By Roldo Bartimole
There was one time I felt sorry for Art Modell.
It was in a court room. I’ll get to that.
What bothers me now of the attacks on Modell by our sports writers and fans are that they for so long kissed his ass. He was the Big Dog.
Just as they do now for Jimmy Haslam. Is Haslam any better than Modell? Nah.
Between whining about LeBronJames and Art Modell, the town earns a reputation – a city of cry babies.
Modell left Cleveland because he lost political power. He lost it because he was a poor businessman. He could no longer get what he wanted. Dick Jacobs aced him out.
One bad business decision in particular made his trouble public. He tried to scam his silent partner – venture capitalist Bob Gries.
Modell himself owned the Stadium Corp. The firm leased the old stadium from the city. It had a sweetheart deal. Not near as good as Haslam has, however.
Back in 1971 Modell needed dough. Badly. He was heavily in debt. Very high interest rates, up to 21 percent. That’s how Gries became a heftier minority owner. But still a silent one. Modell cashed in Browns stock for some $4.1 to $4.8 million. It lowered his ownership from 59.4 percent to 47.2 percent. Gries’s interests went up from 17.1 to 43.3 percent. Way back in 1971. Modell gained an income tax advantage for himself, too.
No one knew about this at the time. Until Modell sold the Stadium Corp. to the Browns at what Gries felt was an inflated price. Gries sued. After all he was paying 43.3 percent of the cost, his percentage of ownership.
The battle was on. It got down and dirty. One headline in my newsletter Point of View showed the animosity: “Art to Bob: “Impudent”; Bob to Art: “Childish.”
It got as petty as such fights do. Public too.
Modell informed Gries, an owner and board member, he was unwelcome to attend “any staff, media, or team activities unless invited, and (I) will enforce my authority to do so if it becomes necessary.”
Gries snapped back. “… Are you perhaps suggesting that my very presence serves as a reminder of the fact that you are not the sole owner of the Browns…?” It even got uglier.
Gries sued over the Stadium Corp. sale. My headline of the court case was “Modell, Gries Trial – LOSERS.” Both of them.
Maybe this was the real end of the Browns in Cleveland. It was 1984. Jacobs bought the Indians for a pittance in 1986. He wasn’t about to pay rent to Modell in that old stadium. Not for long anyway.
The trial was like a show trial.
Here’s how I saw it in 1983:
“This courtroom becomes a small, self-contained world for five hours a day – 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. – with not only contestants, trial lawyers and judge, but the audience as well becoming part of the whole.
“As one day passes into another an environment is created. What’s there seeps into the consciousness and subconscious where it mixes with other values and feelings.”
Here’s where I felt sorrow for Art Modell, a figure I had often criticized:
“Modell is there alone. No family. Usually grim. During recess he usually slips into a back room. He’s just recovered from severe physical problems.” (He had a heart attack and heart by-pass since the start of this case.)
Gries carries an entourage. Wife. Sister. Offspring. Other relatives, friends. They sit there daily. No knitting. But diet Pepsi socializing. They might be attending a Browns game or a social event.”
I noted that Gries helped keep Modell’s salary at $60,000 for 20 years though Modell got much more in bonuses. Gries, with no operational duties, got $6,500, including expenses.
The case, heard by Judge John Angellota, involved two prominent Cleveland lawyers. Marvin Karp of Ulmer Berne for Gries. Pat McCartan of Jones Day for Modell.
Even they couldn’t escape the pettiness. Lots of bickering. Even with high-priced lawyers.
McCartan slips in unsympathetic characterizations of Gries: Gries, off on business in East Asia. McCartan asks mockingly whether he was “off looking after your sugar interests in the Third World.” McCartan also slips in, “You’re a very careful man” and “You’re covered. Don’t worry, Mr. Gries, you’re covered.” It follows testimony of some Gries moves against Modell.
Even Karp and McCartan tussle. Karp tells McCartan if he continues to shout at him, “then I’ll leave with my witness.” McCartan shoots back, “You leave and the sheriff is going to bring you right back.” These are big time lawyers.
As part of the sale of the Stadium Corp. to the Browns Modell also sold land in Strongsville (Modell may have had plans to move and build). He placed a $3.8 million value on the Strongsville land. Gries said it was worth from $330,000 to $600,000. Sam Miller of Forest City told Gries, “If you got $500,000 for that property, you’d better take it and get out of town before you get arrested for grand larceny.”
And so it went.
Angellota ruled for Gries. Modell suffered another blow.
We probably should have known then that Modell needed an escape. A sugar daddy. Like Al Lerner. The one he got.
So Art gets turned down again on Saturday. I don’t care. And today Art doesn’t care either. The Cleveland substitute Browns just sold for $1 billion. And you kick Art?
Only the team fanatics care. So what?
For the full coverage of this episode see Point of View at the library: Vol. 15 #22, #23; Vol. 16 #24.
In 1991 he was awarded the Second Annual Joe Callaway Award for Civic Courage in Washington, D.C. He received the Distinguished Service Award of the Society of Professional Journalists, Cleveland chapter, in 2002, and was named to the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame, 2004. [Photo by Todd Bartimole.]