Art Modell, former Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns owner, dies at 87

Art Modell may have returned football to Baltimore, but in the eyes of the silver-haired owner, the Ravens were clearly a team of the people.

Eleven years ago, amid a swirl of confetti following the Ravens' Super Bowl victory in Tampa, a tearful Mr. Modell hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy aloft and declared, “To the people in Baltimore City, to the people in Baltimore County and to the state of Maryland, this belongs to you.”


And following the team's triumphant return to their training complex in Owings Mills, Mr. Modell had team officials tote the seven-pound silver trophy up and down Bonita Avenue, allowing cheering fans to reach out and touch it.

“Art had this innate feeling that he should be embedded in the community,” said Ernie Accorsi, who worked eight years as general manager of the Cleveland Browns under Modell. “He completely became a Baltimorean.”


Mr. Modell, the Ravens' principal owner from their inception in 1996 until 2004, died Thursday morning of natural causes at age 87 at Johns Hopkins Hospital, itself a beneficiary of his philanthropy. Mr. Modell had chaired a $100 million fund drive to build a new cardiovascular tower on Orleans Street for the hospital's Heart Institute.

Two years ago, Baltimore's Lyric Opera House became the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric, in honor of a $3.5 million gift from the Modells. They also donated generously to the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

“This was an amazing man, and not only to the [football] industry,” said John Moag, former head of the Maryland Stadium Authority, who led the negotiations that brought the Browns to town to become the Ravens. “What he did for his community in Cleveland, and then repeated here, is truly beyond measure.”

But football is the legacy for which Mr. Modell will be best remembered in Baltimore, which lost the Colts in 1984. However, in Cleveland, Mr. Modell is often referred to as that town's Bob Irsay, who moved the Colts franchise under the cover of darkness and a snowstorm to Indianapolis. With Mr. Modell's Browns moving here in after the 1995 season, Baltimore had football again.

“Art returned our Sundays to us,” Mr. Moag said. “And he demanded that his team integrate in the community and ‘give back' — a tradition that [current owner Steve] Bisciotti and the hundreds of players who've passed through here have continued as well.”

Mr. Modell had endured health problems for many years. In 1983 he had a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery. In early 1996, he suffered a near-fatal blood infection while at his vacation home in Florida. In 2002, he endured both a mild heart attack and a mild stroke.

“My brother, John Modell, and I were with him when he finally rejoined the absolute love of his life, my mother Pat Modell, who passed away last October,” former Ravens president David Modell said in a statement.

“‘Poppy' was a special man who was loved by his sons, his daughter-in-law Michel, and his six grandchildren. Moreover, he was adored by the entire Baltimore community for his kindness and generosity. And, he loved Baltimore. He made an important and indelible contribution to the lives of his children, grandchildren and his entire community. We will miss him.”


Several members of the Ravens organization, including Mr. Bisciotti, general manager Ozzie Newsome, senior vice president of public and community relations Kevin Byrne and linebacker Ray Lewis visited him at Hopkins on Wednesday.

“He was my friend, my mentor. We will miss him so much. How lucky are all of us to have had Art in Baltimore? How fortunate I am to have had him teach me about the NFL,” Mr. Bisciotti said. “His generosity, his love, his humor, his intelligence, his friendship — we were all blessed by this great man. We will strive to live up to his standard.”

Mr. Modell was a visionary in the NFL's boom years. Yet, even as the league he helped create grew into a billion-dollar industry, he was forced to relocate Cleveland's legendary Browns to Baltimore after the 1995 season to avoid bankruptcy and losing the team.

Mr. Modell did not leave Ohio with happy heart, Mr. Moag said.

“I'll never forget the sadness on his face as we did the deal,” he said. “The pain of leaving Cleveland was immeasurable.

“When I first approached Art about coming to Baltimore, he refused to talk to me. Only when all possibility of a new stadium in Cleveland fell apart was he willing to talk. I promised him that he'd love Baltimore, and that the city would love him.”


Beset with lingering financial issues here, Mr. Modell sold minority interest in the Ravens to Bisciotti in 1999 and then yielded controlling interest in 2004.

“He was a very excellent owner, a highly respected owner,” said Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr., one of Modell's closest friends in the league.

“In my mind we're going to remember him as a great guy, a fellow with the greatest sense of humor, and a good friend who did a lot for the NFL. I saw him stand up for what he thought was best for the league.”

What set apart Mr. Modell's stewardship both in Cleveland and Baltimore was his sense of civic involvement.

“The one thing that predominates, wherever he is, is community,” said Mr. Accorsi, who was the Colts' general manager in 1982-83.

“He was involved in charities and symphonies. He dives into every walk of life. He was very active in the Republican party [in Cleveland]. He's a tremendously giving person. Art even let Cleveland keep the Browns' name, and he didn't even ask for money. That's absolute class.”


Mr. Modell's death brings to an end a remarkable life at the center of America's golden age of sports. He was one of a handful of influential NFL team owners who arranged the league's blissful marriage with television, and watched as football overtook baseball as the nation's most popular sport.

And the congenial Mr. Modell, a former Madison Avenue advertising executive, pioneering television producer and certified sports fanatic, was at the center of the action throughout the NFL's climb.

Growing up in Brooklyn

The son of an electronics retailer, Mr. Modell grew up in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park in Brooklyn, N.Y. His early youth was a time of relative luxury for him and his two older sisters, with chauffeurs and vacations on the New Jersey shore. He became an avid sports fan following baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers and football's Giants.

But his father lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash and Great Depression that followed. The elder Mr. Modell declared bankruptcy and became a traveling wine salesman. He died while on a business trip in 1939, when his son was 14.

The family was left penniless and Mr. Modell was forced to drop out of high school and get a job. He lied about his age to get a job as a 45-cent-an hour electrician's helper at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s New York shipyard.


Mr. Modell often said the early death of his father, with whom he was very close, and the family's sudden loss of status left him with a drive to make his own fortune. “I wanted to make something of myself. I had no inheritance, nothing to fall back on,” he said in one interview.

He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, precursor of the Air Force, during World War II, assigned to ground maintenance. An accomplished baseball player, he was eventually re-assigned to a physical education wing, traveling the country leading the fitness training required of GIs.

After the war he returned to New York. Intrigued by the nascent television industry, he used his army education benefits to enroll in classes on broadcasting.

“There were only 5,000 TV sets in New York, and I thought if I could get an education in TV, that I could build on it because I thought TV would be a big thing one day,” Mr. Modell once recalled.

He was right. He and another student soon formed a production company. Their first big project: Market Melodies, a critically unacclaimed show featuring recipes and household tips that was beamed into television sets Mr. Modell bought and persuaded a large grocery store chain to mount inside its stores.

From TV production, Mr. Modell moved into advertising. In 1960, while working at a Madison Avenue ad agency, he got a call from an acquaintance saying the Cleveland Browns were for sale. A deal had been put together to sell the team to CBS president William Paley, but the network executive backed out because his company was then negotiating the first national broadcast deal with the NFL and he worried about a conflict of interest.


Mr. Modell, realizing the potential value that could accrue from a combining of television and football, accepted the $3.93 million asking price. He assembled an investment group and bank loans to raise the money — he put up very little of his own funds — and moved to Cleveland as the new team owner in 1961. He was 35.

It would prove to be the best investment of his life. The NFL's youthful commissioner, Pete Rozelle, had been on the job for just a year and soon was drawing on Mr. Modell's knowledge of television. The two became close friends, and Mr. Modell became chairman of the NFL's television committee, a post he would hold for 31 years.

Mr. Modell's Browns also enjoyed success. In 1964 the team, with Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, upset the heavily favored Baltimore Colts, quarterbacked by Johnny Unitas, to win the NFL championship in the age before the Super Bowl. It helped Mr. Modell rebuild confidence in his adopted hometown, which was still smarting from his surprising decision in 1962 to fire the team's legendary coach and namesake, Paul Brown.

The Browns played in, but lost, NFL title games in 1965, 1968, and 1969. Additionally, they played in, but lost, three conference championships, in 1986, 1987, and 1989, and made the playoffs eight other times.

Moving the Browns

For all of Mr. Modell's philanthropic projects in Cleveland, he will be remembered there mostly for his dramatic exit in 1995. It was a shocking decision: the Browns were among the most popular franchises in sports, regularly drawing 80,000 fans to an ugly duckling of a stadium on the shores of Lake Erie.


Mr. Modell claimed he was losing money, a contention the league disputed. But the team was mired in debt, brought on by its operation of the ancient Cleveland Stadium and some pricey player signings that failed to produce the desired championship. Mr. Modell's pursuit of the Super Bowl contributed to his undoing.

“I think his desire to win affected him in Cleveland, [and] his not getting to a Super Bowl affected his running the franchise because that's what he wanted to do,” said Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end for Mr. Modell who worked his way into the Ravens general manager's position by 2002. “He in turn invested a lot of capital into the players to win a Super Bowl.”

Meanwhile, Cleveland taxpayers had built new playing facilities for Major League Baseball's Indians and the National Basketball Association's Cavaliers. Prospects for a football stadium dimmed as those two projects ran over budget and an unrelated bond crisis gripped the county.

Mr. Modell, who had always promised not to move his team, said he had run out of patience, and cash, waiting for his turn for a new stadium. So on Oct. 27, 1995, he secretly met with Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and signed the papers to move the team. Baltimore had been desperately seeking a replacement for the Colts since that franchise had moved to Indianapolis in 1984.

“I didn't get into this business to go bankrupt. I'm in it to win, and I can't continue to make the best effort to win in Cleveland with the current stadium situation,” Mr. Modell said at the time.

The Browns' move to Baltimore was met with widespread condemnation, and, coming on the heels of a disastrous baseball players strike, was perceived as another example of rampant greed in sports. Congress convened hearings to debate it and fans set up pickets at gatherings of NFL team owners. Mr. Modell's candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame failed that fall.


Cleveland went to court to block the move, but ended up settling for $12 million from Mr. Modell and the promise from the league of a new team that would play under the Browns moniker and adopt its records and heritage. The league even subsidized the construction of the city's new stadium, a loan it collected from the franchise that replaced Mr. Modell's.

That team, owned by a financier and former part-owner of the Browns under Mr. Modell, Al Lerner, took the field for the first time in 1999.

Mr. Modell renamed his team the Ravens and they played their first game in Baltimore in 1996. In 1998, the team moved into the new $223 million stadium near Camden Yards that had been promised if it would move from Ohio.

Mr. Modell and his wife, the former Patricia Breslin, moved to Baltimore County as promised.

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He was unable to leave behind his financial troubles, however. In a desperate restructuring of the team's $185 million debt in 1997, Mr. Modell turned over a majority of the stock to his wife but retained the title of managing partner. The move was designed to circumvent league limits on how much a managing partner can borrow against the franchise.

The league went along reluctantly but a few years later the team lapsed into default when it failed to maintain a required ratio of profit to debt. Mr. Modell was forced to sell the team.


Mr. Bisciotti purchased 49 percent of the Ravens for $275 million in 1999. The deal gave him the option to buy the rest of the team four years later for another $325 million.

“I had my run,” Mr. Modell said at the time of the sale.

But the run wasn't quite over. Mr. Modell remained in charge of the team prior to Bisciotti's option and fulfilled his most fervent wish late in life, raising the Lombardi Trophy after the 2001 Super Bowl.

In addition to his sons and daughter-in-law, Mr. Modell is survived by six grandchildren. A funeral service is tentatively scheduled for 11 a.m. on Tuesday but a location has not been determined.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.