
“All the kids on the North Side knew if they could just get to Mr. Rooney, they’d have a shot in life. You knew he would help. Me, I grew up without a father. But being a friend of Mr. Rooney, that opened doors big and wide. I owe my life to him.” Regan became a district magistrate on the North Side.
Monsignor Charles Owen remembered Rooney bailing out an old friend Gus Greenlee, who was having financial difficulties. “One day Art threw a newspaper at him. Inside the newspaper were ten $1,000 bills. That’s the way Art worked.”
Al Davis, the egotistic owner of the Los Angeles Raiders, never appeared to be on friendly terms with his rival franchise, especially during the ‘70s.
Davis experienced Mr. Rooney’s thoughtfulness after his wife Carol had a stroke and was in a coma for fifteen days in 1979. “Art Rooney called me every day and sent letters like you wouldn’t believe. He kept my spirits up and gave me the strength and confidence that things would turn out OK. I love that man.”
Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell suggested, “Art Rooney is the most popular sports figure in history.”
Former Pirates manager Chuck Tanner acknowledged, “I want to be like Mr. Rooney. If there’s any one man, I pattern myself after, it’s him. A guy like him makes you realize how great this world is.”
The Signature of Pittsburgh
The Pittsburgh Press left the last word to Archbishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia. He knew Mr. Rooney only a short time but said Rooney made a lasting impression.
“Right from the beginning, I had a great affection for him. His faith alone creates friends. But I also found him to be a man of great gentility, a man of solidity.
“He inspired me a great deal. Just his sanctity and his calmness did that. I always had the impression that no matter what crisis befelled Pittsburgh, Art would be very placid and very calm. He had that strong faith that God would take care of everything.”
“I spoke once at a tribute for Art, and I called him the signature of Pittsburgh. When you think of Pittsburgh it’s hard not to think of Art Rooney. He’s a man who will just go on living – not physically of course, but mentally and spiritually.”
“Art Rooney will always be with us.”