Reflections on a volatile, tragic figure

Art for Art's Sake 

Reflections on a volatile, tragic figure

Maybe it was the abrupt firing of the coaching icon Paul Brown. Or the fact that he was from New York and a suspicious fit with Clevelanders. But from the beginning there was uneasiness with Art Modell, who died last week at 87.

My experiences with Modell began one day in the spring of 1966, when I was summoned to the office of a senior editor at The Plain Dealer. This was unusual for a young reporter, and I worried that some errant behavior on my part had led to this journey to the executive hallway.

I was asked to take on a special assignment for the newspaper's Sunday magazine — a lengthy profile on Modell, who, after winning the National Football League championship in 1964, was the most prominent sports owner in town.

The editor said that people wondered about Modell. What kind of man was he, where did he get his money, and was it true that he had underworld connections? It was a matter, the editor said, that they did not want the sports department to handle.

There was concern that the sports department was cutting Modell too much slack. There was even talk that some sports reporters had advised Modell that he could blunt public reaction to the firing of Paul Brown by doing it during the long newspaper strike of 1962-63, which he did.

The suspicion that Modell was associating with unsavory characters centered on the source of his money to buy the team in 1961, the editor said. Over time, I learned that Plain Dealer editors often formed suspicions that were remote from fact. To them, the Hough riots of 1966 and the Kent State shootings four years later were the work of a communist conspiracy.

At the time I met Modell he was 40, single, and a regular at the celebrated Theatrical Grill, which hosted the town's good, its bad, and its ugly. The place was a mecca for reporters, federal investigators, and the last vestiges of the mob from Murray Hill. The jazz was good, and the hookers ample.

I was suspicious of Modell when I met him there. He wore a blue blazer with a repp tie, an ensemble he favored, topped by a camel-hair overcoat in bad weather. He was affable, smiling, and direct.

"So they sent you to fry me," he said boldly, with a tincture of Brooklyn in his expression. "I'm the guy from New York that people love to hate." I was surprised at his defensive nature, but it soon passed.

"I'll answer any question you have," he said. "So what are you drinking?"

Summer came, and with it preparations for the 1966 football season. The major issue that year was Jim Brown, who was in Hollywood making a movie, The Dirty Dozen. It was uncertain when he would return to the team.

Almost daily, I rode with Modell in his convertible from downtown to Hiram College, where the Browns had their training camp in those days. At night we'd go to the Theatrical or several other bars around town where Art enjoyed talking to the fans. He had a way with them, making them feel like Browns insiders.

Sometimes he would bring a date along. They were all pretty women with personalities to match. I remember one in particular: She designed tennis clothes and died shortly thereafter in a house fire in Shaker Heights.

When I asked Art if he was serious about any of them, he replied no, his mother would not like it if he married a gal who was not Jewish.

I came to know Modell as a witty man, quick with a quip, somewhat insecure, emotional with a desire to be liked. He was also generous — a softy, really, but with an angry flash point that could flush his face. Over time, it became clear that he liked control and possessed erratic judgment.

One day I was sitting in Modell's office at the old stadium when he got a return call from Hollywood. The Dirty Dozen was running behind schedule and there was no telling when filming would be finished, the caller said.

Modell's face went to afterburner.

"You've been bullshitting me. I'm trying to sell tickets, and I need to know whether Jim is going to play. If I can ever screw you, you can bet I will!" He slammed the phone down.

Then he waved at me and said that was off the record.

Over the years, I often thought of that call. Modell could have asked me to leave. I wondered if he wanted me to hear it because he really didn't want Brown back, but needed to make it appear that the matter was out of his hands.

In 1966, Jim Brown was trouble for Art Modell. He ogled coeds at summer school at Hiram. And there was more than one complaint that he spent a lot of time driving around East Side high schools.

Brown's bad habits became headlines in 1965, when a teenage girl, Brenda Ayres, accused him of assault and battery. Brown was acquitted in that case, as he was two years later after Ayres accused him of fathering her child. (This was in the days before DNA testing.)

Among the lawyers who frequented the Theatrical, word spread that the jury in the paternity case had been fixed. When I asked Modell about it, he wouldn't comment. But his demeanor suggested that he knew more than he'd ever tell. And he never seemed to miss Jim Brown that much, especially after Leroy Kelly replaced him as a great running back.

I wrote my story. Art had no ties to the mob, as the editors suspected. He told me he put in $50,000 of his own money to buy the team, borrowing the rest of the $4 million asking price from the now-defunct Union Commerce Bank.

Years later, after Dick Jacobs bought the Cleveland Indians, he met with Modell to discuss the arrangements between the baseball club and the Stadium Corporation, which Modell ran.

Jacobs complained that as a tenant, the Indians played many more games at the stadium than the Browns but received less revenue from the signage displayed at the ballpark. Could there be an adjustment in the agreement?

Art refused to consider the matter.

As Jacobs later recounted the story, there was a pause, then he said to Modell, "In that case, Art, I'm prepared to buy the Cleveland Browns if you are willing to sell."

While it's hard to pick pivotal moments in history, this meeting was surely one. At the time, few people knew Jacobs, while Modell was considered the sports impresario in Cleveland. He must have viewed Jacobs as an arrogant novice, trying to resurrect a baseball franchise on the verge of collapse.

But there was no bluff in Jacobs' offer. He was the opposite of Modell in almost every respect — introspective, analytical, and demanding. And he would prove to be the most able sports owner in Cleveland history, getting the support of City Hall to build a new baseball stadium and building a winning team.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Art Modell story played out in pain and anger. City Hall fumbled when it came to building a new football stadium, and Modell's business acumen diminished as badly as Bernie Kosar's skills. Finally, all that came together with the forlorn losing stigma that hovers over the city in a dark moment that Cleveland will never forget.

Still, if you knew Art, it was hard not to like him. The sad thing was that he wanted the town to be better than it was, and he devoted time, money, and charity to that end. He wanted the town to love him back, and when it did not, he abandoned it.

And even in death, Cleveland would not forget, let alone forgive.

Given his emotional personality, Art's own sense of betrayal must have been consuming and damning in his later years. In the end, he was as much a Greek tragedy as Aristotle could hope for, with the Dawg Pound as its chorus.

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