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How a weekend at Saratoga saved the Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

How a weekend at Saratoga saved the Pittsburgh Steelers

While most people tend to overlook the Pittsburgh Steelers in the era prior to the 1970s dynasty, this Steelers History Series will look back on some of the history of the franchise, ripe with some nuggets you may not know and hope you will enjoy.


AJR was born to “Pick the Ponies”

After seeing his first horse race at 18, Art Rooney was hooked and developed an uncanny ability to pick winners.  While some would say “he was born to pick the ponies”, it was not by luck or chance that he won, but through diligent study of every aspect of the sport.  He was meticulous when it came to studying the animals, jockeys, trainers, owners and more.

Dan Rooney shared his father’s insights in his book, “My 75 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL“:

“Dad always told me that betting on horses wasn’t just a game of chance–he wouldn’t be there if it were–it required knowledge and skill.”

Debunking a false story

There is an old story that Rooney bought the Steelers based on his winnings from the horse track and a $250,000 payday.  The huge payday did happen, but it was in 1937 at Saratoga, four years after buying the franchise.  Rooney was approached by NFL Commissioner Joe Carr because he was as financially successful through other ventures already and was more than able to pay the $2,500 entry fee.

While the Pittsburgh Press reported Rooney won $100,000, it was only accounting for what he did the first day. How much he did win is not officially known, but accounts had him picking as many as 11 consecutive winners and estimates of $380,000 in winnings.



How that weekend at Saratoga saved the Steelers

While Rooney did not need the winnings at Saratoga to buy the team, those winnings were used to keep the team afloat during the lean and unsuccessful years of the 1930’s and 1940’s.  After eight years, the franchise was losing money and fans, went through five head coaches and tried to rebrand the team through a naming contest in 1940 – when the franchise became known officially as the Pittsburgh Steelers.  After a 2-win season, the only thing keeping the team financially afloat were those winnings at Saratoga.

For comparison, two other cities were awarded franchises in 1933:  The Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Eagles.  Neither achieved success or profitability as at the time, the NFL Draft did not award the top pick to the lowest finisher as is common today.  The Reds folded as a franchise by 1934 and the Eagles only survived as a franchise due to Art Rooney through what would become known as “Pennsylvania Polka.



World War II

The Steelers finally achieved their first winning season in 1942.  But, just as everything was coming together, World War II came about and as with many men called to active duty, there was a real question of whether the NFL could survive.  Necessity became the “Mother of Invention” and for two years, those Saratoga winnings and unconventional ideas kept the Steelers alive.


1943 – The Steagles

With so many men called to the war effort, the league faced player shortages.  This was especially prevalent in Pittsburgh, where many men who received deferments as strategic “war workers” were those who worked in the steel mills.  The situation was dire not just in Pittsburgh, but also in Philadelphia.  The two franchises that went through a crazy trading of franchises just a year before came together in amalgamation that was not easy for anyone.  The head coaches hated each other and couldn’t agree on anything until Bert Bell stepped in and proposed that Eagles coach Earle Neale led the offense and Steelers coach Walt Kiesling was assigned the defense.  It was a struggle, and they rarely could field 25 men for a game.  By the end of the season, Eagles owner Alex Thompson was trying to control too much, and Rooney decided to look for a new partner.


1944 – The “Card-Pitts” or “Carpets”

Joining forces with the Chicago Cardinals brought about one of the ugliest or most appropriate names ever.  As the Card-Pitts fielded medically discharged veterans, 4-Fs, and even high school players, teams walked all over them all year long (0-10) and the “Car-Pit” moniker stuck.

  1. How The Pittsburgh Steelers Came to Be – Art Rooney
  2. How a day at Saratoga saved the Pittsburgh Steelers
  3. NEXT: When Art Rooney played a prank on George Halas
  4. Byron “Whizzer” White and “Bullet” Bill Dudley:  The Steelers first Franchise Players
  5. The Pennsylvania Polka – When Art Rooney sold the Steelers
  6. When Art Rooney was offered the chance to buy the New York Yankees
  7. What might have been – Jock Sutherland
  8. Same Old Steelers – “Rogel up the Middle”
  9. Why the Steelers cut Johnny Unitas
  10. How Buddy Parker vs. Dan Rooney set up the Steelers Dynasty


Thoughts or comments? Leave one below!


PMP; CSM; CSPO and host of the PMI-TB Agile Podcast. A lifelong Steelers fan, I had the chance of a lifetime when I was able to celebrate Super Bowl XLIII with the team. I love talking everything Steelers from the old days to the new and look forward to working with the team to grow this platform to be the premier Steelers site.


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