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The story of how Art Modell became owner of the Browns

Franchise was for sale with a Cleveland group ready to buy

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NFL: USA TODAY Sports-Archive
NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle (left) and Browns president Art Modell talk before the 1964 NFL Championship Game at Cleveland Stadium
Tony Tomsic-USA TODAY Sports

Up until their move to Baltimore in 1996. the Cleveland Browns only had three ownership groups. The final one placed a dagger into the hearts of every fan of the orange and brown.

Art Modell was the principal owner of that group. He had been promised a new stadium having played each season in the decaying Cleveland Municipal Stadium; which was constructed in 1931 and built for baseball. A full football gridiron just barely squeezed in. If a patron had season tickets for Cleveland Indians games behind home plate, those same great seats were very far from the action for Browns games. On the flip side, center field seats for baseball were the best seats in the house for viewing NFL games since the back of the end zone butted right up to the outfield wall.

The Indians plus the Cleveland Cavaliers had each received new arenas, and plans were drawn for new digs for the Browns. The blueprints were displayed at their facility in Berea while new players were shown the drawings as an enticement.

Cleveland Browns vs Houston Oilers Set Number: X49576 TK1 R7 F3

However, that dragged on. Modell became impatient. A group from Baltimore approached him and offered his group the moon plus the stars. Money talks, and the Cleveland Browns became the Baltimore Browns (later renamed Ravens) in one failed swoop. Years earlier the City of Baltimore had witnessed their own NFL club relocate to Indianapolis and currently had the Canadian Football League Baltimore Stallions in-house.

Even today, Cleveland fans who went through all that turmoil and anguish still despise Modell.

But Modell was not a Clevelander. He wasn’t even from the State of Ohio. He was from New York City. So, how did a born and raised New Yorker become the principal owner of the Browns?

Browns’ first two ownership groups

Lou Groza (left), Mickey McBride

The Browns began in 1946 in the NFL-rival league the All-America Football Conference. This entity comprised of eight teams of which the Browns, San Francisco 49ers, and Baltimore Colts played all four years of existence before merging into the NFL in 1950. The Browns’ original principal owner was Mickey McBride.

McBride sold the Browns in 1953 to a Cleveland group for $600,000. ($5,803,731 in today’s dollars), four times the largest sum ever paid for a professional football club. At the time of the sale, Cleveland had captured five league championships. From their inception of 1946 to 1952 the squad had been in the championship game every single year. This aspect alone drove the price up.

McBride, plus minority owners son Edward, head coach Paul Brown, Dan Sherby, plus four others, were the sellers. The group they sold the franchise to all had deep ties to Cleveland’s finan­cial scene.

Dave R. Jones (seated) hands a check for $250,000 to Mickey McBride as a down payment on the purchase of the Browns for $600,000

They were principal owner Dave R. Jones, who had been a former Indians director, Homer Marshman, who founded the Cleveland Rams, former Indians President Ellis Ryan, Saul Silberman, owner of the horse race track later known as Thistledown Racecourse, local businessman Ralph DeChairo, stockbroker Roger Struck, and Coach Brown (who now owned 15%).

Under the ownership headed by Jones, the Browns won two more NFL titles in 1954 and 1955. Two important occurrences occurred after that 1995 season: QB Otto Graham retired for the second time permanently, and minority owner Silberman sold his shares to the other members of the group.

In 1961, Cleveland was again for sale

Going into the 1960s, the Browns were the NFL’s version of the New York Yankees. From 1946 to 1958 Cleveland was in the playoffs 13 times, played in the league championship game 12 different years including 10 consecutive seasons, and won seven titles in two leagues. They only missed the post-season in 1956 and 1959 and had gone 8-3-1 in 1960.

In the early winter of 1961, there was an article that appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer written by sportswriter Chuck Heaton which stated that the Browns were for sale and that there were two groups of investors who had an interest in buying the franchise.

The article went on to state that the probable selling price would center around $3-$4 million. This was viewed as an astronomical amount for a pro football team. Just the year before the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings paid the league $1 million each for expansion teams. And now one year later the Browns were being dangled for four times that amount?

The first group interested in buying the Browns was headed by Bill Evans of the Diamond Alkali Company. Diamond had a large chemical plant in Fairport Harbor, Ohio. Originally from West Virginia, in 1947 the company relocated its main offices to Cleveland so this group represented a local contingency.

The second group involved Rudy Schaefer, head of the Schaefer Brewing Company, and Arthur B. Modell, a New York advertising and television executive, along with several minority persons.

After the Jones group would decide who their new buyer would become, it took a three-fourths approval vote by the other owners for any sale to be final. The new ownership group would have to submit their financial information as to why they should be the next owner of an NFL franchise. During this time, this league was like a brotherhood and they didn’t want anyone who could not afford to pay their players and their bills. Gone were the days of franchises that would fold or relocate after not doing well.

The Browns’ pending sale would have to be brought up at an owner’s meeting and then a vote would be taken.

A man from New York City?

How did it come about that a man from New York City would be interested in purchasing a team in Cleveland?

When Jones decided to sell the Browns, he consulted with former Cleveland fullback Fred “Curly” Morrison who had remained in the area and was known for his work with various charities. Jones asked Morrison if he knew anybody who might be a potential buyer. Morrison knew a man by the name of Vinny Andrews, a New York theatrical agent who was well acquainted with quite a bit of wealthy movers and shakers. Andrews informed Morrison that he had a client that was in the television business but was a football buff. Andrews then called Modell and asked if he had any interest in buying a football team.

Portrait Of Cleveland Browns Owner Art Modell Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

Modell thought he was talking about the Titans of New York of the American Football League which was in the newspapers almost daily about their finan­cial dire straits. Andrews told Modell he could not divulge the franchise unless Modell could affirm that if the price was right he would have a vested interest. At this point, the possibility of selling the Browns had not been in the paper and wasn’t known to anyone but a select few.

After Modell expressed a definite interest if the price was right, Andrews then said, “Art, it’s the Cleveland Browns.”

Modell was in shock and disbelief. The Browns had been a dynasty, had the world’s best head coach plus the league’s best player in Jim Brown. It was like being able to buy the Yankees, the Boston Celtics, the Montreal Canadiens, or the Green Bay Packers. All of these teams had been dominant in their sport and were consistent winners.

On December 10, 1960, minority owner Struck arranged for Modell to go to the second-to-last home game against the mighty Chicago Bears. Not knowing the weather coming off of Lake Erie, Modell only brought a raincoat, sat in the north end, and froze. Cleveland won 42-0 and Modell was hooked watching the machine labeled the Browns.

Jim Brown Runs For Touchdown
The Browns’ John Morrow (56) makes a block on the Bears’ Dave Whitsell (23) and the Brown’s running star Jim Brown (32) is off for a 90-yard run and a touchdown, December 10, 1961.
Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The game was attended by just over 38.000 in the 81,000-capacity stadium. As an advertising executive, he was already coming up with ideas to draw larger crowds. Maybe bring a bit of that New York zing into the city as it began to snow.

Modell knew he had to buy the team. His team. His Cleveland Browns.

Six days later, the Browns were in New York to play their hated division foe the New York Football Giants in both team’s final game. Phil Harber, one of Cleveland’s lawyers, brought Modell to the Grand Concourse Hotel in the Bronx adjacent to Yankee Stadium where the Giants played their home games. Harber introduced Modell to Paul Brown. He was a huge Paul Brown fan and told him so. Coach Brown thought Modell was just a fan until Modell told him, “I want to buy the team because of you.”

The contingency that Coach Brown would continue as the head coach was part of the negotiations for both interested groups. Cleveland defeated the Giants 48-34.

Modell gets down to business

Modell was just 35 years old and a single man. Growing up, his family had wealth until the Great Depression stripped it all away. As an adult, Modell got into television and was a self-made man.

Now, he was determined to buy the Browns.

During negotiations, the asking price told to Modell? $4 million.

This was a time that the larger fanbase teams which drew extremely well such as the Giants, Washington Redskins, or the Bears would command around twice what the Cowboys and Vikings had paid.

But $4 million?

The Browns had dominated the NFL since they merged from the AAFC. Everybody was used to Cleveland being a dominant playoff team each and every season. Plus, they had the league’s best coach. And the league’s best player in Jim Brown. So, yeh - $4 million was the number given for a proven winner which came complete with all that championship hardware.

1972 Cleveland Browns Draft Photo by Ron Kuntz Collection/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Keep in mind this was a team that only drew an average of 57,000-plus in an 81,000-seat stadium during an 8-3-1 season. $4 million for that?

Modell accepted the terms with hesitation or further negotiations. The Jones group accepted his intent to purchase the Browns. Except there was a slight problem. Okay, make that a huge problem - Modell didn’t have four million dollars.

He had done well in television and if he liquidated everything he owned he could come up with less than half a million. Modell had Schaefer’s commitment but from the onset, he was only putting in limited capital as strictly a minority owner. Coach Brown would be retained as another minority owner. Another financial partner fell through. Somehow Modell had to find the money and he was determined to get it.

Modell tried several banks in order to secure funds but none gave him a loan. He knew a banker by the name of George Hertzog who was known for taking gambles on some high-stakes ventures. At this point, Modell was still short $2.8 million.

It just so happens that Hertzog had once been employed with the Union Commerce Bank in Cleveland and was a Browns fan. He gave Modell a loan for $2.8 million against the value of the Browns franchise.

On January 25, 1961, Modell closed on buying the controlling interest of the Browns at the hefty sum of $4 million. He had several minority owners including Coach Brown and in the end, he had only invested a total of $400,000 of his own money.

And the Cleveland group that had expressed an interest in buying the franchise? Their offer was $2.8 million.

Opportunity to block the sale to Modell’s group

Coach Brown’s eight-year contract which paid him $50,000 a year was part of the sale between Modell and the Jones group.

Havlicek Signs for Pro Grid
L to R: Art Modell, John Havlicek, Paul Brown

Before the sale of the Browns to the Modell group was finalized, the other NFL owners consulted with Coach Brown to ensure that the switch in ownership wasn’t going to disrupt any stadium deals so that the same good paydays in Cleveland would continue; plus an inquiry as if Coach Brown would remain as the head coach.

Almost every NFL owner telephoned Coach Brown to discuss these two matters prior to the vote on the pending sale. They didn’t call the new group or the Jones group. They telephoned Paul Brown.

Coach Brown maintained at the time negotiations was in progress that he could block the transfer of ownership since the majority of stockholders looked to him for the final word. Plus, the other NFL owners trusted Coach Brown to continue to be a good steward for the league.

Cleveland Browns Owner Art Modell SetNumber: X9513 TK3 R3 F14

Coach Brown had his lawyer work on a new contract during the sale proceedings. In that deal, he would remain the head coach with a new eight-year agreement, remain the GM plus would be installed as Vice President, and would retain a small stock in the club with an option to obtain more.

Coach Brown drew up the contract and worded it to suit him. When presented to Modell, he had no qualms about the agreement and nothing was altered. Coach Brown was quoted as being 100% satisfied with the arrangements prior to the sale.

What Coach Brown had in his back pocket when the sale of the Browns went before the NFL owners for a vote, was the fact that he was highly respected in all league matters and held his team’s vote despite not being the actual principal owner.

If Paul Brown smelled a rat prior to the sale of the Browns in 1961, despite having only one vote to block it, all he had to do was pick up the phone and ask the other owners to follow suit. The predicted vote to block the sale to the Modell group would easily have been 14-0 against.

Instead, the Modell group was granted access to the NFL. Suddenly, a New Yorker was in charge of the Browns.