The Truth Behind Mobbed Up NFL Franchises

“Rooney commented that gambling in this regard is so heavy that it sometimes `frightens’ him, and that it’s a constant worry to him.″ — The FBI

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been owned by the Rooney family since 1933, when the jovial, cigar-chewing Arthur “The Chief” Rooney founded the seventh oldest NFL franchise, formerly known as the Pirates up until 1940. The old-hat version of Rooney’s comeuppance tells us that just three years after establishing his football club, Art won a parlay at Saratoga Race Course for about $160,000. He then turned around and used the winnings the fund the team salaries for the next five years until 1941.

As fun as that is to believe, his son, Dan Rooney, has since come out debunking that theory. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the myriad FBI documents suggesting Art was linked to the Western Pennsylvania Mob— one of the 24 traditional Mafia Families in the United States. For instance, a Federal report dated October 29, 1946, denotes an informant claimed Rooney and a group headed by the Mannarino brothers co-owned the slot machines in the Pittsburgh area, “under an agreement between these organizations, Mr. Rooney operated all slot machines north of the Allegheny River and the Mannarino’s operated those south of the river.”

Bookie-turned-New York Giants owner Tim Mara checks over race card with Art Rooney

Samuel and Gabriel Mannarino were both on then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s list of top 10 mobsters in the nation. In another heavily censored Federal document, an informant reported Rooney cornered the slot machine market long before local Mafia boss, Sebastian John LaRocca, and “controlled the entire Pittsburgh vicinity.″ Rooney sat down for an interview with Federal Agents in April 1959, where he outlined his limited knowledge regarding the underground gambling scene in Pittsburgh. Though he claimed to only know about the Mafia from media reports, he was able to describe in great detail how the bookmaking operations made their money. He went on to say it was “well-known that he was closely aligned with the city’s gambling element”, though he limited his own gambling to horse racing and knew the pitfalls of sports betting.

Make no mistake, the Steelers weren’t the only NFL franchise taking dirty money. In the 1920s, Chicago Bears owner, George Halas, reached out to Charles Bidwill, known bootlegger, gambler, racetrack owner, and associate of Al Capone’s outfit, to finance the Bears. Later, Bidwill bought the Chicago Cardinals and moved to Arizona, where the Bidwill family continues to run the Arizona Cardinals to this day. Then, in 1925 a bookie by the name of Tim Mara bought the New York Giants, and his heirs still own half of the team.

From left, owner Charles Bidwell of Chicago Cardinals; Charles Trippi and coach Jim Conzelman after Trippi signed in 1947 (AP)

The Cleveland Browns were owned by crime syndicate bookmaker Arthur McBride, head of the mob’s gambling news source, “Continental Racing Wire” which was dubbed “Public Enemy Number One” by the U.S. Senate’s Kefauver Committee. In 1961, the team was sold to Art Modell, who, among many things, was a partner in a horse-racing stable with another prize, Morris Wexler, whom the Kefauver Committee named one of the “leading hoodlums” in McBride’s wire service.

It gets better— In 1969, Modell got married at the president of Caesars Palace William (Billy) Weinberger’s Las Vegas fortress, whose hidden owners included infamous underworld names like Tony (Big Tuna) Accardo, Sam (Momo) Giancana, and Vincent (Jimmy Blue Eyes) Alo. When he kicked the bucket in 1996, the Las Vegas Sun called Weinberger “the dean of casino gaming.”

Art Modell hoisting the Lombardi in 2001 after the Ravens defeated the New York Giants, 34-7.

In 1969, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath had invested in a Manhattan bar, until the NFL contacted him and ordered that he sell his shares due to the bar’s mob ties. The league said nothing about Modell’s ties or the late Carroll Rosenbloom, a high roller with a vested interest in a mobbed-up Bahamian casino, owned the Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams at different times. His golddigging second wife, Georgia Frontiere, who had been married five times before tying the knot with Rosenbloom, inherited control of the Rams and moved them to St. Louis when she got a stadium 96% funded by taxpayers.

Not to mention the aforementioned Youngstown DeBartolo family [The Crime Family Who Infiltrated Professional Sports Ownership] who was generationally attached to casinos and racetracks, owns the San Francisco 49ers. In 1990s, Ed DeBartolo Jr., then owner of the 49ers thanks to his half-a-wise guy father, paid a Louisiana governor $400,000 to get a riverboat casino license. The governor went to the penitentiary while DeBartolo got a slap on the wrist, but had to hand over the 49ers to his sister. Today, DeBartolo Jr. runs the family business back in Youngstown.

An excerpt from a Aug. 22, 1978, Herb Caen column on the 49ers, where the longtime Chronicle columnist criticizes the team’s management and owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.

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