Art Modell. The very mention of his name in Cleveland still stirs up vitriol. In 1963 he angered many by firing legendary Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown, only two years after Art assumed principal ownership of the team. Most was forgiven in 1964 when the Browns won the NFL championship; but for decades after, Art was regularly criticized for meddling in on-field affairs. More bridges were burned in 1986 when the Ohio Supreme Court declared that Modell had enriched himself unfairly through the buying, operating and selling of Stadium Corporation, a company he founded to manage Municipal Stadium. Acrimony reached the stratosphere in 1995 when Art announced that he was moving the Browns to Baltimore.
The loss of the Browns — a blow from which many Cleveland sports fans have not fully recovered (even though the team name, colors, and traditions were salvaged when the NFL awarded Cleveland an expansion team in 1999) — is inseparable from the history of Jacobs Field, as the new stadium was known before Progressive Insurance acquired naming rights. That history is filled with perennial disappointments on the playing field for the Browns and Cleveland's professional baseball team, the Indians.
From the beginning of the 20th Century, Cleveland Indians home games were played at League Park (also known as Dunn Field) at Lexington Avenue and East 66th Street. Beginning in 1932, some Indians games were staged in the newly built Cleveland Municipal Stadium on the city's lakefront. After 1947, the Indians used Municipal Stadium exclusively. Built as a multipurpose facility, Municipal Stadium began hosting football in 1946 — the year the Cleveland Browns came into being as part of the All-America Conference (the team joined the National Football League in 1950). By the early 1970s, the forty-year-old stadium was aging and needed major repairs, which the financially strapped City of Cleveland could not afford. In 1973, Art Modell agreed to lease the stadium and take responsibility for its upkeep. Over the years his Stadium Corporation made much more money from the stadium than it paid the city in rent, in part because Modell refused to share with the Indians any of the revenues from the 108 loges he added in the mid-1970s.
By the early 1980s, plans surfaced for a domed stadium that might house both the Indians and the NBA Cavaliers. At the same time, Cleveland State University was planning a convocation center for its basketball team, concerts, and university events. At Governor Richard Celeste's urging, the university agreed to study the feasibility of building a larger domed stadium that would serve CSU’s needs as well as those of Cleveland’s pro baseball and basketball teams. Researchers subsequently concluded that such a combination facility would lose money unless the Indians dramatically improved their dismal attendance. Advocates claimed a domed stadium would stimulate downtown revitalization and boost civic pride. Skeptics noted that the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, and the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans had fallen short of expectations and required constant public subsidies to break even. Many believed that the Indians didn't deserve a new home and that any money spent on the franchise should be used to field a team worthy of attracting larger crowds. Unsurprisingly, voters refused to foot the bill—rejecting a property tax issue to fund the dome in May 1984.
The Indians had threatened to leave Cleveland before, in 1958 and 1964, prompting emergency campaigns to "save the Indians." And when owner F.J. “Steve” O'Neill died in 1983, the Cleveland Indians’ tenancy was once again under threat. Salvation came in the form of sibling developers Richard and David Jacobs, who acquired the team in 1986. The newly formed Greater Cleveland Domed Stadium Corporation began assembling land around the former site of the old Central Market, just south of Prospect Avenue at East 9th Street and Carnegie Avenue. But even though the Jacobs family pumped new life into the Indians franchise, Art Modell continued to demand a new 20-year lease on Municipal Stadium in return for his agreement to make much-needed improvements. Among the most serious problems were structural concerns, antiquated restrooms, a paucity of concession stands and poor field drainage. The situation was chaotic: Art was adamant. CSU was going forward with its convocation center. And now the Domed Stadium group was proposing two stadia: an open-air baseball field and an adjacent arena to lure the Cavaliers back from suburban Richfield.
In May 1990, voters approved a 15-year "sin tax" on sales of alcoholic beverages and cigarettes to help fund what was now being called the Gateway Sports and Entertainment Complex. Combined with Jacobs money, the new Jacobs Field was built in what has sometimes been called the "retro-modern ballpark" style first used a few years before for Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Like Oriole Park, Jacobs Field aimed not only to revive a city's fan base, it also sought to stimulate downtown development and build upon Cleveland's "comeback" under George Voinovich, Cleveland's counterpart to "messiah mayor" William Donald Schafer of Baltimore.
On April 4, 1994, President Bill Clinton threw the ceremonial first pitch at the new Jacobs Field. Roughly 18 months later, the Indians appeared in their first World Series since being swept by the New York Giants in 1954 (the Tribe lost the ’95 Series to Atlanta in six games). Jacobs Field enjoyed a record 455 consecutive sold-out home games between 1995 and 2001. That same period marked the demise and rebirth of the Cleveland Browns. Art Modell, who had steadfastly refused to participate in the effort to build the Gateway complex, incurred millions of dollars in revenue losses when the Indians departed for Jacobs Field. Already burdened with excessive debt, Art turned his back on the crumbling Municipal Stadium and reestablished the Browns as the Baltimore Ravens in 1996.