Long before they were a respectable, much less dynastic, NFL franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers were a treasured civic institution in western Pennsylvania, largely because of founder Art Rooney and his son, Dan Rooney.
Dan Rooney died this week at the age of 84, and his contributions to his community are just as important as how he helped shape the NFL in the years after the Steel Curtain dominance of the 1970s.
Later in life he served as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland under former President Barack Obama before returning to his position as chairman of the Steelers.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also In This Issue: Rod Carew and Lou Brock; The Bible of Baseball Cards; Red Berenson’s Remarkable Hockey Life; Sportsless Pulitzers; Don Rickles’ Sports Humor
Rooney’s 2007 eponymous memoir, subtitled “My 75 years With the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL,” drives home both of these themes with candor and a graceful touch that was mentioned in remembrances this week.
Many tributes understandably focus on the “Rooney Rule” requiring minority candidates to be interviewed for head coaching and general manager jobs. One important beneficiary, Mike Tomlin, coached the Steelers to the last of their six Super Bowl titles in 2009, two years after becoming only the 10th black head coach in NFL history.
But it was on their beloved Pittsburgh home front, and in particular the North Side neighborhood, that the Rooney family and its legacy are most indelible.
In a city defined by a rugged, blue-collar work ethic, the Rooneys maintained a sense of family that spread to an entire community. The goodwill remained despite terrible seasons on the field.
The Steelers, who were founded in 1933, the year after Dan Rooney was born, made the playoffs for the first time in 1947. They didn’t get back until 1972, when the building blocks of the Chuck Noll-coached dynasty were being put in place.
As the “Immaculate Reception” ushered in the euphoria of four Super Bowl championships in the 1970s, the steel and coal economy of western Pennsylvania began its decline. These factors were explored in depth in the 2011 book “The Ones Who Hit the Hardest,” which also illustrated how the business of the NFL was beginning to change.
The Steelers had to adapt in a time of growing salaries and free agency, lucrative television deals, new stadiums and the need to develop and sustain, multiple revenue streams.
This is the business that Dan Rooney inherited from his father, and his business acumen was tested by the likes of Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft and other rivals eyeing greater valuation for their franchises as much as success on the field.
With the Rams, Chargers and Raiders abruptly moving or making plans to move in the last two years, the idea of an NFL team being a civic institution seems quaint. In addition to continuing issues over concussions and player health, owners are jumping to cities offering up publicly financed stadiums and getting into real estate business by building mixed-use developments around them.
The Steelers moved into such a venue, Heinz Field, in 2001, and it will be the site for a public viewing for Dan Rooney on Monday. His funeral Mass is Tuesday at Pittsburgh’s St. Paul Cathedral, not far from where he was born, raised and resided for most of his remarkable life.
A Few Good Reads
- This is the most touching story I’ve read in some time: How former NFL player Konrad Reuland, who died of a brain aneurysm in December, saved the life of Rod Carew by being an organ donor, and how the Baseball Hall of Famer is showing gratitude toward his grieving family;
- Another Hall of Famer of Carew’s generation, Lou Brock, is being treated for cancer, and was unable to attend an early-season tribute in St. Louis although his long-term prognosis is promising;
- Jackie Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut 70 years ago on Saturday, and Jay Jaffe goes long on Robinson’s first 10 days with the Brooklyn Dodgers in that 1947 season;
- Before Robinson, there was A.R. Foster, as noted in last year’s sensational 1927 Myles Thomas diaries;
- Childhood baseball card collector David Davis calls “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book,” published in 1973, one of the “essentials of the explosion of hardball lit” from that decade. He writes about an upcoming exhibit of cards at the Pasadena Central Library put on by the Cannon Baseball Reliquary that any lover of “The Bible of Baseball Cards” ought to appreciate;
- Designer Todd Radom, who has one of the best aesthetic eyes in baseball, writes in praise of ugly uniforms, and yes, it’s mostly about threads from the 1970s;
- When baseball fantasy crashes into reality: What happened to the 2002 draft class of the Oakland A’s?;
- At Eephus, W.M. Akers, author of the Kickstarter-funded project “Deadball: Baseball With Dice,” discusses how he devised his statistics-based simulation game, and the support he’s received for it;
- The Boston Globe has begun a magazinish series on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Red Sox team that reached the World Series, placing that feat within the scope of local and national political, social and cultural change. The words, archival photos and presentation are excellent, blending the the pleasures of a magical baseball season and the gravitas of a tumultuous time in the right measure;
- For further reading, Raymond Sinibaldi’s “1967 Red Sox: The Impossible Dream,” was published in March by Arcadia. In 1992, New England sportswriter Bill Reynolds published “Lost Summer: The ‘67 Red Sox and the Impossible Dream” to mark the 25th anniversary;
- Writer and radio producer Donnell Alexander, whose interviews with the late Dock Ellis grew into the short documentary film “Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No,” argues that it’s time to get baseball’s hidden cannabis culture out into the open;
- It’s almost time for the Triple Crown season, and at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., the track announcer explains how he handles the pressure of calling the horses;
- German action sports photographer Lorenz Holder, once an aspiring snowboarder, explains his techniques to achieve some ravishingly good photographic art;
- College hockey coaching legend Red Berenson is retiring at the age of 77, and after 33 seasons at the University of Michigan. The small-town boy from Regina, Sask., played for the three of the NHL’s “Original Six” teams—Montreal, Detroit and New York—in a 17-year playing career and was considered one of the early stars of the expansion era. But it was coaching at his alma mater in Ann Arbor that Berenson found his true hockey calling, guiding the Wolverines to 22 NCAA appearances and two national championships;
- The troubles in Irish sports—competitive, financial, governance and otherwise—are steep, but Irish Times columnist Ewan MacKenna writes that throwing money at the problem isn’t the solution;
- How the Raiders went to Las Vegas, and crushed loyal souls in Oakland for the second time;
- In Seattle, dysfunctional NBA ownership and management led to the bitter departure of the Sonics, who had Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Nate McMillan, Sam Perkins and a promising cast of players primed to dominate the league;
- Wilt Chamberlain’s high school coach, Cecil Mosenson, is 87 years young, and stays busy selling his Chamberlain-related book and DVD in the Philadelphia area, talking about “The Stilt” to anyone who wants to hear the tales;
- The NBA playoffs are underway, and ESPN and TNT have invested a lot in their new contracts to get you to watch. But if you prefer to listen, you’ll be treated to some of the last great radio voices of professional basketball. I’m biased in favor of my hometown play-by-play guy, Steve Holman of the Atlanta Hawks, who I wish would have gotten a mention here;
- Three players on the NCAA champion South Carolina women’s basketball team were among the top players taken in this week’s WNBA draft, and two of them still had college eligibility. Even in the low-salary WNBA, there’s more than money driving the likes of Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis to turn pro early.
Sports and Pulitzers
It’s been 17 years since any sports-related journalism was honored with a Pulitzer Prize. George Dohrmann’s stories for the St. Paul Pioneer Press that exposed academic fraud within the University of Minnesota’s men’s basketball program led to the voiding of a Gophers’ Final Four appearance by the NCAA, and the scope of the athletic department’s actions to cover up the misdeeds were shocking and breathtaking.
When the 2017 Pulitzer winners and nominees announced this week, only C.E. Morgan’s novel “The Sport of Kings,” a fiction finalist, had any tangible sports theme. That book was as much about race as horse racing, which isn’t surprising when sports topics are examined in the creative arts world. Sports alone rarely merits a serious look in the larger literary and journalistic world, and the transgressions at Minnesota were of an extreme nature.
Dohrmann’s Pulitzer was awarded right before monumental events in American life changed the focus of journalism: The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and several years later, the economic recession. Along the way, the news media profession changed dramatically, as newspaper and legacy staffs were gutted and online media proliferated.
Many of those new sports media outlets delved deeper into NCAA issues as money began pouring into college athletics in record amounts, and a younger generation with more skeptical (even cynical) sensibilities began influencing coverage. The jaded hipster bent of Deadspin has spawned many snarky “woke” imitators, both in attitude and in emphasizing aggregation over original reporting. Journalistic rigor is out of fashion, trendy commentary and outrage are all the rage.
Sports media also has gone headlong into metrics and data, and the PEN American Center has teamed up with ESPN to honor high-quality sportswriting on an annual basis. (Dohrmann’s book account of youth basketball, “Play Their Hearts Out,” was a 2011 winner.)
However, with the incessant politicization of sports media in recent years, the absence of sports from the Pulitzers, including finalists, is a bit puzzling. I’m not complaining about this, given my previously stated belief that there’s been too much political groupthink coming out of sports media.
These days, the American media’s current obsessions—pursuit of all things Trump and cultural identity politics—figures to push serious sports journalism further out into the margins.
The place of sports in society and culture is important for journalists to examine, but the continued exclusion by the Pulitzers really isn’t the problem. A sports media establishment that would rather talk down to readers about political ideology than help them understand the complex relationship between sports and the larger culture is hardly worthy of awards or of being taken seriously.
Off the Sporting Green
Don Rickles, who died last week at the age of 90, was an equal opportunity offender whose brittle humor would easily be the subject of social protest today. As Allen Barra notes in his remembrance for The Village Voice, Rickles’ caustic commentary extended to the world of sports, including the boxing ring.
Barra once bought drinks for Rickles after a fight, and the comedian asked the writer not to include his quip about boxing “being the sport of queens.” When Barra asked why, Rickles said the potshots were meant only for the stage, but he also added this caveat: “Don’t make me seem too nice—you’ll ruin my image.”
Rickles was from a post-World War II line of comedic figures in America whose ribald takes do seem out of fashion with today’s sensibilities. One of his contemporaries, Mel Brooks, is taking his 1974 send-up classic “Blazing Saddles” to the stage, but even Brooks admits the film might not be made today.
As essayist Tim Kreider noted in another Rickles remembrance, his wisdom was his ability to get people to laugh at their human foibles, resorting to the comic insult before American society entered the “humorless, censorious age” of today: “Laughter is a saner, more restorative response to the world’s injustice than self-righteous scolding.”
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 79, published April 16, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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