Fact: Art Rooney bought the Steelers in 1933. The Chief's big score at Saratoga did not happen until 1937. But why let facts get in the way of a good story, right?
May 30, 2010 4:00 AM
Art Rooney in 1938, about the time he had his big day at Saratoga and five years after he bought the Steelers.
Byron Leftwich, left, and Charlie Batch talk something over during one of last week's OTAs.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Great fairy tales of the past century: Babe Ruth "called" his shot, Oswald acted alone, and Art Rooney Sr. bought the Steelers with winnings from the racetrack.
Although many have exposed the Rooney/Steelers myth as fable, it will not disappear. Author Rob Ruck does a great job of dispelling the folk tale in his comprehensive new book, "Rooney, A Sporting Life." It's the most finely detailed and researched book ever written about the Steelers' founder and it is long, 641 pages worth. It's been a decade in the works.
Ruck and his wife, Duquesne journalism professor Maggie Jones Patterson, co-authored the book that lost another co-author Michael P. Weber, who died in 2001. Ruck is a noted Pitt history lecturer who has written other books and he succeeded where the likes of famed author James Michener failed. Many writers had tried before them to write a book about Art Rooney Sr. while he was alive and after the Steelers won four Super Bowls. Michener, a Doylestown, Pa., native and a Pulitzer Prize winner, spent several days with Rooney before he was turned down.
Rooney died in 1988 and this long-awaited book is the final of an independent trilogy, if you will, that comes on the heels of separate books written by Dan Rooney and his brother and former Steelers personnel head Art Rooney Jr.
But back to the fairy tale. Ruck et. al. wrote the most comprehensive details of how Rooney won big at New York's Saratoga race track in 1937, perhaps as much as $300,000, a king's ransom during the Depression. The story was famous not only in Pittsburgh but in New York and helped turn Rooney into a household name before the Steelers won anything.
The Steelers were already 4 years old by the time of Rooney's famous Saratoga winnings, and the book details all of it.
However, in a review of "Rooney" in the PG on April 21, Allen Barra writes, "In 1933, he paid a $2,500 entrance fee for a National Football League team with money he had won in a parlay of long-shot winners at the Saratoga Race Course. (That is merely one of the many seemingly mythical stories about Mr. Rooney that, happily, turn out to be true.)"
NO IT'S NOT! And the book's authors meticulously point that out, yet somehow the "reviewer" wrote it anyway. Saratoga is not even mentioned in the book until the chapter, "Rooney's Ride, 1937."
For whatever reason, even with the facts staring them in the face, some people continue to repeat the myth that Art Rooney bought his team with his big winnings at Saratoga. Forget that those winnings came four years after he paid the fee to enter his team into the NFL. And as Dan Rooney has said, his father did not need to win money to come up with the $2,500 entry fee.
Of other fairy tales: Once upon a time ...
The Steelers and every other NFL team hold spring practices and it is big news when a player does not attend, such as Troy Polamalu or, in Washington, Albert Haynesworth. There was a time, not too long ago, that nobody attended because they did not exist.
They became the norm for NFL teams because a few teams began practicing in the 1980s in the spring. When teams began working out in the offseason and others did not, those teams that worked out were seen to gain the advantage. And football coaches hate giving the other guys any advantages.
It began with some teams paying their players to lift weights and condition at their training facility in the spring and it caught on. Chuck Noll did not believe in paying players to do what he expected them to do, so the Steelers were one of the last teams to have any kind of spring training. Noll also believed you could overtrain and he did not believe you should practice football year-round. He often talked about players getting on with their "life's work" and the offseason was a chance for them to prepare for life after football.
Noll's offseason workout "program" consisted of one weekend rookie minicamp that also included first-year players, and one full week of minicamp at the end of May. That was it. We will never know, but you could add that to a list of reasons why the Steelers were largely unsuccessful in the 1980s as other teams began working out in the spring.
By the time Bill Cowher was hired, more teams started not only working out in the spring, but practicing, and Cowher's teams began doing that as well. It was sporadic, though, and certainly few media "covered" these things. Also, many, many players did not show up for them. No one would have noticed had a Troy Polamalu missed OTAs 10 or 15 years ago.
As more emphasis was placed on spring workouts, less was placed on training camps. Now, teams are not permitted to open training camp until a maximum 15 days before their first preseason game. Mike Tomlin has opened his a day or two later than that. There also is less conditioning and live hitting at camps as players come into them in top shape, for the most part. Gone are the days that players used training camp to get in shape (with the recent exception of Casey Hampton).
These spring drills mainly serve the purpose of learning for the younger players, and familiarity with plays and new players for those who have been around for a while. For example, the biggest issue with Ben Roethlisberger's absence and with his suspension is that he will not build a rapport with his new receivers.