“It’s a son talking to a father, that’s the way I looked at it. It’s hard talking about someone who loved you that much. It’s not as easy as you think it is. Everything I said in his ear came from my heart and I loved him dearly,”
— Ray Lewis (September 2012)
THE PAINTING HANGS OVER THE majestic fireplace at The Castle in Owings Mills and exudes the warmth of the man himself. Arthur Bertrand Modell. Founder. Baltimore Ravens.
Like several others in this purple tale of civic sports personalities who are more worthy of a book than a chapter, one could write tomes outlining the full color and complexity of the life and times of Arthur B. Modell. After nearly a lifetime of working the football business on the banks of Lake Erie beginning in March 1961 in his adopted homeland of Cleveland, the native New Yorker brought his beloved Browns franchise to Baltimore in November 1995 amidst national scorn. He was forever reviled in Ohio and beloved in Maryland. The economic reasons for the move are well documented. And Modell was clear that there were no other motives except for self-preservation, abandoning a decrepit stadium un-affectionately known as “The Mistake On The Lake” that was built in 1930. Coming to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in an attempt to finally win a Super Bowl and create equity and a trust fund for his family in the only business he owned or cared about during his life was his only motivation.
Or as he once famously said regarding Baltimore, “I didn’t come here for the crab cakes!”
Five years later, on a team with four Hall of Famers, the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV and forever changed the Baltimore sports landscape. The Ravens went from being a carpet-bagged sports franchise to a civic institution.
The unique part of the Ravens, being such a young franchise, is the amazing institutional memory that exists within a relatively new building and a teenage organization that has become the model for the NFL. Modell understood football’s value to a local community. He understood the allure of sports, and he recognized the partnership that a franchise needed to have with all elements of the fan base – men and women, children, and adults, rich and poor, black and white, blue collar and white collar, Jew, Gentile and non-believers. Art believed that a sports team could galvanize all parts of a community in a way that no other entity could muster.
And who would know more than Modell? He truly was one of a handful of pioneers who helped build the National Football League from a third-rate sport on the fringe of society in the early 1960s into the centerpiece of the American sports landscape during his 42 years of ownership.
Modell will be remembered for owning a football team in Cleveland and moving it to Baltimore, but he lived a very full life before he even arrived in Ohio as a well-heeled New York ad man who gave up his East Coast life and moved to the friendly heart of the Midwest. There, he sold football and lived football like his contemporaries Pete Rozelle, Al Davis, Lamar Hunt, and the other forefathers of modern football
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I’ve written many times about the miracle of the Baltimore Ravens in my life. In November 1995, a football team landed here and I was in the third year of post-newspaper work doing sports radio and conversation in a town starved of NFL football for a decade in the absence of the once-beloved Colts.
Baltimore was a jilted football metropolis, thrown on the scrapheap by the big money of the NFL in 1984 and local fans had learned to fully adopt the Orioles and newly-minted Camden Yards as the only game in town by the mid 1990s.
It’s no secret how David Modell came into my life or how the Baltimore Ravens were birthed in our city. The Modells never minced words about the deal – it was about money. They were broke in Cleveland. I chronicled all of that and wrote at length about it after the first Super Bowl championship in 2001 here in Purple Reign – Diary of a Raven Maniac.
In Chapter 4, I wrote about the contributions of David Modell in the early years and how he was a major player in helping to build that incredible night in Tampa when his father, Arthur B. Modell, lifted the Lombardi Trophy to the Florida sky in a most-unlikely story.
You can also listen to a lengthy chat from two years ago (before his illness) and watch this video from last May at “A Night of Heroes” when he opened our event along with Gov. Larry Hogan.
His death this week was not sudden, but it has suddenly rocked me.
Like the kind of jolt a 48-year old guy would feel when he loses his 55-year old friend with a wife and twin babies, I must say that this one has hit me hard on many levels.
David Modell was a true iconoclast. From afar as a Houston Oilers fan in Dundalk for first quarter century of my life, I’d always seen him as the bespectacled young kid next to Art Modell with the pocket square and a quality tailor. Then he came into my studio – and my life for real – in 1996 with his family’s name being dragged through the mud throughout …
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(This was originally published as Chapter 4 of my 2001 book, Purple Reign – Diary of a Raven Maniac. It is the story of David Modell’s role in winning Super Bowl XXXV and how the Ravens wound up in Baltimore and the hiring of Brian Billick.)
A SILVER TROPHY BUT NOT A SILVER SPOON
“I can’t go back and explain it to everybody. But I did not move to Baltimore after 35 years (in Cleveland) for the crab cakes.”
Arthur B. Modell, Jan. 14, 2001, as told to the Cleveland Plain Dealer
OK, let’s go back to the beginning. The simple fact that the NFL ever returned to Baltimore is a miracle.
And, certainly, a miracle worth revisiting.
Forget about the snowy night in March 1984 when Robert Irsay pulled the Colts out of Baltimore in Mayflower trucks. Perish the thought that Bill Bidwill or Al Davis or Mike Brown or Georgia Frontiere or Bud Adams were ever honestly considering moving their NFL franchises to Baltimore. And expansion, as anyone who had any dealing with it at all will tell, was fixed from the beginning. The teams were going to go to the city that NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue liked the best.
Let’s make this very clear. From Tagliabue to Jack Kent Cooke to virtually every owner in the NFL, Baltimore was not a welcomed hamlet in the league’s lexicon. Because of its small TV market, because of its proximity to Washington and Philadelphia, because it was viewed as a “failed” football community with tiny crowds when it lost the Colts, it was a player simply because it possessed an internal will to keep fighting. There was money on the table in Baltimore, and owners could threaten to move from their existing base to Charm City because it was there and willing to be treated like a $20 hooker. The original Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herb Belgrad was a wonderfully kind gentleman, following the mandate of Governor William Donald Schaefer (who was the crushed mayor of Baltimore at the time of Irsay’s departure) to pursue an NFL team without breaking hearts. Belgrad was only to chase teams that were already set on moving, so as to not set up another broken-hearted situation like the one Baltimore endured in 1983.
Just like Mom told you, nice guys finish last.
Baltimore’s final hope for a run at an NFL franchise was put in the capable hands of John Moag, appointed by new Maryland governor Parris Glendening in February 1995. Moag wasted no time in utilizing his small window of opportunity to find a team before the money that Schaefer had left in the state coffers was redirected toward other projects in the budget. By the summer of 1995, Moag had identified several teams that were interested in moving their NFL teams to Baltimore, knowing full well that if the move wasn’t set by the end of the year, Baltimore might never be a player again. The money allocated for stadium funding in Baltimore could very well be used by the Washington Redskins to erect a stadium in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs. Houston was already committed and marching down the aisle with Tennessee. Arizona had already moved once but it was an obvious mistake. Cincinnati had indicated some interest. Tampa Bay and new owner Malcolm Glazer were getting antsy, wondering whether a lethargic NFL community would build them a palace. And, finally, the longest of all long shots, the venerable Cleveland Browns and Art Modell were having some cash problems on the shores of Lake Erie.
Many insiders would tell you the true catalysts in the move of the Browns to Baltimore were Jim Bailey, Modell’s Executive Vice President of Administration and Legal matters, and Al Lerner, a banker, entrepreneur and Modell’s best friend and part-owner of the Browns. Bailey had the most intimate knowledge of the debt that Modell had created in Cleveland. Lerner and Bailey knew of the inherent cash flow problems surrounding the Browns, Cleveland Stadium and its parent holder, the Cleveland Stadium Corporation, which Modell had taken on in the early 1970s, ironically, to try to save baseball and the Indians in Cleveland.
By 1995, the Cleveland Indians had departed Cleveland Stadium for swank new digs 10 blocks away at Jacobs Field. The NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers were playing next door to Jacobs at Gund Arena, another state of the art facility that was leading a renaissance in Northern Ohio. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened its doors in early October 1995, just four weeks prior to Modell signing the deal to move the Browns to Baltimore.
Modell had a huge financial stake in an aging, decrepit Cleveland Stadium that had just lost its largest tenant – 81 home baseball games per year – to a publicly financed, luxury-box laden Taj Mahal. To make matters worse, the Indians were riding the wave of newfound enthusiasm in the community in a march to the World Series, their first in more than 40 years.
Modell had tried privately for years to get relief in the way of a new stadium. Despite the Browns enormous popularity and success during the 1980s (three AFC Championship Game appearances in four years), he was last in line to be satiated because Cleveland Mayor Michael White and Governor George Voinovich never believed he’d move.
Modell had always been a hustler who played games with money, leveraging one company against the other. Despite playing with the big boys in the back rooms of the NFL in the early days, he was truly not a rich man. He bought the Browns in March 1961 for $4 million dollars and only put a fraction of that into the down payment. Many of his business interests over the next 35 years were followed with his heart and not his accountant.
He was the king of leverage and had been for nearly all of his adulthood. “Of course I can pay you back,” was the thinking. “I own the Cleveland Browns of the NFL.”
During 1994-95, more than five million people had seen Jacobs Field and its opulence. Modell was having a hard time selling tickets to his dump, let alone skyboxes that barely had running water. And as for perks, the valet service and champagne lifestyle that big business was getting down the street 81 times per year for baseball and 40 more times for the NBA on the club level was unmatchable. He needed a new stadium and needed it fast or he couldn’t compete.
Things got so bad for him financially that during the free agency period, in the spring of 1995, he had to borrow and personally guarantee a loan for $5 million so he could pay free agent wide receiver Andre Rison his signing bonus. The Browns had come 60 minutes away from playing in yet another AFC Championship Game three months prior and Modell felt as though he was one player away from going to the Super Bowl. His coach at the time, Bill Belichick, lobbied profusely to acquire Rison. Modell realized he could never get to a Super Bowl like this.
Enter Jim Bailey.
Bailey, a former football player at Florida State and longtime confidant of Modell from the 1970s, began planting two seeds: sell or move. The Browns could no longer compete in the NFL playing at Cleveland Stadium. Modell had always held out hope that he would be “taken care of” by Cleveland and Ohio politicians, but tension was beginning to rise as debt piled up.
The last straw came in mid-1995 when, instead of passing bonds to build a new stadium for Modell, the city and state enacted a referendum to be voted on by the public to renovate the “Mistake on the Lake.” Renovating a century old stadium was hardly feasible, and not intrinsically fair for a man who helped keep the baseball team in the city in the first place. Modell wanted at least equal treatment after two years of watching baseball become royalty in Cleveland under an unforeseeable stream of revenue.
Enter John Moag.
Moag’s mandate as an appointee of Glendening was to get a team and get one quickly or the money that was allocated for stadium funding would be pulled off the books. Glendening, for all of his posturing and embarrassing fake “homer-ism” in regard to the Ravens, was constantly trying to prove himself to Baltimore, where his popularity was extremely low for a Maryland governor. Glendening was and still is perceived as a Washingtonian with interests that lie more toward the Washington beltway than the Baltimore beltway. That said, he could always rest his hat in Baltimore if he were a key player in bringing the NFL back
WKYC-TV (Cleveland) reporter Jim Donovan reported Wednesday night former Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell had been hospitalized in Baltimore and his condition “was worsening.”
According to the report, Modell’s vital organs are “failing” and his sons John and David had gathered with him in the hospital.
Modell moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1996 and remained majority owner of the team until 2004 when purchase of the team was completed by current owner Steve Bisciotti.
Modell was majority owner of the Ravens in 2001 when they defeated the New York Giants 34-7 to win Super Bowl XXXV, the franchise’s only Super Bowl title and the first for the city since the Baltimore Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V.
Pat Modell, Art’s wife since 1969, died in October 2011 of pancreatitis.
WNST will have more on this story as it becomes available.