Former Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens team owner Art Modell passed away Thursday in Baltimore due to natural causes. He was 87 years old. This was confirmed by his son, David Modell, in a statement released after the former NFL executive had passed on.
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Arthur Bertram Modell left school at 15 years old to support his family after his father George passed away unexpectedly. George Modell was a wine sales manager who had gone bankrupt in 1929 following the Great Depression, and with the family relying on Art to make a living, the younger Modell supported his family as a railroad oiler. A few years after serving in World War II, Modell, now in his early 20s, began work at ABC as a television producer in 1948. He also worked for L.H. Hartman, a New York-based advertising agency, starting in 1954. By the early ‘60s, Modell had saved up and borrowed enough money to purchase the Cleveland Browns for $4 million. Only $250,000 of the money was Modell’s, but in any case, he was the owner of one of the National Football League’s top teams, then led by future Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown.
As a hands-on team owner, it didn’t take long for Modell to make his first bold decision. Early in 1963, he had fired Paul Brown, who had coached the very team that was named after him since its inception in 1946. Despite losing a future Hall of Fame coach, the Browns were still a force to be reckoned with in the NFL – the team won the 1964 NFL Championship by routing the Johnny Unitas-led Baltimore Colts, 27-0. That was, however, Modell’s last championship in Cleveland; it would be almost four decades before a Modell-owned team would win an NFL title. By that time, the Browns were already known as the Baltimore Ravens.
The Browns’ move to Baltimore for the 1996 season after losing $21 million in 1994 and 1995 is still considered as one of the darkest eras in Cleveland sporting history. Fans compared him to former Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, who had moved the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. Seemingly neutral corners heaped scorn on the Browns/Ravens owner; Inside Sports columnist and former Cincinnati Bengals player Bob Trumpy wrote in the magazine’s 1996 NFL preview, “I wish (the Ravens) high winds and muddy fields. I wish them empty roads to and from the ballpark. I wish them cold hot dogs. I wish them nothing but bad.”
Almost 15 years after the Cleveland Browns became the Baltimore Ravens, even LeBron James’ moving from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat (a.k.a. “The Decision”) wasn’t as vilified as the move to Baltimore. Modell remained a pariah in Cleveland till the day he died, but was beloved in Baltimore, who had ironically lost the Colts to Indianapolis in a similarly controversial move. The Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV against the Giants in 2001, giving Modell his first title in 37 years. Three years later, the Ravens were sold to Steve Biscotti for $600 million.
Modell is survived by his sons David and John and six grandchildren. David Modell is currently the Ravens’ President and CEO. Modell’s wife, former actress Patricia Breslin, passed away on October 12, 2011.