“In Peter Golenbock’s ‘Bums: an Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers,’ Jack Newfield tells of the time he was having dinner with Pete Hamill. ‘I said to Pete, “Let’s try an experiment. You write on your napkin the names of the three worst human beings who ever lived, and I will write the three worst, and we’ll compare.”
”’Each of us wrote down the same three names and in the same order: Hitler, Stalin, Walter O’Malley.”’
–Jay Feldman, New York Times
In all my “History of Cleveland in 50 Objects” posts so far, I’ve tried to be both accurate and fair.
This one will be accurate, but I’m not going to bother to pretend it will be in any way fair.
You want fair?
Feel free to open up a new tab in your browser and Google “Baltimore Ravens.”
Because a city which loses a professional sports team loses a part of its very soul — even if the franchise isn’t as storied as Walter O’Malley’s Brooklyn Dodgers. That kind of psychic pain makes it difficult to be fair.
Fans of the Seattle SuperSonics, the Montreal Expos, and the New England/Hartford Whalers still have holes in their hearts where their teams used to be, despite the fact their teams’ win-loss records did not always live up to fans’ hopes and dreams.
True, the Browns had never won, or even been to, a Super Bowl. But over the years, they had been to the NFL Championship Game — the precursor of the Super Bowl — several times, and won it four times. (When they soundly defeated the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL Championship game 27-0, it would be 52 years before a Cleveland team won another national championship.)
The Browns figured as a prominent plot point in the 1966 movie The Fortune Cookie. Director Billy Wilder and stars Jack Lemmon & Walter Matthau filmed scenes at the Browns’ then-home, Municipal Stadium, during an actual game on Halloween 1965; ABC sportscaster Keith Jackson played the role of the TV commentator, and mentioned real-life Browns players Jim Brown and Lou “The Toe” Groza during his play-by-play. At a party hosted by gregarious & youthful Browns owner Art Modell in the team’s executive dining room, Lemmon told guests that Cleveland had been chosen because “First of all, you had a good football team, not to mention the world champions.
“Also,” Lemmon added, “we wanted to get a realistic feeling in this picture, and shooting it in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, would have been the same thing all over again…”
Lemmon concluded, almost as an afterthought, “Then too, we needed an Eastern city, because the picture had to be shot in fall weather, and Cleveland is more fallish than, let’s say, Baltimore.”
The Cleveland Browns of that era were considered enough of a marquee attraction to be featured in 1970’s first-ever Monday Night Football game, playing against the go-go New York Jets, led by star quarterback and cultural touchstone Joe Namath. (The Browns won, literally as well as figuratively: they beat the Jets 31-21, and the game nabbed 33% of the national viewing audience that night — though ironically, because the game was blacked out in Cleveland, Clevelanders themselves couldn’t watch it on TV.)
And the Browns regularly appeared in the playoffs during the 1970s and 1980s. If they never made it very far, Browns fans could at least find reasons for hope.
Perhaps more importantly — because whatever other cultural and societal needs professional sports may fulfill, they are, at base, a business — the Browns regularly sold out games at their lakefront home. This was no mean feat: Cleveland Stadium (more commonly called “Municipal Stadium”), built in the 1930s to attract business to downtown Cleveland, could hold approximately 81,000 people during football games. Writers, reporters and historians are officially obligated to use the adjective “cavernous” when describing it, but during Browns games, Muny Stadium was a cavern full to the walls of happy football fans.
No group personified Browns fans’ happiness like the Dawg Pound, the enthusiastic denizens of the bleachers. Styling their name after cornerback Hanford Dixon’s motivational nickname for his defensive line ca.the mid-1980s, the Dawg Pound cheered on Browns players with constant, vociferous … barking. The Dawg Pound had borrowed the barking from Dixon as well — “We were having training camp … and the fans were so close to the field. We started barking and they just took over the whole damn thing” — and it eventually got to the point where “Woof, woof” became an acceptable all-purpose conversational greeting for Clevelanders. (Cleveland native Arsenio Hall introduced the convention to the nation when he warmed up the studio audience for his popular late 1980s-early 1990s talk show with enthusiastic woofing. The audience woofed right back, with even more enthusiasm.)
Young quarterback Bernie Kosar, a native of Northeast Ohio, seemed as if he could be the handsome hero of an inspirational sports novel for young adults. Kosar even inspired a song — cribbed from an old standard, rewritten with new lyrics, and added barking — which, as one prominent local DJ told the band, was #1 in local radio airplay, even exceeding Bon Jovi.
Injuries sidelined Kosar, and he was eventually traded; the team’s won-loss record dimmed a bit in the early 1990s.
Still, Browns fans in 1995 had good reason to think the future was bright.
They certainly had no reason to think there might not be a future.
After all, Art Modell had said that as long as he and his family owned the Cleveland Browns, he would never move the team from Cleveland.
Maybe Cleveland fans should have looked back to a remark made by Billy Wilder after filming scenes from that real-life football game on Halloween, 1965. The Browns did not play their best, and fans responded by booing the team, much to the dismay of Browns owner Art Modell.
Wilder, whose previous film had been a critical and commercial disappointment, shrugged. “After my last picture, I know how Modell feels,” he said. “But he shouldn’t worry. There’ll be further disasters.”
“Ravens can survive almost everywhere because they are such adaptable opportunists. They take advantage of any meal that presents itself and they adjust to different living conditions and threats. They are both predators and scavengers…
“Ravens notice and comment on everything around them. Their range of vocalizations may be second only to human speech. They can imitate some words and sounds such as a dog’s bark…”
–The Maryland Zoo’s web page for “The Common Raven“
By 1990, the Cleveland Indians — who shared Municipal Stadium with the Browns — had been perennial cellar dwellers for over 20 years. As a result, attendance was down to about 12,000 fans annually. That was bad enough, but the sight of 12,000, or fewer, in a stadium that could hold 74,000 — for baseball — made the team’s woes starkly apparent. Additionally, the arrangement Art Modell had with the city meant that he de facto owned Municipal Stadium, and he refused to share luxury suite revenues with the Indians.
State and local leaders saw an opportunity to revitalize Cleveland by building a new, cozier baseball stadium nearer the heart of downtown; it would additionally then be closer to interstate highways and public transportation hubs, potentially attracting fans from outlying suburbs and all over northeast Ohio.
Further, they hoped to pair the new baseball stadium with a new facility for Cleveland’s NBA team — then playing in an arena halfway between Cleveland and Akron, and a pain to get to from either city, particularly in the winter.
By 1990, agreements for the new facilities had been worked out with both the Indians and the Cavaliers, and voters approved a county-wide “sin tax” to pay for them. The baseball stadium –currently called Progressive Field — and the basketball/special events arena –now called the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse — both opened in 1994, and welcomed thousands of enthusiastic fans through their turnstiles.
You may have noticed that Cleveland’s third major pro sports team is missing from this urban success story.
Why, you ask?
The reasons are still not clear, even after all this time.
For many years, the narrative — frequently told by Art Modell, and accepted by media outlets and fans — was that city leaders had not offered Modell and the Browns a new stadium. Modell’s wounded pride and hurt feelings –to be rejected by the city for which he had done so much, professionally and through charitable efforts! — caused everything that happened next.
So the story went.
After Modell died in 2012, legendary Cleveland politician George Forbes, longtime president of Cleveland City Council, revealed that Modell had been offered a new stadium. It would have been located just southwest of Progressive Field.
Modell said no.
And why did he lie about it for so many years afterward?
Did he truly believe that, with his business acumen, he could ensure the Browns would remain profitable at old Municipal Stadium without the Indians — only to find out he was spectacularly wrong?
Was he envious that the Cleveland Indians had attracted so much new attention among Cleveland sports fans?
What the hell happened?
These are questions to which the answers are not known.
What is known is that early in 1995, Modell suspended talks with the city of Cleveland regarding the Browns’ future plans. There would be a $175 million referendum on the November 1995 ballot to fund improvements to Municipal Stadium, and ostensibly no agreement could be worked out until that issue was determined one way or the other.
Privately, Modell thought the referendum would fail, and he evidently saw no sense in waiting for an inevitable outcome.
In secret, Modell started talking to city and state officials in Maryland about the possibility of moving his team to Baltimore.
Baltimore, of course, had lost its own NFL franchise in 1984, in circumstances suitable for an espionage thriller. The Colts’ owner, in order to escape late-evening state legislative action which would have forced the Colts to remain, had the team’s offices and equipment packed in dozens of Mayflower moving vans, which literally left Memorial Stadium for Indianapolis under cloak of night. More incredibly, the Mayflower vans allegedly all took different routes in order to evade the Maryland State Police, who, at least theoretically, had the authority to stop them, depending on the outcome of the vote in the state legislature.
Cleveland’s referendum was scheduled for November 7, 1995. But unbeknownst to nearly everyone in Cleveland, by mid-October, Modell had already agreed to move the Browns to Baltimore. The deal was finalized on October 27, 1995, with plans to publicly announce the move in late December, after the end of the regular football season.
But the news began to leak; Cleveland and Baltimore reporters started asking questions, and callers to sports radio talk shows in both cities started mentioning rumors they’d heard about the move.
Art Modell realized he had to get ahead of the story. He told his wife Patricia that she had less than a week to pack up their suburban Cleveland home — where they’d lived for nearly thirty years — and leave town permanently, before the news broke.
Then, on Monday, November 6, 1995, Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, with an approving group of state politicians, dignitaries, sports executives, and Art Modell sitting behind him, stepped to the lectern set up near Camden Yards at Oriole Park.
“We are standing on the very spot where in less than three years, 70,000 people will be cheering for the Baltimore Browns,” he announced, hoisting an orange-and-brown Browns beer mug and not bothering to disguise his triumphant glee.
(As Glendening’s gesture suggests — and despite later reports to the contrary — Baltimore had made it clear throughout the negotiations that they fully intended to inherit every aspect of the Browns’ identity. John Moag, the head of the Maryland Stadium Authority, was a key figure in the negotiations with Modell. On the October morning the deal was due to be signed, Moag tried to get into his car to attend the meeting, only to find that his wife and kids had entirely filled the interior with brown and orange balloons, to the point where he had to pop some of them, and move others to the rear seat, just to be able to sit in the driver’s seat. Even then, presumably, part of the view out his rear windshield was obscured by brown and orange balloons.)
After the official announcement, the city of Cleveland went into collective shock.
As Cleveland Plain Dealer Browns beat writer Mary Kay Cabot said, “To think that you could move the Browns out of Cleveland was to think that you could rip the Terminal Tower out of its foundation.”
Actor and comedian Martin Mull, a Cleveland native, said that the Browns moving to another city was “like finding out the Eiffel Tower is going to be in Nebraska.”
On Tuesday, November 7th, Clevelanders passed the ballot initiative to fund a brand new, state-of-the-art football stadium, as a sort of giant “screw you” to Modell.
There were “Stop the Move” petitions passed around and posted everywhere one went; the Plain Dealer was filled with columns and letters critical of Modell; phone lines were jammed at every sports radio call-in show in town; protest rallies were held nearly every day.
During the last home game at Municipal Stadium in December 1995, angry Browns fans ripped up the stadium, hurling banks of bleacher seats and large fireworks onto the field. Game officials ended up switching sides of the field during the team’s last drive, which was headed toward the Dawg Pound. Browns quarterback Vinny Testaverde joked afterwards, “Security said it was getting too dangerous, but I didn’t really notice anything except for a few explosions.” (Modell had anticipated the virulent response, which is why he had initially planned the announcement of the team’s move for after the end of the regular season.)
Anger did not abate after that last game. Ohio politicians and other groups filed, or threatened to file lawsuits in attempt to prevent the move; Cleveland’s collective anger remained palpable — “a living, breathing entity,” as one columnist described it yearly later.
Finally, faced with the prospect of never-ending legal actions, and in the face of continuous fan rage, indignation, and grief, Modell, Cleveland leaders, Ohio politicians and the NFL worked out a deal in February, 1996.
Cleveland, in effect, got a brand-new expansion team — which would be called the “Cleveland Browns” — as well as ownership of a new stadium, “substantially fund[ed] by the NFL,” which would replace the old Municipal Stadium.
But, in a provision then unprecedented in the history of American professional sports, the NFL announced that not only would Cleveland’s NFL team keep its name, it would also retain the team’s “logo, colors, history, playing records, trophies and memorabilia.”
And so, the Cleveland Browns returned to Cleveland in 1999.
“What if I told you ….?” –the beginning of the standard tagline for ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series
If this were an episode of “30 for 30,” this is where the coda would kick in, the “where are they now?”s, the “happily ever after.”
It would be so good if this story had a happy ending. Or a happy beginning. Or even a happy middle.
Instead, the history of the Cleveland Browns, from 1999 on, has been legendarily plagued with all manner of absurdity and failure.
Over the last twenty years, the Cleveland Browns have had 9 different head coaches, 9 different general managers, and most notoriously of all, 30 different quarterbacks. In stark contrast, the New England Patriots have had 5 quarterbacks during that same period of time, with Tom Brady in that role for the vast majority of Patriots games played between 1999-2019. And incidentally, I’m posting this blog entry on December 29, 2019, the last day of the Browns’ season. Speculation is currently running rampant that the numbers I just cited re: the Browns may change by the time you read this: Watch this space.
(Update, Sunday, December 29, 2019, 8:00PM Eastern time:
The Browns are now seeking to hire their 10th head coach since 1999; geez, it’s like trying to fill the Defense Against the Dark Arts position at Hogwarts [& possibly just as cursed].)
(Further update, Tuesday, December 31, 2019, 3:00PM Eastern time:
The Browns are now looking to hire their 10th general manager since 1999.)
The Cleveland Browns have had only two winning seasons since their return; nothing captures the tribulations of the team and their fans better than comedian Mike Polk, Jr. ‘s 2011 viral video “The Factory of Sadness,” in which Polk directs outsized ire and indignation at the team’s failures to the exterior of an empty, dark and impassive Cleveland Browns Stadium.
The Browns’ total won-loss record since 1999 is, to quote Charlie Brown, a “figure much too embarrassing to mention,” including the dismal 2017 season, when the team didn’t win a single game.
In response, fans held a “Perfect Season” parade — or what the Associated Press wittily called a “no victory lap.” More than 3,000 fans showed up to Cleveland Browns Stadium to parade, or to observe — but all came to point out to the team’s owners and management that they deserved better than an 0-16 record.
It could be, and was, argued that the parade demonstrated Browns fans were fickle. Where was all the love they had for their team when they were on the verge of losing it?
On the other hand, the temperature the morning of the “Perfect Season” parade was 10 degrees. 3,000 people don’t show up to an outdoor event with sub-zero wind chills for something they don’t love.
It’s not for nothing that in 2015, just in time for the 30th anniversary of the Dawg Pound, the Browns adopted a more intense orange as part of their official team colors — in order, they said, to better reflect the passion of their most fervent fans.
And even Mike Polk Jr.’s “Factory of Sadness,” the ultimate expression of Cleveland’s football frustration, ends — spoiler alert — with Polk muttering “See you Sunday,” as he stalks off into the night.
Meanwhile, in Baltimore …
Art Modell lived long enough to see the Ravens win a Super Bowl. He received a championship ring, as well as the adulation of a grateful and jubilant Baltimore.
Of course, those achievements were made possible, in part, using players who had been drafted by the Cleveland Browns organization years earlier.
When Art Modell died in 2012, only one NFL team did not observe a moment of silence in honor of his life and contributions to the game. (I’ll give you 32 guesses as to which team it was, and the first 31 don’t count.) At the request of the Modell family, the team did not even read an acknowledgement of Modell’s passing.
Art Modell was an eight-time finalist or semi-finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was not elected. Although his name has recently been re-submitted for consideration for admission, as part of the NFL’s “Centennial Slate,” it is possible that he won’t be elected to the Hall for a very long time.
Of course, “never” could be considered one definition of “a very long time.”
Modell’s name lives on in Ohio, informally, thanks to Ohio Revised Code 9.67, which prevents team owners whose teams use tax-supported facilities from moving their teams to other cities unless they’ve either reached an agreement with their own municipality for the move, or given their hometowns six months’ notice and provided a chance for local investors to purchase the team.
It’s known as “the Art Modell law.”
Art Modell — and his wife, and his sons — never returned to Cleveland after November, 1995.
Art Modell, his wife Pat, and their son David have all since passed away.
Despite all the years they spent in Cleveland — and despite all the civic and charitable good the Modell family did in Cleveland — they are all buried in Maryland.
So the moral of this story might be:
If you’re doing something which you feel requires you and your family to hurriedly move from the city in which you’ve lived with honor for 35 years — never to return, even in death — it’s probably, overall, a Bad Thing.
And you’ll see nothing but brown, orange and white in your (metaphoric) rear view mirror.
As for the Cleveland Browns, and their fans?
Well, it can’t be sugarcoated: many things have gone wrong for this team after their involuntary hiatus.
But: their colors are still brown, orange, and white.
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