01/27/2009 12:00AM

Pottsville roots, Rooney ties say 'Go Steelers'


TUCSON, Ariz. - "You must be rooting for the Cardinals," an Arizona friend said, referring to Sunday's Super Bowl.

"You must be kidding," I told him. "I'm a Pottsville boy."

He had no idea what that meant, but it is a story worth telling, and you can read it on Google.

I was born in Pottsville, Pa., the year before the then Chicago Cardinals stole the 1925 National Football League championship from an NFL team called the Pottsville Maroons.

The Maroons dominated the old Anthracite League, composed of coal mining towns in eastern Pennsylvania, in 1924, winning 12 games and losing one. They were accepted into the NFL in 1925, and won the "championship game," beating the Cardinals, 21-7, at Comiskey Park in Chicago. They then were disqualified by the NFL president, Joe Carr, for playing the Notre Dame All-Stars, featuring the famed Four Horsemen, at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, violating the territorial rights of a Philadelphia team, the Frankford Yellow Jackets, who were scheduled to play the same day.

To give you an idea of how good the Maroons were, the famed Galloping Ghost, Red Grange, wrote later, "The Pottsville Maroons were the most ferocious and most respected players I have ever faced. You know, I always believed the Maroons won the NFL championship in 1925 .o. . but were robbed of that honor."

Grange knew firsthand how tough the Maroons were. He was knocked silly on the first play of the game when the Chicago Bears played Pottsville, and after recovering was knocked out a second time. "To hell with the $500," he said, referring to his pay for the game. "It ain't worth it." And he walked off the field.

As a kid I learned to resent the Cardinals, and it was not until I became racing secretary at Sportsman's Park in Chicago and became friendly with Bill Bidwill, who inherited the club and still owns it after dismal years in St. Louis and Phoenix, that I forgave the franchise. As a historical note from Wikipedia, the Cardinals did not claim the NFL 1925 title until Bill's father, Charley, bought the club in 1933.

So I will be rooting for the Steelers on Sunday, and for another reason as well: my close contacts with the Rooney family, and my regard for Art Rooney Sr. as one of the greatest men I've ever met in sport. His five sons - Dan, Art Jr., the twins John and Pat, and Tim - inherited his genes as well as his sports empire.

A week ago a big, thick, book, titled "Ruanaidh," arrived at the door. I quickly learned Ruanaidh is pronounced Ru-Ah-Nee in Gaelic, Rooney in English, and is the fascinating story of Art Rooney Sr. and his clan, from the family arrival during the Irish potato famine in the late 1840s until today.

The book is Art Rooney Jr.'s tribute to his famous father, and was written by Art Jr. with Roy McHugh, former sports editor and columnist for the Pittsburgh Press. It took the two of them almost 500 pages to tell the story, in brief, fascinating anecdotal form, but every anecdote is a delight, all entertaining, with many previously unpublished gems.

Strangely, they touch only briefly on Art Sr.'s acquisition of the Steelers in 1933. Legend has it that he bought the team with racetrack winnings, but all Art Jr. says, in a chapter titled "Mongrels," is, "In the middle of the Depression, AJR [his dad] had scraped up $2,500 to buy an NFL franchise. He kept it going through continued hard times." And then he moves on to the war years and tells how the Steelers merged with the Philadelphia Eagles to form a team formally known as Phil-Pitt but called Steagles by sports writers. Try that one in a trivia quiz.

If they touch lightly on Art Sr.'s buying the Steelers, they do not duck his horse betting. Illustrating that AJR's grandchildren didn't know (but might have suspected), they tell of Art Jr.'s young son asking his grandmother, "What did grandfather do before he owned the football team?"

"He had an office in town," she told him.

"What did he do at the office?" the boy wanted to know.

"Well, he had a lot of phones there."

And when the kid persisted and asked, "What did he do with the phones?" Mrs. Rooney said, "He answered them," and ended the conversation.

My favorite story in this great sports book is how Tim Rooney, president of Yonkers Raceway, was named. His father and Mrs. Rooney were having lunch at a New York restaurant when his friend, Tim Mara, owner of the New York Giants and a bookmaker, stopped by and asked Art if he would like to bet on a certain horse. Rooney said yes, "Fifty to win." Mrs. Rooney chastised him, pointing out she was pregnant and they could use the fifty. Art listened in silence for a while, but when she continued, he told his wife, "Please stay out of my business. And I'm not betting $50. I'm betting $50,000." The horse won. Mara came by again, and Art told him, "I hate to do this to you. But I'll tell you what. If it's a boy, we'll call our baby Tim." It was, and they did.