06/12/2007 12:00AM

Hail to 'The Chief'


TUCSON, Ariz. - It's hard to knock a guy who takes his bride to Belmont Park for their honeymoon.

It is almost impossible to knock a guy who lived a rough, tough early life, became enormously successful, never forgot a name or a face, befriended the common man, and died with thousands of friends and no enemies.

That was Arthur J. Rooney, "The Chief" to his friends and to the men who played pro football for his Pittsburgh Steelers.

This comes to mind because one of his five sons, Tim, who named a race for his father at the half-mile harness track he owns, decided to pay him an even greater honor with an early memorial for Father's Day.

He boosted the purse for this year's Art Rooney Pace to $1 million.

The track, of course, is Yonkers Raceway, or if you prefer, Empire City at Yonkers Raceway. Empire City once was a mile Thoroughbred track, visited often by Art Rooney. When the Rooneys acquired it in 1972, it was known as The Giant of Trotting, with crowds of 20,000 a night. Sonny Werblin then convinced New Jersey to drain the swamps and build a palace called the Meadowlands, across the Hudson River some 17 miles by expressway, in 1976.

After that, realtors begged Tim Rooney to sell his 89 acres on the Major Deegan Expressway, one of the nation's busiest highways, for development.

He came close, but his gambing genes prevailed and he waited, knowing slot machines would come some day.

They are here now at Yonkers Raceway, almost 7,000 of them, and the racino is buzzing like the Yonkers of old. The honey is dripping into purses, and harness horsemen - who, unlike their Thoroughbred counterparts, race even the very best horses once a week instead of every month or two - are tasting the full sweetness.

It has puzzled me that Thoroughbred owners never have discovered this, nor paid heed, but that's another story.

A myth has circulated for years that Art Rooney bought the Steelers with $250,000 won at old Empire City, then a Thoroughbred track, and at Saratoga.

It makes good reading, if you like fiction. Rooney bought the Steelers, then known as the Pirates, in 1932. A year later he paid the National Football League $2,300 for a franchise, and he did it because in 1933 Pennsylvania repealed its blue laws that had banned Sunday sports. His big track hits in New York came three years later.

Rooney spent his youth on the second floor of his father's saloon. His mother's people were coal miners, his father's were steel workers.

Art himself was a tough guy. He once punched out a rowdy drunk in Luchow's, one of New York's most popular restaurants, and he laughed when George Halas of the Chicago Bears offered to fight him in a dispute over $500. He got his $500, and as he left, he told Halas, "George, you know if we had that fight, you were no sure thing."

Art was proud of his toughness, but he taught his five sons to treat people the way they wanted to be treated, adding, "But never ever allow them to mistake your kindness for weakness."

He was truly a man of the people. I attended his funeral in 1988 at St. Peter Roman Catholic Church on Pittsburgh's north side, where he prayed for eight decades. Thousands packed the church and the streets surrounding it.

He never lost his common touch, and he had an incredible memory. He would meet someone he had met casually five years earlier, and greet them by their first name. And he went far out of his way with kindness.

Tony Dungy, coach of the Indianapolis Colts, was a Steelers sub in the late 1970s. After he was traded to San Francisco, Rooney sent a letter to Tony's mother saying how proud he was to have had Tony on the team.

"I was only a backup there for a short time," Dungy said, "but that letter was a thrill for my parents. He did that kind of stuff all the time."

There is an area east of Pittsburgh, perhaps no wider than 50 miles, that has produced a troupe of unknockables in American sports and entertainment. It includes Stan Musial, Arnold Palmer, the singer Perry Como, harness racing great Delvin Miller, Joe Namath, and Art Rooney.

Art parceled out his sports empire to his boys. Dan and Art Jr. got the Steelers, John and Pat got the Miami Beach Kennel Club, and Tim got Art's beloved old Empire City.

It now is the home of the million-dollar Art Rooney Pace.

"The Chief" has hit it big there once again.