Contrary to legend, Art Rooney didn’t buy the Pittsburgh franchise with some of his winnings from a huge score at the racetrack. After all, his nationally publicized run of luck with the ponies was in the summer of ’37. By then, he’d been an NFL owner for four years.
Still, it’s a classic tale that tells you much about pro football in that period, a time when gambling by sports figures didn’t cause nearly the palpitations it does now. The story of Rooney’s hot streak, just before training camp got underway, made the front page of the Pittsburgh Press — and was picked up by plenty of other papers around the country. Imagine a headline like this appearing today:
(And in ’33, remember, when the Steelers joined the league, franchises cost $2,500.)
Rooney was hardly the only owner who walked in this world, either. The Giants’ Tim Mara was a legal bookie in the days before parimutuel betting. The Cardinals’ Charley Bidwill owned a horse track and some dog tracks. The Eagles’ Bert Bell, meanwhile, routinely wagered on four-legged creatures, two-legged creatures and the occasional three-legged race (and kept it up even during his term as commissioner). It was what a “sportsman” — as so many of them were called — did in the ’30s.
The $100,000 figure — thanks to picking five winners on opening day at Saratoga — was probably just the beginning for Rooney, by the way. Most estimates put his haul at between $250,000 and $380,000. The Press story, you see, only deals with his first pass at the tracks. Being en fuego, he naturally made other visits until the streak ran its course. When he was done, the previously obscure football owner from Pittsburgh was a Known Entity (though it would be another decade before his struggling team began to emerge from the shadows).
“He likes to bet fancies, hunches, on a whim, and the man is not afraid to bet,” Frank Ortell wrote in the New York World-Telegram. “He sends it along in a fashion that recalls the days when the old plungers used to go into action.”
It took a while, but his bet on the Steelers eventually paid off as well — with four Super Bowl wins in six seasons beginning in 1974. Some guys just have the touch.