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Men of Action - Art “The Chief” Rooney
Founding Owner of Pittsburgh Steelers Won Millions Playing the Horses
by Bob Pajich | Published: Oct 17, 2012
Welcome to Card Player’s new series, Men of Action, which will explore the lives of some of history’s greatest gamblers and sportsmen.
It started with a desire to see his favorite horse, Seabiscuit, run and ended back home in Art Rooney’s living room in Pittsburgh telling his astounded wife, making her believe it with bank bags full of cash, that they will never have to worry about money ever again because in 1937, $300,000, $4.5 million in today’s money, was a whole lot of loot.
Rooney, known as the Chief, is most famous as the founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but in a time so long ago it may as well have taken place on another planet, he was known as one of the greatest horseplayers and sportsmen who ever lived. He was so good newspaper men would shadow him and write national dispatches about his betting days.
This big-lipped, stogie chomping, gregarious “everyday man” became friends with America after having a week every gambler searches for while day dreaming their way through their day jobs.
Rooney bought an NFL franchise in 1933 for $2,500, encouraged by friend and owner of the New York Giants, Tim Mara. Mara was a major horse race bookmaker and knew him from tracks like Monmount, Pimlico, Jamaica and Belmont.
July 24, 1937. Seabiscuit was running at Empire City in New York and Rooney wanted to see him. Rooney and his friend, Buck Crouse, left a plumber’s union meeting in Harrisburg and drove through the night to Empire City, now known as Yonkers Raceway. Crouse was a former middle weight boxer who fought in and around Pittsburgh from 1908 to 1921.
The pair made it to the track Saturday morning and Crouse most likely did all the driving.
The winning streak actually started in May after Mara vouched for him to the other bookmakers at Belmont. According to Rooney, Mara suggested a horse named “Fly Me.” Rooney took him for $1,000 at 7-to-1. That was his first big hit that year.
Thirty-five years later, Rooney told the sports writer Red Smith about the day at Empire City. First, he won $800 on a four-to-one shot. He told Smith he kept betting with the same bookie to give him a chance to come back, but “had three or four winners and wound up knocking him out of the box.”
Rooney, now up $5,000, put the “whole gob” on a 5-to-1 shot. He won again.
“Right there and then,” Mara said, according to Rooney: A Sporting Life, “I told him to quit, go home, get away.”
But Rooney couldn’t do that. The horse he came to see, Seabiscuit, raced next. He took him for $10,000. Seabiscuit broke the track record and paid $19,000.
Art missed a huge payday the next race because the bookies wouldn’t take his action on a horse that was 12-to-1. He suggested that he and the bookie flip a coin. If Art won, he’d take the 12-to-1 shot, if he lost, he’d take a 4-to-1 shot. Rooney lost, bet $10,000 on a horse that lost to the 12-to-1 shot. Rooney then lost $20,000 on an 8-to-1 shot.
Here’s what Journal American’s Bill Corum wrote about the day, via Rooney: A Sporting Life:
“Here are the exact figures on ‘Roll ‘em Rooney’s’ play. These are honest figures. They’re the kind an honest man writes down on his income tax blank, between sobs.”
Corum had Rooney ahead $19,000. Mara thought it was more like $25,000, but no matter, it all started with $200.
Rooney was satisfied. He headed into New York for dinner at Joe Madden’s Broadway Saloon. Sportswriter John Lardner said Joe Madden, a former prizefighter turned writer and restaurateur, served Crouse and Rooney steaks and asked: “What’s your next move, Artie?”
Art told him he was heading back home to Pittsburgh. Rooney’s wife, Catherine, was home alone, pregnant, taking care of three toddlers. Madden, in no certain terms, told Rooney he had to be crazy to give up a winning streak like this. It probably didn’t take much convincing with all that money in his pocket. The next day, a Sunday, Rooney, Crouse and Madden left the next for the racetrack at Saratoga Springs. The races started on Monday.
Rooney got up early and went to Catholic mass. After, he visited the stables and had breakfast with the trainers, stable boys and jockeys, and to get an early look at the horses and jockeys warming up to run that day. This is where Rooney excelled. He not only was an excellent handicapper with a gift for crunching multiple layers of information, he was an accurate judge of people.
Right before the races began, a lightning bolt shot through the stables, knocking out several horses, killing one. The bookies should’ve sensed something freaky and devastating was about to occur. If Rooney thought anything about it, he never said.
Wrote Corum: “The bolt that struck the bookies in their fancy new betting enclosure was far more destructive in its results. The lightning took a form of a young man from Pittsburgh named Art Rooney.”
After studying his racing form, it was time to talk to his mentor, Mara. Mara’s advice was to wait until the end of the week when the track would be better and the horses easier to read.
“He gets me to mark his card for him,” Mara later said, according to Rooney: A Sporting Life. “I said ‘All right, sucker, go ahead and blow your dough. I’ll be here when the races are over if you want car fare back home.”
Corum’s article about Rooney’s day at Empire City had already hit the stands, and Rooney, already known to the bookies, started getting recognized by the fans as well. A buzz was in the air.
Rooney started where he left off at Empire City, picking the winners in the first two races. Nobody knows the exact amounts Rooney bet each race, but it wasn’t chump change. He had $6,500 on at least one race. Later that summer, Rooney would be making bets of $25,000-$50,000 on single races.
Depending on the source, he missed one or two races on Monday, and people in the crowd began to follow him around. Rooney seemed unfazed. He always stayed even-keeled and had the attitude that once the bet was made, everything was out of his hands. He always tried to remain steady and level.
Corum, the Journal American reporter, put Rooney’s total Monday at $90,000. Mara said Rooney told him it was $108,600.
Corum, as well as the other turf reporters, now had their weekly assignments. Here was a working-class church-going Irish Catholic, nonchalantly betting so much money with such great success that the bookies were starting to back away from his action. He filed another story that ran Tuesday, calling it It’s Art But They Don’t Like It.
Tuesday morning, Rooney woke early, hit mass, and then it was back to work mining for information in the stables and paddock. His sleuthing again paid off.
Rooney won another supposed $100,000 or so on Tuesday by running off winners in the first four races, and kept rolling Wednesday. His boxing buddy Buck Crouse begged Rooney to go home, even telling Rooney that he was forced to pray for him to lose so he could still get into Heaven, to the delight of the reporters within earshot.
Kent Hunter of the Evening Journal and New York American put Rooney’s haul that week at $300,000, a figure Rooney never confirmed or denied. That’s worth about $4.7 million in today’s dollars.
That week, Rooney got the reputation as a man who could not be fazed.
“He’s got the perfect disposition for a plunger,” Tim Mara told the New York Post’s Toney Betts. “He’s a good sport and he’s got ice water in his nerves. He had $12,000 bet on Seabiscuit the last time it was out, and he was standing right over there talking football with some guy when a fellow ran up to him and yelled that Seabiscuit won but was disqualified. Rooney never batted an eyelash, but kept right on talking football.”
During the Depression, when so many people were out of work, out of money, and out of hope, tales of guile and victory became instant hits.
Here’s how syndicated columnist Bob Considine put it:
“Mr. Rooney is the gentleman who apparently is doing what the average citizen would rather do than eat. He is, to all accounts, making a quick fortune by driving the horse park bookmakers to the poor house. If you are up on your horse racing and your legends, you will remember that young Mr. Rooney first leaped into our national prominence when he emerged from the haze of Pittsburgh with a lumpy roll of coarse cash … and proceeded to give the boys who sit on the stools beneath the stands a merry walloping.”
Rooney’s second oldest son, Art Jr., claimed in his self-published book “Ruanaidh,” that the winning estimates are wildly off. In “Ruanaidh” (Rooney in Gaelic), Art Jr. wrote:
“Madden and Lardner wrote that AJR cleared $256,000 at Saratoga that day. AJR told me it was more, but did not say precisely how much more. A friend of his, the director of racing at our Yonkers track, put the figure at $380,000. Other estimates are higher. Whatever he won, and the officials at Saratoga offered him a Brink’s armored truck to carry the money back to New York City, he won it at a time when working men were supporting wives and children on as little as twenty dollars a week.”
An unknown amount headed to his brother in China, a pile went to his mother, and $10,000 went to his church. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, when the priest asked Rooney if the money came from ill-begotten ways, Rooney said: “Why no, Father, I won that money at the race track.”
The New York Post’s Toney Betts quoted Rooney, “When you’re losing pull up. And when you’re winning, send it along.”
Following his own rule, Rooney returned to Saratoga the next week, where he continued blow down the bookies, leaving a very pregnant wife in Pittsburgh. By the end of the week, Catherine went into labor with their fourth son. Rooney named him after Tim Mara.
Rooney kept “sending it along” that year, and, according to Rooney: A Sporting Life had at least two more $100,000-plus days and he started to place bets in the stratosphere, bets so big they help sell newspapers. Rooney prowess at the track ended when more and more tracks got rid of the independent bookmakers and universally started using the pari-mutuel system that took account of everyone’s wagers and adjusted the odds on the fly. Rooney hated it.
Rooney spent the next 30 years ruining his reputation as a winner owning the Pittsburgh Steelers. It wasn’t until his eldest son, Dan, took over operations that the team began to win and came into the modern era. One of the first things Dan suggested to his dad is they should probably stop hiring Art’s friend’s as coaches. Art could never fire one of his friends.
The Rooney family bought Yonkers for $52 million in 1972. Tim, the son born that weekend and named after a bookie, was assigned to run it. The family also owns the Palm Beach Kennel Club and their business interests are as diversified as any super-family. In 2008, the NFL forced the Steelers to restructure their ownership stakes because of their gambling investments and the sons that own the tracks, no longer own the Steelers.
Art Rooney died Aug. 25, 1988.
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