For nearly a century, the story that Art Rooney and the Steelers have told about how he built his fortune before the football team became profitable has been a rags-to-riches tale about the son of a hardscrabble immigrant Irish family who made it big through pluck and hard work. He was a professional athlete, played the horses, invested wisely in the stock market and promoted major boxing bouts.
For generations, his enduring legacy, the six-time Super Bowl-winning Steelers, have served as a worldwide, cultural touchstone for the city.
But a closer look at his life, bolstered by recently released FBI documents, archival records from the University of Pittsburgh, and a trove of federal and state court files, reveals that much of the money that built his early wealth came from his role as a major player in the city’s rackets — numbers, slot machines, horse betting, card gambling rooms and illegal alcohol during Prohibition.
The documents show he was involved in illegal operations from the mid-1920s through at least the late 1940s, although he was only publicly named in connection with any of them twice.
During those years, due to to a loyal-to-the-bone cadre of powerful political friends, and smart, well-placed alliances with law enforcement, Rooney managed to navigate his way through a potentially dangerous, illegal underworld and build a fortune that allowed him to sustain his wealth until the Steelers and racetracks could eventually turn his family into one of the wealthiest in America.
“It’s not part of Art Rooney people know,” said Andrew O’Toole, author of the 2004 book, “Smiling Irish Eyes: Art Rooney and the Pittsburgh Steelers.” “It’s an American story, an immigrant story, both the good and the bad.”
The Post-Gazette’s research shows that Rooney also was a smart and nimble political operator who drew on a wealth of personal relationships that allowed him to use his power not only to keep law enforcement away from his racket operations, but to safeguard his public image.
“Art’s gift was to use politics quietly,” said Jack McGinley Jr., Rooney’s nephew and the grandson of one of Rooney’s partners, Barney McGinley.
For all of his life, Rooney — and later his eldest son and now a grandson — denied publicly that he was ever involved in any unlawful activities, only conceding that he knew others who were active players.
“I touched all the bases,” Rooney said when asked if he knew his fair share of publicly known criminals.
Multiple FBI documents show that Rooney did more than brush shoulders with some of the Pittsburgh region's best known mobsters: He struck deals in the 1940s with five of the most notorious organized crime figures in Pennsylvania to split up the region’s lucrative slot machine operations.
Though Rooney was never publicly connected to the rackets — other than a brewery making illegal beer during Prohibition — details of his involvement first began to trickle out in a book by Pittsburgh historian Rob Ruck in 1993 that outlined Rooney’s numbers operation, then again when a couple of FBI documents about his role running the slots and working with the mob were first reported in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 1996.
But the dozens of previously unreported FBI records obtained by the Post-Gazette — including documents released by the National Archives in 2017 and 2018 — combined with contemporary news stories and additional interviews, show for the first time in far greater detail the breadth and scope of his operations that made him one of the city’s leading racket figures and the role of law enforcement in tracking his movements.
The originally confidential FBI documents that the Post-Gazette obtained are dated from 1942 up through 1976 — records that provide information that is based on both anonymous and identified FBI sources.
Art Rooney’s Pittsburgh racket locations
From the 1920s through at least the 1940s, Art Rooney was a leading ﬁgure in Pittsburgh’s rackets, secretly running illegal numbers operations, gambling and horse betting rooms, and an illegal gambling and drinking club known as the Show Boat, and was the owner of the city’s most proliﬁc slot machine company. He also owned with his father an otherwise legal brewery in Braddock that was twice raided by Prohibition authorities. Shown here are the location of the operations he was involved with across the city and Braddock.
The records outline a nearly continuous array of illegal operations by Rooney that started with a numbers racket as early as the mid to late-1920s on the North Side, where he was a political heavyweight and lived nearly all of his life.
At about the same time, he owned a struggling legal brewery in Braddock that was making illegal beer, only to be raided twice by federal Prohibition agents, records show.
The documents and other sources show in 1928 near the end of Prohibition, he owned a popular gambling and drinking vessel called the Show Boat, moored near the Sixth Street Bridge Downtown and considered the largest casino in the city.
By the 1940s — a vibrant period in Pittsburgh's history when factories were teeming with workers churning out weapons and other equipment for the military during World War II — he moved into running slot machines, a venture so successful that he was referred to by the FBI as the “slot machine king of Allegheny County.”
Still other FBI documents say that he also owned large horse betting rooms — including two rooms said to be part of the largest, multi-state operations on the East Coast — as well as bookie joints and gambling rooms in several locations around town.
The October 1947 FBI crime survey for Pittsburgh — an internal record shared by the entire agency — states matter-of-factly that an unnamed person and Rooney “while not characterized as head of any particular gang, are nevertheless the leading figures in rackets in the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. According to [redacted] no one operates unless he meets with the approval of either [redacted] or ROONEY.”
The ventures appeared to have been lucrative.
Rooney’s son, Art Jr., said in his 2008 book, “Ruanaidh,” about his father’s and the Steelers’ history, that his mother told him that Art Sr. “made a ton of money during the Great Depression,” and that the man who got Art Sr. into slot machines guaranteed him “a million dollars a year.”
One FBI document in 1947 said a source claimed that Rooney, along with two mob figures, “have all achieved the financial status of millionaires as a result of their racket activities.”
Despite all those illegal operations spanning decades, when city, state and federal law enforcement agents cracked down on those ventures, Rooney was only caught or identified twice — both times in connection with raids on the brewery he owned in Braddock, even though in the end, others were blamed for the illegal beer.
Instead, a “front man” typically was nabbed in connection with Rooney’s operations: from his good friend Milton Jaffe, who would later run the famous Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas for the Mafia; to longtime gambler Nate Farber; to Rooney’s business colleague and Steelers co-owner Barney McGinley; to the Braddock brew master, Henry Sutter; to his younger brother Jim Rooney.
At various times, all of them would be arrested or publicly accused of running illegal operations that Rooney actually owned, or shared in the ownership with them or others.
The FBI’s annual Pittsburgh “crime surveys’ of the 1940s regularly included descriptions of Rooney’s various illegal enterprises, placing him on lists with other more notorious local figures, including mob bosses Frank Amato, John LaRocca, and Sam and Gabriel Mannarino — four of the crime figures that the FBI documents say Rooney and McGinley struck deals with — and legendary Hill District numbers barons William “Woogie” Harris and Gus Greenlee.
The 1944 Pittsburgh FBI office’s annual crime survey description — complete with the FBI’s practice of capitalizing all names — was typical:
“ARTHUR J. ‘ART’ ROONEY, 940 Lincoln Avenue, is a gambler, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers Football Association and promoter of athletics in partnership with BARNEY MCGINLEY, under the firm name of Rooney-McGinley Sporting Enterprises. MCGINLEY, ‘ART’ ROONEY, and the latter’s brother, JAMES ROONEY have a controlling interest in horse race and bookie joint operations in Pittsburgh. He is one of three ‘big shots’ in the operation of the pin ball and slot machines, which business is known as the Penn Mint Company, 117 Ninth Street. He is president of the General Braddock Brewing Company, Braddock, Pa. and is Republican boss of the 22nd Ward. He is also in partnership with BARNEY MCGINLEY in the operation of a numbers syndicate in Braddock, Pa.”
One FBI source in 1942 said Rooney was a member of the “mob” because of all his activities. But in nearly five dozen FBI documents in which Rooney is discussed, and in hundreds of newspaper articles that talk about his rackets, none of them allege that he or any of his front men ever used violence or the threat of violence to run the illegal ventures, as true mobsters did.
Jim Rooney said in a 1982 interview with Mr. Ruck, the Pittsburgh historian, that he carried a gun to guard cash from the operations his brother ran with Jaffe during the late 1920s — not that he ever had to use it.
How long Art Rooney was involved in the rackets is difficult to pinpoint. Some FBI documents from the 1950s and 1960s allege that Rooney was still illegally betting large amounts of money on football games — the Steelers-Eagles game in particular. But most of the documents from that period merely mention seeing him at legal horse racing tracks, or in connection with tracks he owned or was looking to own in legal ventures that took place in the 1950s.
A 1955 FBI document shows that the IRS at some point in the prior three years identified Rooney and McGinley — along with LaRocca and other members of organized crime — as two of 80 Pittsburgh-area people or corporations “allegedly involved in racketeering and political corruption in the Pittsburgh area.”
For that investigation, the IRS Intelligence Division re-examined McGinley’s tax returns from 1943 to 1951 — which had all been scrutinized each year they were filed because of concerns with his activities — concluding that based on the tax evidence available he could not be connected to any racketeers or illegal gambling activity.
The conclusion about Rooney and the number of years his taxes were reviewed is not included in the FBI document. But it does show the IRS told him he owed — and he had already paid — an additional $95.18 in taxes or penalties.
Rooney’s name came up in a case in West Virginia federal court in 1990 alleging that starting in the late 1950s, and possibly into the 1980s, he was illegally betting on horses with a mob outfit.
However, his more widespread illegal activity — at least in the lucrative slot machines and illegal horse room gambling business — may have ended, or at least started to wind down, around 1947 and 1948.
In a report in the Pittsburgh Press in January 1947, investigative reporter Chester Potter said there were at least 5,000 illegal slot machines and other “mechanized” gambling devices in the county, and they were controlled by “two Allegheny County men, both widely known in political, police and sports circles.”
Potter did not identify the men, but an FBI document a few months later in April, 1947 said: “This [Press article] undoubtedly refers to ART ROONEY, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers national professional football team, and BARNEY McGINLEY, his associate in sport enterprises, who is also well known politically in Allegheny County.”
Potter’s story and others led to a crackdown in 1947 on illegal slot machines. Then after Al Florig, a former police inspector sometimes known as “The Green Hornet” for his raids on numbers operations, claimed in 1948 that police and politicians were providing protection to local rackets, then-Mayor David Lawrence called for a county criminal grand jury to look into those allegations. The grand jury heard from Rooney’s brother, Jim, and Jim’s friend George Quinlan during testimony, but never Rooney or McGinley.
Somewhere during that time, Lawrence, elected mayor in late 1945 and one of Rooney’s closest friends and political confidants over the previous 30 years, took note of Rooney’s activities, according to a story that Art Jr., told in his book.
“In any event, he did not long remain in the slot-machine business,” Art Jr. wrote about his dad, who he refers to as AJR. “A conversation with Mayor Dave Lawrence hastened his early departure. ‘Do you think this business of yours is legal?’ asked the mayor. ‘Of course it is not,’ replied AJR. ‘Then you’d better do something about it,’ said Lawrence. Nothing more had to be said.”
It’s not clear whether the warning led to a shutdown, but by 1948, newspaper stories reported that Rooney’s slot machine company, Penn Mint — which was fronted by his brother, Jim — was no longer open. Some later FBI documents refer to him as “the former slot machine king of Allegheny County.”
In a 1951 interview with the FBI, Rooney told agents “that he is no longer interested in slot machines and is thankful he is not because in his judgment Public Law 906 will destroy the slot machine business.”
That federal law, known as the Johnson Act, was passed in 1951 and made it a federal offense to use the interstate or foreign commerce to transport the machines.
The Pittsburgh crackdown on the rackets also led to a raid in 1948 on the two large, illegal horse betting rooms in the Fort Pitt Hotel — the same building the Steelers and Rooney and McGinley’s boxing promotion company were located. FBI documents, news stories and comments from Jim Rooney show that the rooms were owned by Rooney and McGinley. But they were run by Farber, who was arrested and convicted in that case.
Rooney himself long denied any ties to illegal activities, or to members of the mafia.
In an interview in 1982 — six years before his death in 1988 at the age of 87 — Rooney told Mr. Ruck, a University of Pittsburgh history professor, he was never involved in betting on anything but horses.
“The only gambling that I ever did in my life was on the horses. I don’t play cards; I don’t shoot craps. The only thing that I ever do is bet on the horses. I have never bet on a baseball game, football game or basketball game in my life,” he told Mr. Ruck.
Mr. Ruck later wrote a 1993 book, “Sandlot Seasons,” that said he interviewed four people — men involved in or knowledgeable about running numbers, plus a former city detective — who said Rooney was steeped in the numbers for decades.
Rooney’s family largely acknowledges that he was involved in at least some of these illegal activities — activities, they point out, that are now all legal in Pennsylvania, including operating slot machines, selling alcohol, and card, horse and sports betting.
Besides Rooney’s brother, Jim, who divulged details to Mr. Ruck in 1982, Rooney’s second oldest son, Art Jr., talked openly in his book not only about the slot machine operation, but also about his father’s oversight of the Show Boat with his close friend, Milton Jaffe. But Art Jr. is adamant that his father was never involved in running a numbers operation.
“He was in the slot machine business and he never denied it,” Art Jr. writes in his book. “He and Milton Jaffe operated the Showboat [sic], where you could gamble illegally and buy liquor illegally, and there was never any secret about it. If he indeed had been in the numbers business, he’d have said so, without hesitation.”
Rooney’s three younger sons, Tim, and twins Patrick and John, all said in interviews with the Post-Gazette that they had heard at least some of the same stories that Art. Jr. told in his book, though never from their father. However, they pointed out that they probably knew far less than Art Jr. or their late, oldest brother, Dan.
That, they said, was because while Dan and Art Jr. lived in Pittsburgh and helped Art Sr. run the Steelers. When Tim, Patrick and John were young men, they were given jobs out of town to run various portions of the Rooney’s expanding racing empire that eventually would include five horse and dog tracks.
In addition, Jack McGinley Jr., whose grandfather, Barney, was Art Sr.’s business and rackets partner, said he also had heard some of those stories — enough to know that Art and Barney made a significant amount of money illegally.
“It’s accepted” that they made their early fortunes illegally, Jack McGinley Jr. said in a recent interview with the Post-Gazette.
The late Dan Rooney, the oldest of the five brothers who was put in charge of the Steelers by his father in the 1960s, long publicly tried to downplay his father’s past.
In 1996 when FBI documents were cited in a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story and alleged his father and McGinley split their slot machine territory with mobsters like the Mannarino brothers and LaRocca, Dan Rooney denied knowing anything about any of his father’s illegal ventures.
“There’s no question that my father did own horses and wager on them, but that is the only thing that I know,” Dan told the Tribune-Review. “And he may have known the people that you mention.”
“It’s one of those things you look at and you feel that it isn’t so … . The real question is why did the FBI keep that report,” he said.
In his own 2007 book about his dad and the Steelers, titled, “My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Dan said his father had always made his money legally, writing: “By 1930, Dad had made a success of everything he tried: as a baseball barnstormer, as a ward leader, a sports promoter, and as a horse handicapper…. Some people say he was the best thoroughbred handicapper in the country. Maybe he was. All I know is that by the time he was 30 years old, he had earned enough money to think about marriage and starting a family on his own.”
Andy Masich, co-author of Dan Rooney’s book and CEO and president of the Sen. John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, said in an interview with the Post-Gazette the reason none of Art Sr.’s illegal ventures are mentioned in the book was because “those things just weren’t important parts of Art Rooney’s life, as far as Dan was concerned, or Art.”
Rooney’s sons say he was adamant about never working with the mob, though they hedge a bit even on that point.
“In his various enterprises, AJR avoided any connection with the mob, as he called the Mafia,” Art Jr. wrote in his book in a section talking about his father’s slot machine business. “There were certain kinds of favors you could prudently do for a mob guy, he used to say. And then he would add, ‘But never, never let a mob guy do a favor for you.’”
Patrick Rooney, one of the twins who were Art Sr.’s youngest sons, born in 1939, said in a recent interview with the Post-Gazette that his father told him when he went to run the family’s horse racetrack in Philadelphia, where the mob was even more of a presence: “Be nice to them, but that’s as far as it goes. Don’t ask anything of them and don’t give them anything.”
Art Jr. initially agreed to do an interview for this story, but later declined. The Steelers also did not respond to a list of emailed questions for this story.
Rooney and McGinley both came out of a generation that built their own fortunes from the street.
“They were very iconoclastic guys,” said Jack McGinley Jr., a Pittsburgh attorney. “They had a deserved image for integrity and fairness and honesty, and yet around them were all these activities that people talk about. And interestingly they [later] steered everyone [in their families] away from all of that. Also I think it was starting to get tougher.”
“They were fascinating men,” he added. “They clearly tiptoed around the periphery and they never got accused of anything.”
By the time Art Rooney died he was worth at least $200 million. All the while, he somehow managed to keep his name out of the headlines when his operations were targeted by law enforcement, with the exception of the brewery raids.
Mr. O’Toole, the book author said knowing that Art was a major figure in the rackets only adds to his story.
“He’s a great character,” said Mr. O’Toole, who grew up in McKees Rocks as a hardcore Steelers fan. “He did so much for the city of Pittsburgh, and he did so much underhanded stuff.”
“Dan [Rooney] tried so hard to prevent us from knowing about it,” he noted, adding that Dan Rooney told him during his research on his book that he thought no one should be allowed to do a book about his father without his permission. “But the truth isn’t so horrible. He didn’t kill anybody.”
Roy Blount Jr., who wrote the iconic book about the 1973 Steelers, “Three Bricks Shy of a Load,” and hung out with Rooney and his close friends and family over six months of reporting, said he did not know about Rooney’s illegal past before the Post-Gazette told him.
“Well, it doesn’t make me like him any less. I still love Art,” he said. “The NFL should only be that interesting today.”
Reporter: Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @seandhamill
Development: Laura Malt Schneiderman: email@example.com